Oahu Mai Tai Trip Report

by Kevin Crossman, October 1999

Hawaiian Airlines Flight #11
Nonstop from San Francisco to Honolulu

Hawaiian Airlines did a great job of getting us into the mood for Hawaii with some great in-flight entertainment. But, being able to have a Mai Tai on the flight was the best of all scenarios.

The Club Mai Tai is a pre-made Mai Tai in a bottle. Pour over ice and it is ready to drink. For $5 it was about what we expected but it did not disappoint. The color is orangeish, very similar to the color of the Trader Vic's Mai Tai Mix. In fact, the taste was similar too, a fact that we appreciated (because we like the Trader Vic's mix). The drink was served with ice in a small plastic glass.

The Mai Tai was very smooth and very drinkable. Not harsh in any way, the drink still contained enough alcohol for us to feel it. That was perfect; a bit of a buzz to make the deboarding a bit less stressful and a welcome introduction to the islands.

Our rating here would be even higher had we been in first class. But, for a coach flight we had a pretty good time. The food was great and as mentioned the in-flight entertainment really got us in the mood for the islands. Remember that the atmosphere rating reflects how well the atmosphere rates within the genre that the locality belongs too. Compared to other airlines we had a very good time and all of the Hawaiian touches made the flight all the more enjoyable.

Taste: ****
Atmosphere: ****
Date Visited: October 23, 1999

Chuck's Steakhouse
Outrigger Waikiki, 2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, 96815

Chuck's is very aggressive about promoting "The Best Mai Tai in Town." This is the message you'll see in all their advertising. Having had a great Mai Tai at Damon's Steakhouse in Glendale, CA, I wasn't immediately sure they were blowing smoke, but I certainly was leery. And, turns out I had good reason to be.

Chuck's $4.75 Mai Tai is a bright yellow concoction, with a dark rum float. There was a large pineapple slice and a small lime wedge on the small old-fashioned glass. So, what did this Mai Tai taste like? It tasted like rum, albeit good rum. Then I got a bit of a sour taste - their recipe (which I've seen published) is heavy on the sweet & sour mix. The ice was chopped instead of being crushed, like it should be. In other words, despite their outrageous claim to the "best Mai Tai in town" they are doing a bunch of things wrong. Rating reflects the good alcohol content and low price (especially for Waikiki).

On the second floor of the Outrigger, Chuck's is a small restaurant with an open-air balcony overlooking Waikiki beach. There is a great view of Diamond Head here and it looks down on the beach and Duke's Canoe Club below. At night, the tiki torches below set a great mood above. Chuck's is more mellow than Duke's, using light mood music (Seal's "Kiss from a Rose") and nice mood lighting. The dark wood touches throughout also enhance the mood. There are lots of subtle touches here, from framed Hawaiian shirts, to small surfing photos, lots of smoked glass, and ceiling fans. All of this creates an elegant feel, and the palm trees on the beach do a wonderful job of framing the view of the ocean!

Taste: **
Atmosphere: ****
Date Visited: October 24, 1999

The Mai Tai Bar
Ala Moana Shopping Center 1450 Ala Moana Boulevard, Honolulu, Hawaii 96814

Kevin Crossman Enjoys the Mai Tai at the Mai Tai Bar

On the top level of the Ala Moana shopping center, you'll find a little bit of almost-paradise.

Our $6.50 Mai Tai was a traditional-looking Mai Tai, served with an orchid, pineapple, and cherry and served in a pint glass. The recipe for this Mai Tai was Bacardi Amber, Myers' Dark, and Lemon Hart 151 rums along with orange curacao and pineapple juice. In other words, lots of rum! But, unlike other Mai Tais which were heavy on the rum, this actually tasted pretty good. A nice presentation and the crushed ice were pluses. The not-so-sweet taste was merely average.

The waitress here (visible in the photo) wore flower-print dresses. That, and the rattan chairs, made us feel at home, even though were in a shopping center. Also, the Japanese tourists were smoking like fiends so we had to move. But, overall, this was a fine place to relax and a big step up from the food court!

T-shirts and souvenier glasses are also available, so ask the bartender or waitress about these.

Taste: ***
Atmosphere: ***
Date Visited: October 25, 1999

Banyan Tree Beach Bar
Sheraton Moana Surfrider, 2365 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu 96815

The Moana is the oldest Hotel on Waikiki, and the "old-style" feel is much in evidence. This is an elegant setting, especially the Banyan Tree which serves as a relaxing, romantic setting.

Our $7 Mai Tai came in an old-fashioned glass topped with an orchid, straw, pineapple speared with a cherry, umbrella, lime, and stick of sugar cane. The drink was light yellow with a dark rum float. It was plenty sweet, but the rum had a very strong and unappealing spicy aftertaste. The drink is made with a mix of Curacao, orgeat, and rock candy syrups, mixed with sweet & sour, pineapple juice, dark and light rum. Not a bad list of ingredients, but the truly awful rum made this almost undrinkable.

Plus, we were shocked when a Mai Tai this nice looking came in a plastic glass! Plastic was okay on our airline flight or when we paid two dollars for a Mai Tai but when you pay $7 in an elegant setting plastic is unacceptable!

The large Banyan tree, planted in 1885, is an impressive sight at night. It is well-lit with floodlights and it creates a great mood as shadows play throughout the patio and bar area. Tables and chairs with umbrellas were mixed throughout and light piano music played to help set the mood. There is also some seating on the porch running along the sides of the hotel which gives a great view.

The bar itself is just a few steps from the pool or the beach near the classic five-story part of the hotel. This area is also known as the Banyan Veranda. The bartender chatted with customers and although he was not the brightest guy did do a great job of being friendly and answering questions (including mine).

Taste: *
Atmosphere: *****
Date Visited: October 25, 1999

Mai Tai Bar
Royal Hawaiian Hotel, 2259 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI, 96815

The Mai Tai here is billed as "The Best Mai Tai in Hawaii" and at a certain level this is a reasonable claim. The Royal Hawaiian opened in 1927 and the luxury and elegance of that time carry though to today.

The drink was served in a large old-fashioned glass topped with an orchid, pineapple, cherry, umbrella, and mint sprig. It was light yellow with a dark rum float. The $7.50 Mai Tai ($11 in a souvenir glass) was light yellow in color with a dark rum float. The taste was sweet but the rum had a slightly bitter aftertaste. The aftertaste did wane as we kept drinking however, and this was by far the best looking Mai Tai we've ever seen. Great presentation, and taste make this a very good Mai Tai.

We were curious about the recipe, so we asked about the recipe. The Bartender said that they use a light and a dark (Myers') rum, and "their" Mai Tai mix which consists of orange juice and the usual (Curacao, orgeat and rock candy syrups) ingredients. He said "we make it ourselves!" Hmm... I wonder then why this mix was poured out of a bottle with a Trader Vic's Mai Tai mix label? Very, very curious.

The Mai Tai Bar is right on Waikiki beach. We visited at night, when the mood is enhanced by tiki torches and candle-holders shaped like the Royal Hawaiian itself. The hotel is painted pink, which is nicer than you might think. There is an elegant feel and a quiet, classy clientele.

The bar is great. The front is lined with bamboo and high quality, polished wood lines the inside roof over the bar. The tables all had umbrellas. Palm trees lined the edge of the bar area and there is a grassy area that makes for a relaxing atmosphere.

Taste: ****
Atmosphere: *****
Date Visited: October 25, 1999

Jameson's by the Sea
62-540 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712

Jamesons By the Sea

Famous for its spectacular sunset views, Jameson's is a favorite north-shore destination. Though we visited for lunch, the experience was still very good.

The $6 was served in an old-fashioned glass with lime, pineapple, umbrella, and a cherry speared with a plastic sword. It was amber with a dark rum float. A slight hint of pineapple juice enhanced this sweet Mai Tai, as did some fine rum which was not at all bitter. Though a bit heavy on the ice (and thus a bit watery at the end), this was a very good, refreshing Mai Tai.

Jameson's is a casual place to visit. The front porch offers a nice view of the ocean (and the sunsets), though this isn't a prime area for watching the surfers. The fans on the ceiling and the nice bar did appeal, though things were a bit run-down (paper signs on the walls). The nautical touches were nice and complimented the view of Haleiwa Harbor. The food was excellent (and a good value) and the staff was very friendly. The quaint Outrigger Trading Co. gift shop next-door is a nice place to pick up some classy gifts and souvenirs.

The View from Jameson's at Lunch

Jameson's was nice, though a bit of a let-down when you don't go for sunset. But there will be a good Mai Tai waiting for you nonetheless.

Taste: ****
Atmosphere: ****
Date Visited: October 26, 1999

Don Ho's Island Grill
Aloha Tower Marketplace, 1 Aloha Tower Drive, Honolulu, HI

Don Ho's Island Grill

If you're looking for modestly priced restaurant but want something with a Hawaiian flavor, then Don Ho's is a great choice. Located in the Aloha Tower Marketplace, this is a much better choice for fine food and great views than, say, the Hooter's around the corner.

Our Mai Tai was inexpensive, at $4.75. It was served in an old-fashioned glass and was a yellow color but topped with dark rum. The presentation lacked, however, as it was served only with a pineapple and a palm tree shaped plastic drink stirrer. The Mai Tai was a bit watery, but more sweet than anything else. It was relatively smooth and went down easy, but was certainly just an average Mai Tai.

The prices at Don Ho's were about a third lower than what we encountered throughout the rest of Honolulu even though the service, décor, and view were all great. (We hesitate to say it, but Trader Vic's could use this as a model for future expansion.) Lots of bamboo touches and photos of Don Ho. We were treated to live ukulele and guitar music which sounded great. It was a bit hot, but otherwise we had a great time.

Given the location and great value, Don Ho's is a good place to take the family and relax. Our Mai Tai was nothing to write home about but we had far worse for far more in Honolulu so I guess that's not a bad comparison.

Sunset at Don Ho's

Taste: ***
Atmosphere: *****
Date Visited: October 27, 1999

Duke's Canoe Club Restaurant
Outrigger Waikiki, 2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, 96815

Duke's Canoe Club

Having tried the less-than-spectacular Mai Tai at Chuck's Steakhouse (also at the Outrigger), we began to think about Blue Hawaiians but decided to ask the waitress if Duke's Mai Tai was the same recipe as Chuck's upstairs. It was a good thing too, or I might have missed a very interesting and very good Mai Tai variation.

This Mai Tai variant is made with guava and papaya juices, dark rum and served with a pineapple and lime on top of an old-fashioned glass. This 5.25 Mai Tai isn't the classical recipe but a very good variant. The sweetness of the juice complimented the rum very well and this was a very drinkable Mai Tai.

Duke's is a large restaurant with some seating partially outdoors by the beach and pool. Very much a grass-hut atmosphere, there is rattan and bamboo everywhere. This may not be the best place if you are sensitive to the heat, but if you enjoy outdoor dining, Hawaiian style, this is a great place. Photos of Duke Kahanamoku and frequent live music make this a great setting for lunch, sunsets, or evening dining.

We visited Duke's twice, once for an excellent lunch buffet (featuring a fresh Caesar Salad, made to order) and once for dinner. Both times we had great service and the food was a very good value. And, when you're done with your meal (and your Mai Tai) you can step out past the pool and right onto Waikiki beach for a leisurely stroll...

Taste: ****
Atmosphere: *****
Date Visited: October 28, 1999

Red Lion Waikiki
240 Lewers St., Honolulu, HI 96815 (at the Outrigger Village)

We were strolling down Lewers Street in the heart of Waikiki when we saw a sign advertising $2 Mai Tais. Well, we'd had a couple awful Mai Tais at $7 or up, so we figured what could we lose?

The Mai Tai uses one shot of Hana Bay dark rum mixed with a green-yellow base (out of a tap), plus ice in a plastic old-fashioned glass. It was a bit tart, like Mountain Dew, but you know what? It actually tasted pretty good! Considering this price, this was certainly the best value in Waikiki. The rating reflects the taste as well as the price.

This bar is located at the basement level of the Outrigger Village, with an entrance on the street. The place a bit seedy, but only because it hasn't had the care and feeding it deserves. There are two bars (only one open when we visited), along with darts, pool tables, a small dance floor, along with the requisite sports programming on the televisions. The low ceiling was covered with one dollar bills people had left here. The nicest part was that there was a window behind the bar which looked out into depths of the hotel pool!

Don't get us wrong. You should not come here if you've missed the Halekulani or Royal Hawaiian or the many other better overall Mai Tai locales. But, if you're looking for a quick, cheap Mai Tai with a good taste, Red Lion worked for us and we think it will for you too.

Taste: ****
Atmosphere: ***
Date Visited: October 28, 1999

Halekulani Hotel, The House Without a Key
2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu, HI 96815

Ah, the famed House Without a Key. No place in Waikiki had as much great word-of-mouth as this place. An elegant, romantic setting with Mai Tais which are fawned upon by the masses. A recipe for disappointment, right? Wrong!

Our $8 Mai Tai was served in a large old-fashioned glass with an orchid, mint sprig, a lime slice, and a stick of sugar cane. The dark yellow liquid was topped with a small float of dark rum. The Mai Tai featured a sea of crushed ice like there should be in a Mai Tai, along with the freshly squeezed lime slice in the drink. This was a smooth cocktail, though a bit too much lime - - it tasted just a bit too sour. Nonetheless, that's just a bit of nit. Overall, this was a very good Mai Tai: great taste and great presentation.

The elegant setting of the House Without a Key is well-chronicled. The restaurant features highly efficient, old-fashioned service (right down to the white gloves!). This is a great, quiet setting in the late afternoon. Cool breeze, the pleasant sound of the ocean waves lapping nearby, and just steps from the pool, this is a great place to relax. At night, the torches and candles make this a romantic setting as well. The view of Diamond Head might just be the best on Waikiki.

The House Without a Key is a place where you can sit under the palm trees or dine "inside" the restaurant which features accordion-style walls which retract to let in the cool breezes. In addition to our Mai Tai, we sampled an excellent Pina Colada and munched on Maui potato chips which were also very good.

While we didn't rate this Mai Tai at the maximum rating, it sure was close! Nobody should miss the Halekulani House Without a Key when you visit Honolulu!

Taste: ****
Atmosphere: *****
Date Visited: October 28, 1999

Hau Tree Lanai/Sunset Lanai
New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, 2863 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815

Arthur Lyman at the Sunset Lanai

At this point in our search for the ultimate Mai Tai, we had all but given up hope at finding a ten-star Mai Tai on Oahu. We'd been to the Halekulani, the Royal Hawaiian, and Jamesons. Those were all very good Mai Tais, but each had that little something that separated it from perfection. We made the pilgrimage of a lifetime when we strolled over to the New Otani for the lunchtime performance of Exotica legend Arthur Lyman.

The Sunset Lanai is just off the lobby and features a small lounge area and a bar. It is very open and overlooks the Hau Tree Lanai which is down a short flight of stairs and sits under Banyan Tree made famous over a hundred years ago by Robert Louis Stevenson. Technically (I think), I sat in the Sunset Lanai, but I received receipts from both "locales" so the difference is pretty minimal.

As we waited for Arthur Lyman to start playing, we ordered our New Otani Mai Tai. It was served in an old-fashioned glass, topped with slices of pineapple and lime, along with a cherry. It was dark yellow with a dark rum float, and filled with crushed ice. I drank it, anticipating a little something here or a little something there which would detract. Hmmm... nothing but great taste. I tried it a second time, then a third. Next thing I knew I had finished the thing and was left saying "more, please..." The second Mai Tai I ordered was just as great. It didn't look any different from the quality Mai Tais at the other establishments, but it sure tasted better! It was very potent, but so very, very smooth to drink.

Arthur Lyman

I was so impressed, I went over to Gerry the bartender and asked what was in the Mai Tai. He said they use Diamond Head Rum, Bacardi Superior, pineapple juice, orgeat, sweet & sour (a big surprise to me), orange Curacao, and amber and dark rum. Definitely the best tasting mix in Waikiki and the only 5 star taste on the island.

The Mai Tai was almost great enough to overshadow the star of the day, Arthur Lyman. Lyman started playing Vibes in Martin Denny's group in the mid-50's and he still plays great today. He played two sets, separated by a 20 minute break and took requests from the strong of people paying homage to the master!

We didn't mention the great views from the Hau Tree Lanai or the great service or the just plain great "vibe" of this place, but I think you get the idea. Friday afternoons at the New Otani, listening to Arthur Lyman and drinking the best Mai Tai in Oahu is about a good as it ever gets in life!

Arthur Lyman at the Vibes...

Taste: *****
Atmosphere: *****
Date Visited: October 29, 1999

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