PRINCEVILLE — For those living on the North Shore or just passing through, the Happy Talk Lounge at Hanalei Bay Resort was the pau hana (after work) place to be once the sun went down.
“For me, I’d say it was a real party atmosphere — you know, like how people tend to go to a bar at 4 o’clock for happy hour type of thing — so there were a lot of people enjoying both food and beverage,” Kapaa Realtor Ron Margolis recalled about the Princeville restaurant where he and other guest musicians would occasionally play alongside the house band.
“Usually the place was very crowded because it was a very happening scene — you couldn’t even find a seat,” Margolis added. “The main thing is that it’s an unbelievably beautiful location because you can look out on Hanalei Bay.”
Things took a turn in 2011 when a fire at the resort destroyed the Bali Hai Restaurant, an adjoining kitchen area, the front desk, a lower level shop, and a fitness center. The fire also shuttered the Happy Talk Lounge and caused at least $3 million in damages.
A number of setbacks over the years, however, have delayed the reopening of the Bali Hai Restaurant and Happy Talk Lounge, which were closed for renovations at the time of the fire. Nobody was injured in the blaze that was later ruled accidental by the Kauai Fire Department.
The wait for its rebirth could soon be over, as construction takes place for a planned reopening scheduled for some time this summer.
“There have been various challenges, which we’ve managed to pretty much get through, so at the moment, everything seems to be on a very positive outlook,” said Jimit Mehta, who owns Kalypso Island Bar and Grill in Hanalei and purchased the Happy Talk Lounge with his Mainland-based business partners in 2011.
Mehta declined to specify what has prevented the restaurant from reopening over the past four years but said he’s excited for the lounge’s rebranding.
“What we’re going to bring in is a level of service, food and ambiance that is truly going to be a complete turnaround from what was there before,” Mehta said. “The complex also needed TLC (tender loving care) and uplift badly, so I think now is the time and opportunity for us to do that.”
Plans for the nearly 13,000-square-foot restaurant call for casual dining for the 100-seat Happy Talk Lounge and a fine dining area for the nearby 250-seat Bali Hai Restaurant.
Design and permits, he said, are in place and electrical issues should be resolved soon. If all goes as planned, project contractors from Shioi Construction should start work on the two restaurants within the next month.
Mehta declined to name his business partners, but said they “own a few hundred restaurant locations on the Mainland,” and that the reopening of the Bali Hai Restaurant and Happy Talk Louge would mark their first in Hawaii.
“This may sound cliché, but it really comes from the heart,” Mehta said. “This is something that we hope to make into a community icon — one that could be shared and bring a lot of happiness to a lot of people.”
The Happy Talk Lounge, designed by Costa Mesa, California-based architecture firm Studio McCormack, will likely open before the Bali Hai, although the reopening of either restaurant depends on the completion of a common kitchen area.
Mehta, who lives in Princeville, said the revival of the Happy Talk Lounge’s well-known music scene will likely coincide with the restaurant’s reopening.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Margolis, the former patron, said of the reopening. “The whole resort and all of the owners there, I think, suffered from not having the two restaurants open.”
Though the search is still on for a pizzaiolo, or expert pizza maker, some of the other top positions at the two restaurants have already been determined, Mehta said.
Sean Merzbacher, the former manager and sommelier at West Steak and Seafood in Carlsbad, California, has been selected as the general manager of the Happy Talk Lounge and Bali Hai Restaurant, while Chris Idso, the former chef at Pacifica Del Mar in Del Mar, California, will serve as the executive chef for both restaurants.
“What we hope to bring in is something that has not been seen before on Kauai,” Mehta said. “It’s going to be stunning.”