It’s good to be back.
That was my thought when my wife and I wandered into Tahiti Nui in Hanalei last Sunday.
It was our first visit there in nearly a year. We took our daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren there for dinner when they visited us in January 2018. Hard to believe we hadn’t been back since. How does that happen? Change in habits, I guess. Seems the longer I live here, the smaller my travel circle becomes. Perhaps the April flood washed away the pull to the North Shore.
When we moved here nearly six years ago, trips to Hanalei were common. We zipped out there once a week for the same reasons as everyone else, to enjoy a walk, a swim, stand on the pier and watch the sunset.
Eventually, we discovered Tahiti Nui. This was my kind of place. An old-time restaurant bar with friendly vibes, good music, inviting atmosphere. For a time, we were regulars, sitting in what I referred to as the George Clooney seat, where he sat during a scene shot there for the 2011 movie, “The Descendants.”
Every time a relative visited, I insisted we take them to the Nui for happy hour of $4 draft beers and $8 mai tais, all the while talking story with anyone nearby, watching the people come and go and occasionally standing outside on the deck to check the traffic and for lost dogs that might need rescuing.
When people would ask me where to go on Kauai, I would send them to Tahiti Nui. It offers a sense of old Hawaii, and such places are hard to find.
I recalled what a friend told me about this place that has been in business more than 50 years ago, started by the Louise Marston in May 1963. And it remains in the Marston family, with pictures on every wall to prove it.
“It’s the only place like this,” my friend said. “The history, the people, everything about it appeals to me. It’s not trying to be something that it isn’t.”
It’s one of those rare originals that has somehow defied time and hung on to what makes it so special — a relaxing, warm, fun place to eat, drink and hang out with ohana and make new friends. Surfers stop in after a day on the waves. Locals are greeted with a grin and called by name. Tourists look around tentatively, then settle in at the bar to try this place they’ve heard about.
I remember the night we had all five of our children, our son-in-law, and friends all packed into the back room for a night of pizza and beer while celebrating our anniversary. It was glorious.
Another night, my wife sat there for hours, listening to live music, talking to people from Boston we met next to that George Clooney seat, and swapped phone numbers on the premise that perhaps one day we would meet again if they returned to Kauai or I ran the Boston Marathon again, whichever came first.
Just as we never spoke to those folks again, our visits to Tahiti Nui became less and less frequent. The magic, it seemed, was gone. And for many months, we didn’t return. Time flew by and suddenly, it was 2019.
Time for a visit.
It was a homecoming of sorts.
Becky, one of the bartenders we first met back in 2013, was just starting her shift and chatted with my wife. I watched and listened. The people across the bar were having too much fun, laughter roaring and bouncing around the walls. It was like spending time with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. We had some catching up to do.
So for an hour or so we sat, talked, soaked in the surroundings. This is not a place for sad conversation and counseling over drinks. It is a place for smiles and laughs and enjoying life.
So we did.
By the way, if you stop in, I recommend pizza. There are plenty of options, from Tiki Man (kalua pig, pepperoni, chicken, garlic, red onion, mushrooms, smokey barbecue sauce, pineapple and cilantro, $25); Margarita (local tomatoes, basil and and garlic, $18); the Hanalei Bay (shrimp, basil, garlic and red onions, $26) and my favorite, The Hawaiian (choose Hawaiian style kalua pig or ham with pineapple, $20).
Dinner entrees, including the honey glazed shrimp, the macadamia crusted chicken, baby back ribs, and the Nui burger (half pound of Makaweli beef patty, bacon, gorgonzola, cheddar, mushrooms, crispy onions, lettuce), range from $20 to $30 or so.
While the food and drinks (mai tai is legendary) are excellent, don’t focus on that. Focus on the vibes, the ambiance, the pictures, the people, the sounds. It’s that memory of a sense of this very special place that will stay with you long after the plates and glasses are empty.
I recalled an early conversation I had there about Auntie Louise and Tahiti Nui. She wanted people to feel welcome when they walked through the doors, to feel like they were home, to feel like they could and should sit and stay and be part of this family.
We were away a long time. But it still felt like home.
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.