Being isolated in the middle of the world’s largest body of water doesn’t mean you have to be isolated from top notch cuisine. On the contrary, so many cultures mingle in these off-the-beaten-path locales, some of the best food in the world can be had here. Maui’s cuisine is an example of one of these melting pot food cultures. Native cuisine, Asian accents, mainland staples, and completely new creations mix to form a very fun island dining experience.
Picking the top 10 restaurants on Maui is like picking the ten best places to drink in Ireland. The variety of menu options, price ranges, and atmospheres can be mind-boggling to a tourist only on Maui for a short time. Lucky for you we’ve done the research (read: extensive eating and sampling) and selected some of the best places to get your grub on. These picks cover a wide variety of cuisines and are hot spots for both locals and visitors.
Mama’s Fish House
Mama’s (photo above) is the place all romance-seeking couples must visit before leaving the island. Many walk away with tears in their eyes – both from the extraordinary service and food, and from the price of their check. Mama’s is not cheap. In fact, the prices are down right outrageous. But a meal at Mama’s is required dining, and for good reason, the restaurant has a long tradition of being the most romantic spot on the entire island. There aren’t many places that can rival the perfectly curved palm trees and immaculately manicured garden grounds in the light of a Maui sunset. After the valet parks your car, because there are no other parking options, stroll through the grounds to see the outrigger canoe and a traditional wooden tiki before being seated. The menu typically includes fish caught off the shores that day by local fishermen. The name of the angler who pulled your fish in will be listed on the menu above the description. The service is impeccable – we didn’t even notice when our glasses were being filled. The chef prepares some scrumptious dishes and incorporates fresh local ingredients such as coconut and macadamia nuts.
As mentioned, the valet parking is a must, since the space for your ride is non-existent beyond what is reserved for valet. The restaurant is located just beyond Paia on Hana Highway. There is no slow night at Mama’s, so reservations are highly recommended. Dinner for two and a bottle of wine will easily set you back a few hundred dollars. The food and service will impress, for sure, but it’s the million-dollar sunset you’re paying the premium for. If celebrating a special occasion, let them know when you make your reservation – a personalized card will await you along with other special treats.
Merriman’s at Kapalua
Mama’s may be the place the locals recommend to tourists, but Merriman’s is the place they keep to themselves. Merriman’s prices could put a dent in your vacation budget, but the food will be etched in your memory forever as one of the best dining experiences you’ve had. The chef, Peter Merriman, takes the “farm to table” concept and makes it a reality with this restaurant. Working hand-in-hand with local fisherman and farmers he has sculpted a menu packed with fresh-from-the-garden (and sea) foods that explode with flavor.
Merriman’s features several organic menu items and the friendly management and staff pride themselves on the restaurant’s support of locally grown foods. Of the menu items we tried, the butterfish with lobster was superb, and the scallops (pictured above) were creamy and seasoned to perfection. Since the fish is caught only hours before it hits your plate, it holds its full taste. Both menu items we tried paired well with the grenache we ordered. The wine list is extensive and has something for every taste. Merriman’s makes for an excellent alternative to Mama’s for your fine dining experience on the island. Located north of Lahaina, this indulgence is situated in the Ritz Carlton complex.
Fred’s Mexican Cafe
Now that we’ve gotten a few of the more foo-foo places out of the way, let’s talk affordable fun. Fred’s may not be a likely name for a Mexcian restaurant, but you’ll soon forget the name once you peruse their authentic Mexican choices. Fronting South Kihei Road, the main drag in Kihei, this double-decker restaurant/bar sees its fair share of traffic. Breakfast is a good choice at Fred’s, with excellent bloody marys and homemade muffins. Several shops and a busy local beach are located within walking distance making it a great lunch stop while you’re out exploring. Walk off that huge burrito after lunch, or just let it cook in your belly while sleeping in the sand. Lunches will cost $20-$30 for two including drink and tip, which is considered a cheap lunch on Maui.
Pupu Lounge Seafood & Grill
This is another Kihei favorite that doesn’t break the bank. Pupu means appetizer in Hawaiian, and you’ll find pupus all over the island. You can even buy a shirt here flaunting the fact that you ate their pupu. Interestingly enough, the Pupu Lounge isn’t the cleanest place. In fact it might be a little off-putting upon arrival with the dingy carpet and the scattered dirty tables. Squint your eyes a bit and allow enough time for your food to show up. You’ll be happy you stuck around. Seafood reigns here and they pride themselves on how fresh it is at the Pupu Lounge. Fried or grilled, they have a variety of the ocean’s bounty ready to be cooked up. Or if you prefer your food a little less cooked, try the ceviche. Ceviche is seafood, often shrimp or fish, that has been marinated in lime juice and spices. It is not cooked in the traditional sense. Instead the meat is broken down by the acidity of the lime juice. The Pupu Lounge has some of the best ceviche on the island, and if you like lime, cilantro, and seafood, you’ll be a happy camper.
Star Noodle is located in Lahaina – well sort of in Lahaina. At the top of Kupuohi Street there is a small warehouse district, and tucked into the back of this is Star Noodle. Its location makes it a somewhat hidden gem in west Maui. While most tourists in Lahaina stick to the shops and restaurants on Front Street, those who venture up the hill a bit will find something special.
Sure, Star Noodle is a fun noodle restaurant, as you would expect, but their pupu selection is extensive as well. This makes for a great place to appetize into bliss, and snagging food off a table mate’s plate is acceptable, and completely expected. Prices are affordable at around $10 a plate, making this is a place you can bring the family and keep the bill to a minimum with wise ordering strategies. Star Noodle opens for dinner at 5:30 and the locals flock, so be there when the doors open or be ready for a wait. If you do have to wait, it’s worth it.
Big Wave Cafe
Back in the south Maui town of Kihei there is a mythical breakfast joint which breaks the laws of the Maui universe – Big Wave Cafe. The food is excellent, the seating is open-air, and the coffee is delicious and hot. Breakfast is breakfast though, right? Wrong. Maui has its share of waffle, omelet, and muffin slingers, but Big Wave has something most of the others don’t, mainland prices. The regular menu prices are affordable but if you eat before 9am you will be treated to a combination breakfast with meat, eggs, coffee, and more for as little as $3.99. Trust me when I tell you that a Maui meal for two coming in under $10 is as rare as a mountain in Kansas. That is, unless you are a big fan of Taco Bell.
Ono means “Good” in the native language and “Gelato” is an Italian ice cream delicacy – and “good ice cream” is exactly what they do at Ono Gelato. They serve up this whipped creamy delight in three different towns across the island – Paia, Lahaina, and Kihei. Ono Gelato may be considered an ice cream shop, and not a restaurant per say, but it’s still a must-try eatery on the island. Made fresh every day, Ono Gelato believes that, “gelato tastes better with organic ingredients” and “cows should just say no to drugs.” After sampling enough flavors to substitute a meal, I agree wholeheartedly. Their locally grown fruits are busting with flavor and the organic whole milk gives the gelato a rich texture. With dairy and non-dairy versions of their frozen specialty, and flavors ranging from coconut to doughnut, everyone in your group should be able to find something to love.
The atmosphere is decent, the service is fair, and the view of the harbor is good enough. So why did Buzz’s Wharf make the top 10 restaurants on Maui list? I have one word for you – shrimp. More specifically, the markea prawns flown in from New Caledonia in the south pacific. Buzz’s is the only place on the island you can get these delectable little sea monkeys. These prawns don’t taste like your average shrimp from the gulf of Mexico or Thailand though. The markea prawn tricks your palette into thinking you’ve just tasted a lobster rather than a shrimp. This doppelganger won’t set you back as much as its larger crustacean cousin.
The Tahitian platter costs under $30 and features the markea prawns. Dipping the tender meat into hot butter could convert even the most dedicated of lobster lovers. Dinner is the best time to indulge here. Enjoy watching the waves crash on the rocks, the lights of south Maui, and of the boats docked just outside in Ma’alaea harbor as you scarf down your lobster-like shrimp.
Situated on Napili Bay, this favorite of west Maui has stellar sunset views. The sundown spectacle draws hordes of diners to Sea House every day. The location is directly on the beach, and perfect for romantics who want to enjoy the sun slipping below the horizon. The prices at lunch can accommodate a family on a budget. The combination of families at lunch and lovers at dinner is the secret to Sea House’s success – that and the food. Lobster, filet mignon, and a host of sushi and salad options provide enough variety to satisfy anyone. Sea House is located in the Napili Kai Beach Resort, north of Lahaina.
Formerly known as “Cheeseburger in Paradise” this chain has adjusted its name due to some trademark conflicts with a certain island-hopping, guitar-strumming crooner. Cheeseburger Restaurants may seem like a generic brand for a business, and hopefully they’ll fix that, but their burgers are not generic in the least. Your cravings for meat will be satisfied here by plump portions of beef stacked with melted cheese and the crisp veggies of your choice. The original locations sits on the shore on Front Street in Lahaina, and this two-story open-air building is a fantastic place to catch a sunset, drink a talk cold one, and fill your belly. The fries at Cheeseburger are fat, salty, and delicious too. What did you expect from a high class burger joint?
Cheeseburger offers a truly Hawaiian restaurant experience, but don’t be surprised when you hit Vegas and see that the chain has spread its wings and landed on the strip. A good restaurant can’t be held down.