Updated: May 26
Aloha and welcome to Honolulu, where ordering a mai tai, a Blue Hawaii, or a “world-famous rum punch” is a vacation rite of passage. While travelers descend on Hawaii’s capital city for palm-lined Waikiki Beach, postcard sunsets at resort bars such as Halekulani’s House Without a Key, and plentiful shopping options, “sophisticated cocktail scene” doesn’t tend to rate high on its list of attractions. But away from Waikiki’s high-rises and busy boulevards, a group of local entrepreneurs are building a craft-cocktail kingdom.
Downtown Honolulu is only a 20-minute drive west of Waikiki Beach, but it’s a totally distinct side of the city. Here, centered mainly in the diverse, easily walkable Chinatown neighborhood, former sailors’ haunts and once-abandoned buildings now house a lively crop of restaurants, bars, art galleries, and boutiques that stand beside dim-sum counters, lei shops, and produce markets. “Ten years ago, people wouldn’t go to Chinatown at night, but that’s changed,” says Applebee travel advisor Randy King. “The city has put an emphasis on cleaning up this neighborhood over the last few years, and now it’s a great place to go for a different kind of night out in Hawaii.”
There are still mai tais (this is Hawaii after all), but whiskey, sake, and even mezcal dominate menus here, shaken and stirred into inventive cocktails enjoyed in secret rooftop courtyards and at intimate six-seat bars. Leave the sunsets and palm trees behind for a bit and drink in the action down the street.
The Tchin Tchin! Bar
In the late 1930s, sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor ventured up the narrow staircase that leads to Tchin Tchin! for some “Western dancing,” but the vibe today is less party time, more sip and savor. “Tchin Tchin” comes from the Chinese expression qing-qing, a toast used to invite guests to drink, and there are plenty of reasons to raise a glass here. The refined wine bar – exposed brick walls, leather couches, chandeliers – serves an impressive variety of vintages, a simple snack menu, and a spirits list that features local favorite Ko Hana Agricole Rum, distilled about 20 miles west. The pièce de résistance, though, is the rooftop courtyard, with its romantic string lights, wall of succulents and orchids, and downtown Honolulu views.
While its bigger-than-your-face ramen bowls lure diners, the sake and whiskey behind Lucky Belly’s bar attract a crowd too. Proprietor Jesse Cruz – who also owns The Tchin Tchin! Bar and Livestock Tavern across the street – brought the Japanese izakaya concept to the neighborhood when Lucky Belly opened in 2012. The restaurant eschews traditional entrees in favor of more appetizers (oxtail dumplings, scallop sushi) and creative cocktails, such as the Beanto Box, made with Japanese whisky, vanilla bean simple syrup, and orange bitters. On weekends, Lucky Belly stays packed well after midnight, and Chinatown revelers line up at its late-night window for pork-belly bao and takeout containers of shrimp fried rice.
Bar Leather Apron
It’s technically outside Chinatown, but this tiny space hidden inside a nondescript office building is well worth the three-block detour. Co-owner Justin Park – who spent years managing a cocktail program in Chinatown – captivates behind the bar, offering up a crash course in the history and flavor profiles of each spirit in his drinks, which feature Japanese-inspired ingredients. He crafts matcha old-fashioneds and yuzu sours like they’re pieces of fine art, but the most beautiful drink on the menu is the Tavern Keep’s Treasure, a bourbon, Cynar, and bitters concoction that’s covered with a bell jar and smoked with wood chips shaved from a bourbon barrel stave. Stylish, leather-apron-clad bartenders look after the patrons in the adjacent lounge, but for the best experience, make reservations for one of the six seats at the bar.
Daniel Kaaialii, who grew up splitting his time between Oahu and Texas, launched Honolulu’s popular, now-closed Cocina before opening this lively saloon in an 1886 building late last year. There’s a simple (and tasty) taco and burrito menu, but the real focus here is tequila and mezcal. The Mexican spirits appear in a handful of margaritas and boozy slushies, and can take the place of other liquors to spice up traditional cocktails such as a Blood and Sand (substitute tequila for Scotch; add cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, and lemon). Seating at the long, narrow bar is first come, first-served, but there’s usually plenty of room at the picnic tables out back.
Royal Arcade Bar
After eight years of running Chinatown bar Manifest, owners Brandon and Nicole Reid opened a chilled-out sister hangout next door this year. While DJs entertain the crowd at Manifest, the soundtrack in this sparse, gallerylike space consists of pool balls clacking and Street Fighter 2 battles going down on retro arcade machines. The varied drink menu, written on a chalkboard behind the bar, includes everything from Japanese whiskies and classic cocktails to Maui Brewing Company cans and PBR tallboys. 34 N. Hotel Street.