Flashback to the 90’s and you would’ve seen me as a starving college student. Things were simpler and definitely cheaper back then. There were fewer ritzy restaurants, that’s for sure, and when I did have a little extra money, I’d splurge on a nice meal at Kay’s Lunch Center. My usual order? Barbecue beef and barbecue chicken. The meal came with a bowl of miso and the rice came in a rice bowl, which was a whole new level of authentic for a small town girl like me who couldn’t afford eating at Nihon. The food was absolutely yummy. I was not a regular, but I did frequent the establishment throughout my college career, never disappointed with the food and friendly service.
When I moved back to Hilo as an adult, I was weaning myself off the “eating out” phase that naturally came with living in Honolulu, and although Kay’s was still here, I didn’t visit often. When Allan Okuda stepped away from the restaurant business and another restaurant opened up, naturally, I gave it a shot and the only thing I could think was, “This isn’t the same.” I walked away disappointed and never stepped foot in the place again. Not even when Allan decided to reopen the restaurant, which was a decision that would haunt me.
Tonight, I went to dinner at Kay’s again. Last week, it was announced that Allan would be retiring and that Kay LC Restaurant will close its doors on August 15, making way for Restaurant Kenichi, a ramen place slated to open at the end of August. The food was still good and as I waited for my meal to arrive, I realized how much the place had changed. The booths were still there, somewhat newly upholstered, but wait service was cut back considerably. If you wanted water, you serve yourself. The young man behind the counter came over to provide us with our setting of a paper napkin and a single fork, no knife, which proved tricky when my barbecue chicken and spicy pork arrived, but that didn’t stop me. The meal didn’t come with miso anymore and I felt a tinge of sadness as I slowly savored every bite, thinking it would be the last time I’d be eating that kind of meal in that place ever again. When I snapped to, I looked around to see former Mayor Harry Kim with his family enjoying dinner as well as other public figures digging into their meals, no doubt, a send off to Allan and his establishment that have been mainstays in our community for decades.
The closing of longtime food establishments like Nihon and Kay’s has me reeling and mainly because it signals the dawn of a new and modern Hilo. Zippy’s has opened in the Prince Kūhiō Plaza and a Hilo location of Hawaiian Style Café known for their massive portions, are both establishing their respective footholds in the restaurant landscape, while longtime restaurants seem to be going the way of the dinosaur.
Hopefully, the young people in this community will begin to establish attachments to the restaurants that are still here, where the owners and wait staff will make them feel welcome as they serve up the foods that will comfort them when they’re down, or mark the celebration of milestones in their lives and in the lives of their families. Kay’s did that for me, a poor college student who went there after passing a final exam or to celebrate winning a tennis match or on a first date with someone new.
I couldn’t finish all of my food and I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I really was full or because I was trying to drag out my good-bye for just a little bit longer. I packed up what was left and brought it home, where it sits in my fridge awaiting to be eaten. It’s not too late to have a final meal, so head on down one last time before the 15th, if you’re able.
Thank you, Allan, to you and your family, for the many years of good food, great times, and all you’ve done for our community.