While visiting the north shore of Kauai during our recent trip to Hawaii, it was lunch time and we were getting kind of hungry. Plus I wanted a mai tai pretty bad. We had passed back through Hanalei and saw a handful of restaurants along the highway through town, but for some reason we didn't stop. We decided to go up the hill to Princeville, but didn't see anything that looked all that appealing along the highway. My wife remembered a place on the east side of Hanalei that looked interesting to her called The Dolphin. We turned around and headed back to Hanalei to have lunch at The Dolphin.
Since opening in 1970, the Dolphin has been serving fresh-off-the-boat seafood to locals and tourists in both their restaurant and in their fishmarket located behind the restaurant. In 2009, owners Douglas and Beatrice Allen opened a sushi lounge offering fresh sushi to go along with a bevy of specialty drinks. In late 2012, the Allen's opened a second location of The Dolphin on the south shore of Kauai in Poipu.
Allen is a fanatic when it comes to the fish he gets for his restaurant/fishmarket/sushi bar. He only works with fishermen who share his view that proper handling and storage during the first 20 minutes after the fish is caught is the most critical time that will determine how good a fish tastes on land. Allen stays in touch with local fishermen via satellite telephone placing orders on the spot depending upon what they're catching that particular moment.
The Dolphin is located on Kuhio Highway next to the meandering Hanalei Heritage River. (see map) It is virtually the first building in Hanalei when you come from the east, not far from the taro fields that stretch across the valley just east of the town. The river was very calm and every once in a while we'd spy a standing paddle boarder slowly making their way up river.
There's an outdoor eating area as well as a small patio area that looked out over the river. The weather featured off and on rain during a good portion of the day, so we decided to eat inside the restaurant.
Here's a look at what the weather was like at the beautiful Hanalei Bay, not far from The Dolphin. It was raining near the coastline, but calm out on the bay with blue skies further out north of the island. Hanalei Bay is now my "happy place" that I have in my head when I close my eyes and need to mellow out during a busy day.
We found a seat at a table along the side of the restaurant. The window was open and there was a slight breeze coming in. Wooden planks held a tin roof in place and the dining area was decorated with bright Japanese lanterns, wood paneling, and stuffed fish. The building has survived two hurricanes - Iwa in 1982 and Iniki in 1992. Through rebuilding, remodeling and expansion, the Allen's have held the same philosophy of serving only the freshest locally caught seafood at The Dolphin.
We were greeted by our server, William, who dropped off a couple of lunch menus and ran off to get us a couple of mai tai's that we craved so much. Their top shelf mai tai's were outstanding and I made quick work of the first one while we looked through the menu.
The lunch menu at The Dolphin was pretty short and it included fish sandwiches, a burger, a steak sandwich, a chicken breast sandwich, a handful of salads, a tuna and shrimp poké, and sashimi offerings. The dinner menu at The Dolphin is much more extensive with entrees featuring an ever changing variety of fresh fish caught off the Kauai coast. Beer-battered fish, steaks, and the house specialty teriyaki ahi tuna are also featured on the dinner menu.
We went with the fresh ono grilled tacos. It came with a garlic aioli, fresh locally grown greens, a house-made salsa and fresh guacamole. The ono - also known as wahoo - was firm, yet flaky with a mild seafood taste. This was a great light lunch and it more than satisfied our appetites.
I like to find out the story of our servers when we go to restaurants on Hawaii. It always seems there's a good back story how they ended up on one of the islands. It turned out that our server William was a native of Kauai who went off to the mainland to go to school in South Dakota. He met a girl from Rapid City, married her and they lived there for five years before he convinced her to move to Kauai to raise their family. "The winters there are just brutal," he said. He didn't have to convince the two Iowans sitting at his table about the harsh Midwestern winters, especially up in South Dakota.
The Dolphin was one of those great little places that we like to run across when we're in Hawaii. The fish was very fresh and very flavorful, the mai tai's were outstanding, the service was friendly and efficient, and the overall atmosphere was that laid-back island kind of vibe. I wish we would have been able to go back for dinner at some point given how particular they are about the locally caught fish they serve. This will give us a goal for our next visit to Kauai, whenever that will be. The Dolphin will be at the top or near the top of our list of places to eat at when we go back to Kauai.