WRITTEN BY MELISSA CHANG
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BEN DECASTRO
When you see how successful Kevin Hanney’s 12th Avenue Grill and Avenueʻs Bar & Eatery have become, you’d never know that owning a restaurant was always Plan B for him.
Like many in the industry, he had a typical introduction to the restaurant industry. He started in his hometown of Rochester, NY as a dishwasher at 15 years old, then became a busboy because “that’s where the money was.” He eventually moved up to being a waiter for about seven years.
He headed to college in upstate New York to get a degree in Natural Resource Conservation, and in 1978 got a job in the kitchen at Wild Wind Farms, an organic showcase farm with a good, seasonal restaurant (It was about the same time that Alice Waters was developing Chez Panisse.).
The restaurant work was just to get him through school; Hanney was focused on a career in natural energy. After graduation, he moved to California to get a degree in Renewable Energy and Solar Architecture from San Jose State University.
The ‘80s food movement in California helped shape Hanney’s food philosophy and style. He liked cooking and what he had learned, so decided to keep at it.
He was invited to teach a community cooking class at Kapi‘olani Community College and fell in love with Hawai‘i, so went home to Santa Cruz, packed his bags and moved. He figured he would be here for a couple of years and would “keep moving east until it turned west,” but he stayed and married local girl Denise Luke.
He had a successful catering business in Honolulu and was looking for a place that was appropriate and affordable for his vision (which he’s still seeking). He found a hidden spot in Kaimukī but it didn’t work for catering, so he decided to create a cozy neighborhood bistro like the kind he loved in San Francisco. Twelve years later, 12th Avenue Grill has expanded to a larger space, with an offshoot, Avenueʻs Bar & Eatery.
Like its older brother, Avenue’s Bar & Eatery offers items that are made from scratch and locally sourced whenever possible. The menu reflects popular items and requests from 12th Avenue Grill’s bar, thus they have more little plates. The menu specials change more often, as well, as they offer dishes that showcase ingredients of each season.
The guys running his show at Avenues are young but ambitious, and have had some decent experience. Bar Manager Joseph Arakawa, who is a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, was previously at Mud Hen Water; Chef Robert Paik is a graduate of the Kapi‘ olani Community College culinary program and was previously at Vintage Cave. Their food and drinks reflect Hanney’s approach to fine dining.
“After arriving in Hawai‘i 24 years ago, I noticed that restaurants for the most part fell into two categories: Very high-end, continental- style restaurants or extremely casual ethnic restaurants. I decided I wanted to bring great food and drink that’s approachable to everyone at an affordable price, yet make everyone feel like they had a great experience,” Hanney says.