In the mid-’80s, Roy Yamaguchi had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked for some of the best chefs in Los Angeles and opened his first restaurant, 385 North. At the age of 24, Yamaguchi was recognized as one of the best chefs in L.A., and set his sights on opening the first Roy’s at Honolulu’s Hawaii Kai Marina.
At the time, a young executive chef named Gordon Hopkins was standing in the kitchen of Dolly Parton’s short-lived restaurant Dockside Plantation, also located in Hawaii Kai. As Hopkins set down an issue of Bon Appétit magazine with Yamaguchi on the cover, he glanced across the water at the Roy’s construction site, and thought, “Wow. Roy is going to be my neighbor.”
“Every day this guy came in and ordered the same chicken dish,” Hopkins recalls, “I thought, ‘Who’s this guy ordering chicken every day at 2 o’clock?’ Finally, I went out and it was Roy.
“I said, ‘Man, you order that same chicken dish every time you come here,’ and Roy says, ‘It’s the best chicken I ever had.’ I said, ‘Can I come over and apply for a job?’ Roy says, ‘If you can make chicken like this, you’re hired.’”
From then on, the two built an empire founded on Roy’s fusion of farm-to-table cooking, Asian flavors and French cooking techniques. Eleven other Hawaii chefs, including Jean-Marie Josselin, Peter Merriman and Alan Wong, were cultivating the same cooking style that came to be known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
“Those were great days, man,” Hopkins says. “They all used to come to Roy’s, and I would have to cook for them. I was under so much pressure! But I was proud of the fact that when the chefs finished work, they came eat at to Roy’s.”
In the ensuing 24 years, the two traveled the world and opened 31 Roy’s. Nine months ago, Hopkins came home to Kaua’i, and took over as executive chef of The Tavern at Princeville, the first and only one of its kind. If The Tavern at Princeville works in Kaua’i, the two plan to take it across the country.
“It’s what we do at Roy’s,” says Hopkins, “but we make it more like comfort food. We try to use everything we can from the North Shore of Kaua’i. Everything I buy is to help do our part for the local economy. We’re trying to be a part of the community, not just a restaurant trying to carve out a living.”
The Tavern at Princeville is located inside the Princeville Clubhouse. From the mountains to the sea, an expansive view of the North Shore’s majestic peaks is visible through floor-to-ceiling windows, and the Prince Golf Course at Princeville undulates toward the ocean.
The restaurant maintains an onsite garden, and serves generous portions of gourmet comfort food daily for lunch and dinner.
“Comfort food never goes away,” says Hopkins. “It’s fresh, and if you put a little Roy’s twist to it, a little Asian-fusion, people love it.”
The menu ranges from grilled ham and cheese with tomato bisque to buttermilk fried chicken, from classic escargot in an herb garlic butter to poke made with inamona, a traditional ingredient made with ground kukui nuts.
“Coming back to Kaua’i was a homecoming for me,” explains Hopkins, who went to Kapa’a High
School. “I’ve been all over the world, and to me Kaua’i is the most beautiful place on the planet. The view here at sunset is beautiful. In the summer, the whole room lights up orange. It’s a great place to bring the family. We’re casual, and you’ll get home-style cooking using the freshest ingredients.”
The Tavern at Princeville
5-3900 Kuhio Hwy., Princeville
826-8700 TavernByRoy.com Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.