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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 18, 2004

Restaurant's regulars will lose 'home' Dec. 30

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

The cocktail lounge at The Wisteria last night was mostly the same as it has always been. Noisy, crowded and packed with regulars.

The Wisteria has a large crowd of regular patrons, including local celebrities, who will miss the restaurant's "old-time warmth."

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The only difference was the topic of conversation: the restaurant's closing at the end of the month.

"This is like a home," said Eddie Inouye, 66, who has been coming to the restaurant for decades. "Seriously, what we've been discussing is where we're going to go now. We gotta set up a search committee."

The Wisteria, a landmark restaurant on the corner of King and Pi'ikoi streets, will be closing on Dec. 30 after 52 years.

The restaurant has been owned by the Asato family, also the operators of KC Drive Inn on Kapahulu Avenue, for more than 30 years. The family said that although the restaurant was making money, it was becoming too difficult to keep it open any longer.

Esther and Larry Yamashita, of Palolo Valley, and their granddaughter, Kacie Harada, 13, surveyed the menu at The Wisteria last night. The restaurant, at King and Pi'ikoi streets, will close its doors for good at the end of the year. The Yamashitas have been regulars at the Wisteria for more than 30 years.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Everybody's disappointed," said Karen Yokoyama, general manager and employee for 19 years. "I have mixed feelings right now. This business is hard."

In July, the Asatos put the property on which KC Drive Inn sits for sale. Once that's sold — the family has no confirmed buyers yet — the 70-year-old restaurant may close, too, ending a legacy for one of Hawai'i's most prominent restaurant families.

The Wisteria has always been known for its local-style atmosphere and food, especially its oxtail soup and teishoku dinners that are popular among the restaurant's regulars.

And some of those regulars are community celebrities, including comedian Frank Delima, U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka and Dan Inouye, and KKEA 1420-AM general manager Don Robbs.

Last night, the line to be seated in the dining room stretched to the front door. Every booth was taken, with families feasting on shrimp tempura, 'opakapaka and Okinawan soba, the day's special. The parking lot, like every Friday night, was full.

Former O'ahu resident Ron Kreigsman stops by The Wisteria whenever he's in town. He was disappointed to find out last night that his favorite local restaurant — one that he has been patronizing for almost 15 years — would be closing in two weeks.

"This is like a family here," said Kreigsman, 56, who now lives in Seattle. "Good food, warm atmosphere. We're bummed."

He motioned to one of the waitresses and added, "We'll miss her."

Myrtle Ching has been waiting tables at The Wisteria for almost 18 years. She has seen children of regular patrons grow up to be regulars themselves.

"I just can't believe it's been that long," said the 61-year-old grandmother of two. "The bosses here are so nice, everyone is friendly. It's a family here."

With extraordinary grace, Ching moved through the crowded bar, carrying trays of pork tofu, chicken wings and bottles of beer, always with a smile on her face. On her sweater was a pin with her grandson's photo. He's 3 months old.

"I'm going to have to look for another job. I'm too young to retire," she said. "Working here, this is all I've ever done."

Robbs is part of the regular crowd that meets over beer and pupus about three times a week in the lounge. Last night, he nursed a glass of red wine while watching a rerun of "Seinfeld." Plates of spicy 'ahi rolls and bowls of potato chips lined the bar.

The crew of regulars never miss a "Monday Night Football" game, which is televised live in the lounge. It's so popular, there are reserved seats at the bar.

"I like the old-time warmth here," said Robbs, who has been coming regularly to The Wisteria for about six years. "It reminds me of Honolulu a long time ago."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.