Chinatown has always been the best place in Oahu to find trouble. In the 1940’s, when prostitution was legal in Honolulu, the majority of working girls resided in Chinatown, attracting hoards of soldiers in search of last-ditch diversions before shipping out. Aiding their search for companion vices, tattoo parlors and bars flourished in the area. After a recent neighborhood rejuvenation project, Chinatown has become the epicenter of Honolulu’s art scene, hosting “First Friday” art walks every month in the hopes of attracting the tourist population. Luckily, the neighborhood still has an undone feeling that attracts a younger crowd—Hawaiian hipsters, music lovers—that enjoys the seedy historic bars and crumbling warehouses. The locals liken it to NYC’s East Village in the 70’s and the 80’s, and while I say not quite, it’s still pretty great.
The promoter trend is big here. Hotspots change nightly and theme nights are big. Chinatown gets relatively packed during the monthly “First Friday” events, and promoters work overtime to lure newbies to their respective bars, plying them with drink specials and performances. Any other night can be hit or miss, but since nearly every bar has a story, there will always be a local bar fly or indulgent bartender around to share some local lore. Here are a few of my favorite Chinatown bars, which I stumbled upon while wandering through Chinatown with our Sailor Jerry crew and Atlanta rockers the Black Lips.
The Mercury Bar 1154 Fort Street Mall This swanky dive bar is a inconspicuous gem located in a back alley. It has a 70’s lounge vibe that’s punked up with local art hanging on the walls, a regular DJ, a small stage, and an equally intimate dance floor dotted with arty hipsters. It’s where we celebrated Sailor Jerry’s 100th Birthday, outfitted with an open bar of Sailor Jerry rum, a tight door, and a secret performance by the Black Lips. It was also where I found out that Honolulu kids don’t just stand around at shows, bopping their heads to the beat. They dance, jump around, throw beer, and crash into each other. Sounds scary, but it’s actually awesome. The Mercury Bar in the middle of the Black Lips show. Alley signage.
Smith’s Union Bar 19 N. Hotel St. Smith’s has been serving up cocktails since 1935 and is still a kitschy hit in town. Fat old men in Hawaiian shirts slump over the green bar during the early hours, and there’s a classic bartender that begrudgingly serves up beer, whiskey, and a can of pork and beans if you so please. Later on in the night a younger crowd swarms the place, favoring the classic rock juke and Hawaiin decor. It reminded our crew of Holiday Cocktail Lounge dressed in luau drag. Ultra-modern sign for Smith’s. At Smith’s, L to R: Inked Magazine‘s Rocky Rakovic, Ian Saint Pé and Cole Alexander from the Black Lips, and myself.
Thirtyninehotel 39 N. Hotel St. When it’s empty, this place is a Stanley Kubrick brand of odd. Inside it’s all club: white walls, sparse decor, red disco lights moving to the beat of weird trance music. Outside there’s a lovely rooftop terrace, where insider-y nightlife folk begin their night out. Later, when the place packs it in, the Kubrick-ness is diminished and dancing ensues. I was told that the space was the site for live sex shows back in the ’40’s, and they found an old archived permit dating back to the ’30’s for a carousel bar that oscillated while patrons sat drinking their mai tais.
Indigo 1121 Nu’uanu Ave. Located next to the historical Hawaii Theater, this bar puts on the Ritz and somehow still manages to draw the hipsters. Swank martinis are served up with small plates like goat cheese wontons in a glowing green atmosphere. The secret lies within the stage: if you build it, they (the hipsters) will come. Apparently the music booker is great, curating shows with cutting edge local bands.
Bar 35 35 N Hotel St. While Indigo lured hipsters with the stage, Bar 35 hooks them with their vast beer selection. With 100+ items on the brew menu, there are more specialty beers and micro-brews in this place than one little island can handle. Throw in comfy counches, organic pizza, and jazz-themed bar, and you’ve got Alligator Lounge for sunnier days.
Main Photo: The Black Lips at Mercury Bar by Tracy Chan