While I like to think I’m above the cliché, there are few things I love more than cradling an orchid-topped mai tai and snacking on coconut shrimp as the sun slips into the Pacific Ocean. Sure, it may seem touristy for me to lounge around at Honolulu’s House Without a Key, sipping cocktails next to the spreading kiawe tree, listening to the Sunset Serenaders strum “He Aloha No O Honolulu,” but I’m actually taking part in a time-honored local tradition—the pau hana.
Loosely translated, pau hana, a Hawaii pidgin term, means “to stop work.” It also refers to Honolulu’s vibrant cocktail-fueled happy hours, which generally take place between 4 and 6 p.m. and date back to the midcentury tiki craze for all things Polynesian. Some say it all started in 1957, when Harry Yee, the head bartender at Waikiki’s Hilton Hawaiian Village, invented the Blue Hawaii, a luridly colored curaçao punch topped with a pineapple wedge and miniature paper umbrella. The drink set the island’s standard for tropical cocktail culture, ensuring a steady supply of neon-hued, fruity crowd-pleasers for decades to come.
These days Hawaiian bartenders are looking more to locally grown ingredients and balanced mixology to redefine what happy hour tastes like in paradise. I’ve whiled away long afternoons at the polished Monkeypod Kitchen in Ko Olina, about a half-hour outside of Honolulu. Here, co-owners Peter Merriman and Bill Terry offer up the Ho’opono Potion, a bracing mixture of tequila, Aperol, cucumber, and fresh lime juice, as well as the South Shore Sangria, a combination of amaretto and orange liqueurs, cava, and fresh juices topped with a float of red wine. A bright and lethal concoction, it tastes like an adult version of Hawaiian Punch.
I’m just as partial to Nico’s Pier 38. Lyon-born chef Nico Chaize once ran a lunch take-out joint on the commercial pier that hosts Honolulu’s fish market, but last year he expanded it into a popular den that serves some of Oahu’s most creative drinks along the waterfront. The French Connection cocktail at Nico’s is a citrusy marriage of cognac and Hawaiian vodka sweetened with passion fruit syrup.
Food, namely pupu, is equally integral to the pau hana experience, and Nico’s serves some of my favorites. Sitting at the bar, nursing a drink and nibbling on seared ahi poke, sashimi platters, and fresh fish cooked in coconut milk with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and lime juice is a slice of paradise.
Another one of my regular hangouts is Tokkuri Tei, a neighborhood pau hana favorite that’s also one of Honolulu’s oldest izakayas. I often sit at the sushi counter sipping a sweet-tart umeshu cooler, a sparkling plum wine cocktail that pairs beautifully with the food served here, whether it’s spicy tuna on tempura-battered nori chips, or the spider roll stuffed with poke and salmon roe that I’ve managed to become addicted to.
When it comes to Oahu’s happiest hours, I’ve noticed there’s a direct ratio of tiki-tacky décor to unforgettable good times. Side Street Inn on Hopaka Street neatly illustrates that equation. The bar occupies a gritty back alley in the downtown business district, miles from the surf on Waikiki. I pull up a stool at this dive, with its sticky dispensers of lychee and mandarin orange infused vodkas, and the bartender prepares a refresher dubbed the Riki Tiki made of pineapple juice, coconut and spiced rums, and mango, which I enjoy with an order of pork chops and fried rice studded with char siu.
If I stay late enough, I can catch chefs coming in as they get off their dinner shifts. They drop by to relax, gnaw on pork loin chops fried with garlic salt and pepper, or just toss back a few drinks. The pau hana‘s official hours might be 4 to 6 p.m., but locals in Oahu know that happy hour begins anytime you find a moment to unwind.