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Roy Yamaguchi Gets Comfortable in Kauai

Fans of celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi's line of Roy's restaurants may assume that they would already know what's on the menu at his new eatery on lush Kauai's stunning North Shore. But those expecting the same Hawaiian-fusion, seafood-focused cuisine served up at Yamaguchi’s chain of nearly 30 Roy's restaurants around the country are in for a serious surprise.

The Tavern at Princeville by Roy Yamaguchi, which quietly opened in September inside the Princeville Golf Resort, is instead all about casual comfort food with a twist. Here, Roy's staple lobster pot stickers and macadamia nut-crusted mahimahi have been replaced by island-inspired versions of onion soup gratin and buttermilk fried chicken.

With only two fish entrees regularly offered on the menu, the place caters more to carnivores than to seafood junkies, with decadent dishes including an over-the-top burger piled with smoked Gouda and deep-fried bacon strips, and The Tavern's most popular item: salt-and-pepper spareribs glazed with housemade teriyaki.

The short dessert menu makes it impossible to go wrong, thanks to choices such as a warm olive oil chardonnay cake with lemon curd and dried cherry sauce, and a chocolate pudding pie covered in salted caramel sauce.

The new eatery is a bit of a nostalgia trip for Yamaguchi, who grew up spending summers at the tavern his grandfather owned on Maui.

“Roy always had the concept and knew he wanted to create a tavern,” said General Manager Don Jimenez. “And it’s the only Roy’s restaurant that’s solely Roy’s.”

Indeed, The Tavern is completely independent of the Roy's corporate chain, which means it gets to be more of a free spirit. Blackboard specials change nightly, a new lunch menu is written up every day and the kitchen focuses on locally sourced ingredients – some literally grown just outside the door in the restaurant's own garden.

That means vegetarians will find plenty of fresh fare here too, including a warming local mushroom cassoulet mixed with white beans and wilted greens, and a crisp, shaved fennel salad with roasted beets, oranges and goat cheese procured from a farm on the island. The Tavern has even swapped out that boring old bread basket for a bucket of addictive popcorn tossed in Parmesan cheese and herbs that were grown right on the property.

And, of course, what's a tavern without good drinks? The bar puts its own spin on classic cocktails, with a mai tai mixed with basil leaves, a margarita shaken with lychee syrup and ruby-red grapefruit juice, and The Tavern's own version of a Bloody Mary, spiked with potent sriracha chilis.

Half of the wine list is simply divided into three price categories — $25, $35 or $50 a bottle — while the other half is filled with some surprisingly impressive (and pricier) California heavy hitters, including a Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, a Pride Mountain Merlot and a Sine Qua Non Syrah.

As for décor, there's not a drop of Polynesian flair to be found. Instead, The Tavern feels more like a shiny new country club dining room, thanks to dark woods, high-top tables in the bar and floor-to-ceiling windows revealing views of the golf course, the North Shore’s endless green mountains and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Try visiting before dark to take it all in.

For now, the place remains pretty under the radar, with no current plans for a website and little advertising to speak of, save for a banner reading “The Tavern is Now Open” at the edge of the golf club driveway.

With no guidebook mentions yet, the restaurant draws a refreshing mix of locals and visitors: golfers just off the course looking for a bite, canoodling couples, families with kids and foodies swapping plates with their fellow diners.

If Yamaguchi wanted to create a low-key dining experience that would please everyone, it looks as if he's done it, tavern style.

The Tavern at Princeville by Roy Yamaguchi
5-3900 Kuhio Hwy
Princeville, Hawaii
(808) 826-8700

Tagged in: hawaii, casual dining, comfort food, north shore, roy yamaguchi, the tavern, kauai,

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Purple Neon via Lizbeth Scordo

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