bob longhi: a man who loved to eat—a tribute to maui’s late, iconic restaurateur extraordinaire

BOB_Longhi

When renowned Maui restaurateur Bob Longhi passed away in July of this year, he left behind a remarkable legacy that spanned nearly four decades. He was “a true original whose passion for food was imbued with a unique blend of shrewd intellect, curiosity, humor, and humanity,” says long-time patron and friend Mikel Mesh.

Bob Longhi grew up in New York, attended Suffield Academy in Connecticut where he was known as “Lefty,” and graduated from Cornell University with a degree in economics. After making it big in the insurance business in New York City, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he attained huge success selling pension plans to cities and counties.

Fate intervened when Longhi vacationed on Maui in 1976, and found himself at a Greek restaurant called Nick’s Fish Market (no relation to the establishment of the same name at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea). He asked the restaurant’s owner if he knew of a place for sale. The answer was, “Yeah, this place.” Years later, Longhi told the story this way: “I ordered a Greek salad while we talked. It was the worst Greek salad I ever ate. I said, ‘There’s no feta cheese!’ He said, ‘I got it at home.’ ‘No wonder the joint is failing,’ I said. ‘You got your feta cheese in the wrong place.’” So he bought the restaurant for $750,000, and put another $75,000 into renovations.

Characterizing himself as “the man who loves to eat,” and with his only foodservice experience being selling hoagie sandwiches in college, Longhi opened Longhi’s Cafe on Front Street in Lahaina with entirely vegetarian offerings. When the menu was not particularly well received, he quickly made some changes, adding steaks, lamb chops, fresh seafood, fish, and pasta, and this version of Longhi’s really took off. In 1983, Longhi expanded to the upstairs of the building, increasing his seating capacity from 90 to 225. Nowadays, in addition to the original Lahaina restaurant, there’s a Longhi’s in Wailea as well as at the Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu. The same cuisine may be enjoyed at all three locations.

Longhi’s philosophy was to always use the best and freshest ingredients, which meant that the menu was constantly changing. Back in the 1970s it was expensive and impractical to keep printing up menus, so Longhi established a “verbal menu” custom where servers would pull up a chair and recite the offerings. “That way Longhi’s was never out of anything,” says Peter Longhi, Bob’s son, who now manages the Lahaina and Wailea locations (brother Charlie runs the Ala Moana location). The rather outspoken, fast-talking Longhi, summarized it this way: “What the hell does reading have to do with eating? Did your mother give you a menu?”

Being a world traveler, Longhi had a rather sophisticated palate. “He was a foodie before that term even existed,” Peter says. So Longhi set the bar high for his restaurants, insisting on the highest standards for food and service. If he liked a particular dish it went on the menu. “My father felt that if he could please himself, he could please most everyone else,” says Peter.

Longhi counted many celebrities as friends, among them Stevie Nicks and the late George Harrison. Longhi actually guided Harrison’s first hike in Hana’s pastoral wonderland. Inspired by the journey, Harrison later composed “Soft-Hearted Hana,” and dedicated it on his 1979 “George Harrison” album to Longhi. “George and Longhi were really good friends,” Stevie Nicks told Maui News writer Jon Woodhouse shortly after Longhi’s death. “Had it not been for Longhi, I wouldn’t have gone to Hana [in the late 1970s] to hang out with George for two days.” A photo of the threesome is still to this day an inspiration for the singer, who brings it when she goes on tour. “There’s lots of times when you think, ‘I wish I didn’t have to go on stage tonight—I’m tired, and I don’t feel like doing it.’ But I look at George, Longhi, and me, and I go, ‘Well, you just have to, because it’s important to make people happy.’”

Fast forward to 2012 and a recent dinner at Longhi’s in Lahaina. With its trademark black and white checkerboard flooring and open-air arches reminiscent of an Italian villa, it’s the perfect spot for gawking at the sunset while feeling the cool trade winds’ soft caress. The birds-eye view of the ocean from the upstairs is stunning, and a female jazz vocalist provides pleasant background music from the adjoining night club area. Longhi loved jazz, and he was especially proud that you could dance to music on a koa dance floor in his establishment.

Longhi eschewed sharp angles, so you won’t find them at the restaurants bearing his name. “My father called himself a ‘curvologist,’” says Peter Longhi. “He believed rounded corners were negative ion generators [they’re the “good ions”]. He wanted his restaurants to have ‘healing vibes.’”

Tonight, server Kevin tells us Longhi’s serves dishes “family style,” with ample portions meant to be shared. “My father referred to it as Chinese-Italian style,” Peter tells me later. In addition, 90 percent of menu items may be ordered as half portions.

We begin with the legendary steamed artichoke ($13.50): a huge beauty finished with melted lemon butter and parmesano reggiano. There’s a little pool of buttery goodness in the center that’s both rich and tangy. Fresh island ahi carpaccio ($22) is sashimi grade yellow-fin tuna on tomato-basil bruschetta, with extra virgin olive oil, lemon, and capers. It’s served over Kula greens with a crostini on the side. The ruby-red fish glistens appealingly, and a squirt of lemon along with the capers make it pop.

Next we dive into the Longhi Salad ($15 full/$9 half), which has been on the menu since day one. “When I used to dine in New York City, there was a restaurateur named Romeo Salta who used cannellini beans in some of his salads,” says Bob Longhi in his 1997 cookbook, whose subtitle is “Recipes and Reflections from Maui’s Most Opinionated Restaurateur.” “I always thought this was a great idea, and wanted to have a salad on my menu that had cannellini beans in it.” It’s composed of crisp romaine, tomatoes, onions, fresh green and white beans, and Italian gorgonzola cheese, tossed with tangy gorgonzola vinaigrette. The beans provide a delightful contrast of textures, and the flavors marry exceedingly well.

For the pasta course, linguine with clams ($26) are simmered in white wine and garlic, with a touch of olive oil, and the chef graciously accommodates our request to remove the clams from their shells. The presentation is gorgeous, the dish is served at the perfect temperature, and we gladly savor every bite.

We share an entree of fresh monchong prepared Veronique style (sauteed in lemon, butter, and white wine, finished with fresh green grapes—$39). The fish is moist and delicate, and the crisp, juicy grapes nicely temper the richness of the sauce.

Kevin says the hot chocolate souffle ($16—takes 20 minutes to prepare) is a must, and who are we to argue? It’s a beautifully presented Belgian chocolate cake with a flowing center. Haagen-Dazs ice cream and luscious raspberries are the coup de grace. What a splendid way to end a delightful meal at this legendary dining establishment.

–heidi pool

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1 Response to “bob longhi: a man who loved to eat—a tribute to maui’s late, iconic restaurateur extraordinaire”


  1. 1 barb thermos January 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    we loved his restaurant very much’ we knew the man very well and also happy his friend we were there when he first started and know all his kids and even my son got to know him well too he will truly be missed he was very well loved by all. and we just had seen him the week before he left us. love always


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