With its lively Polynesian ambience, Hula's tries hard to get it right.
Thursday, August 24, 2000
Restaurants are funny things. There are so many businesses in existence that fit into the category. From the local taqueria to the most upscale fine dining establishment, they all share similar motivations, ambitions, responsibilities, demands, pressures and rewards. On the simplest level they are there to feed people. Seems easy enough. But what do people want? Why do they avoid some joints and pack others? Why are restaurants notorious for showing up on the list of businesses most likely to fail?
Start with the chore of feeding yourself. Think about how challenging it is, day after day, week after week, to figure out what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, shop for it, prepare it and clean up after yourself. Add a coupla'' family members (mothers, I''m talking to you) to the mix and before long, mealtime becomes just one more burden. Multiply that exponentially according to the size and volume of a given establishment to determine the load heaped upon a restaurant. Unlike feeding a family, which is motivated (hopefully) by love, feeding customers for profit makes motivation more difficult. Thankfully, for both customers and restaurateurs, simply being fed is not the only reason--and frequently not even the primary reason--that folks frequent restaurants.
People need many things. One of the most important components of a happy life is fellowship between human beings, which is nurtured in the social atmosphere of a welcoming environment. The addition of food and drink--especially the lubricating powers of alcohol--can help transform the experience into something spiritual. A restaurant that deftly combines all these ingredients can ensure its success.
As the ingredients are maintained and adjusted according to everyone''s requirements, so too is the success maintained. If the balance is allowed to shift too far in any one direction, distorting the recipe, then down comes the cradle, baby and all.
Hula''s has got a pretty good grasp of the formula. There doesn''t appear to be that much to get excited about in this smallish (about 40-50 seats) eatery on Lighthouse in New Monterey, toward the Pacific Grove end of that mini restaurant row. Parking is sometimes difficult, though easier in the evenings; the decor is Hawaiian surfer, hardly original, yet fun. There is a small bar that serves beer, wine and a few sake drinks, although both the wine and beer lists should be stronger. The food is reasonably priced, fresh, with some good flavoring and large portions, yet I find it fairly uninspiring.
However--and please understand that this is a huge "however"--I have been a participant and an observer of the restaurant industry on every level for 25 years, and I have witnessed the pulsating light of success catch in its beam more joints that I would''ve thought possible. And Hula''s is one of them. The two other stooges each have co-workers who absolutely love the place. When I asked one of them (let''s call her Joyce) what it was she liked about Hula''s, she said, "It''s warm in there. It''s about a warm climate; the people, the way they''re dressed make it nice when you''re coming in out of the fog. And the fish tacos are almost as good as the ones at Wahoo''s in Laguna Beach."
Her friend (we''ll call him Eric), who is a vegetarian, called the food, "light, fresh and healthy. The music, the Hawaiian memorabilia, made me feel like I was in the islands."
And these are not lightweights. Each is intelligent and artistic, and has good judgment about life. Down at Plume''s coffeeshop in Monterey, Michael, easily the world''s coolest barrister, told me, "Dude, I love the sweet potato fries there."
So, what do I know?
The place has a good spirit. The music, which is controlled behind the bar (bartenders should always control stuff like that), is upbeat, varied, lively and loud enough to matter. There is no question that it''s got a good neighborhood hangout feel without being cliquish. And it definitely draws the surfer crowd.
Lunch menu items include: The Hula Burger ($6.50); Trader Vic''s Fish Sandwich ($7.25); The Big Sur Veggie Burger ($6.50); a grilled portabella, red pepper and smoked mozzarella sandwich; a mango chicken Caesar; fish tacos and a bunch of wraps and bowls with chicken or fish, all between $7 and $10 bucks a whack.
At night there are "Fresh Fishes," which are choices of fish (with Hawaiian favorites like ono and mahi-mahi) that you match with choices of preparations, like blackened, coconut-encrusted, etc. The price range is $12 to $15 puka shells. Then there''s Duke''s Luau Pork Plate ($10.95); Bali Hai BBQ Ribs ($12.95); Da Big Kahuna ($17.95), which is the larger version of the Teriyaki Steak ($13.95), plus a canoe-full of other island-inspired entrees, all between $10 and $14 skins.
So, when the urge to kick back with a few cold ones and some munchies hits, ride down to this casual, coastal cool surfer shack in New Monterey, about a block from Wave and just chill.
622 Lighthouse, Monterey, 655-4852.
Lunch, Tues.-Sat., 11:30am-2pm; dinner, Tues.-Sun., 5-10pm