Industry Spotlight: Howard Dicus

I’ve done a lot of different things in a 47-year journalism career: radio, television, print, online; newscasting, reporting, editing; CD reviews, a humor column, commentaries and cartoons. But I’ve never been a restaurant critic.

Before moving to Hawai‘i, my thoughts about restaurants were largely confined to having a short list of restaurants I liked, usually for one dish, like Georgia Brown in Downtown D.C., offering a plate of pan-fried chicken livers in gravy, or the D.C. regional chain Red Hot & Blue, whose dry ribs are the best barbecued meat I’ve ever eaten.

In Hawai‘i I started the same way, but found myself becoming more discriminating because all my friends were. (Also the different kinds of fish are better here!) It’s partly a Hawai‘i thing and partly a farm-to-table thing.

And it’s partly a John Heckathorn thing.

John, who for so long reviewed restaurants for Honolulu magazine, frequently organized foursomes to try out restaurants. Because we could order four things, he would try everything and get a good sense of the restaurant. A story I like to tell involves John and my wife Bernadette getting into an animated discussion of saffron while Barbara Heckathorn and I sat there and watched them like it was a seminar.

Anyway, I wrote a column for Pacific Business News describing such a meal and noting that it was hard to be a restaurant critic, because all I did was think, “This is good,” and eat it, while John had to think, “This is good. Is it the best I ever had? If not, when and where did I have the best I ever had? And why was it better than this?” As I recall, John’s only reaction to my declaration of sympathy for his assignment was to note with just a trace of annoyance that I had beaten him into print with it.

The reason I do so many stories about even incremental changes in Hawai‘i’s restaurants is that my viewers, listeners and readers care about those changes; it’s business news, and I run those stories for the same reason I run stories about local military contracts or aquaponic startups or a surge in arrivals on Kauai.

Aided by Bernadette, who was a founding vendor at the KCC farmers market and once had a small restaurant in Wahiawa, I’ve learned that foodservice is a brutal business. Margins are tight even with low wages. You can make the best kolache in the Pacific and go out of business for lack of a few parking spaces.

As I write this, several excellent fine-dining restaurants are suffering simply because their usual clientele are trying the unusually large number of recently-opened restaurants.

I encourage everyone to try new places, including new affordable restaurants, yet honesty compels me to say I tend to stick to some comfortably decent places, most because they have three things: (1) reliable parking, (2) reliable service, and (3) at least one menu item I like a lot.

If you own a restaurant, you can send me news at hdicus@hawaiinewsnow.com.

By Howard Dicus, Hawaii News Now “Sunrise” Business Reporter

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