Reincarnated Waialae bar retains its karaoke spirit
WHEN this column first appeared in the Star-Bulletin back in 2002, the watering hole I used as a prototype was Pub Kagami in Kaimuki.
More than three years and hundreds of bar reviews later, Kagami is no more. But the establishment that's replaced it, 9th Avenue Rock House, didn't mess with success. It maintains the same cozy garage-style drinking experience I remember from Kagami.
And as the new name implies, rock fans have a home here when it comes to karaoke.
IT'S A lot easier these days to describe where 9th Avenue Rock House is located, now that Town has opened up next door.
Know where that trendy new restaurant is? Good. Walk around the corner to the street front facing Waialae, and you'll see the bar's entrance.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bartender Rene Sugimoto smiles while putting away a customer's bottle of Becks at 9th Avenue Rock House in Kaimuki. The spot is known for its extensive selection of hard-to-find rock songs.
Walk inside, and like I said, everything is basically the same as it was in 2002. The only difference is the placement of the dart machines, the only form of entertainment available other than karaoke.
There used to be only one machine here, and it sat right next to the front door. You had to be aware of flying darts when you walked inside, but no more. Two machines occupy the Diamond Head wall, where they're out of the way of customers heading for the rest rooms.
I call this kind of place a garage-style bar because it feels like all that's missing is a driveway with someone's car in it. Shorts and slippers is the standard uniform, while a couple of tables and an L-shaped bar provide a few places to sit.
Like any other garage, put too many people in here and things can get uncomfortable. But it's also cozy enough to encourage conversation with complete strangers, something that doesn't happen too often at other bars in town.
Earlier this week, we were bookended by a tipsy social studies teacher and a local couple that frequents the joint. Conversation ranged from the irony behind a mainland haole teaching Hawaiian history to our keiki, to just how tasty the newest brand of Okinawan awamori is.
Once you've found the bar, gone inside and relaxed with a drink or three, ask one of the staff to see "The Book."
BARTENDER Lauren Hayashi used to be one of the owners here, but had since moved on to King Street Cafe before a stint at a regular day job. She recently came back to 9th Avenue Rock House to serve drinks, and was given the task of revamping the song offerings here almost by default.
See, Hayashi is a karaoke queen (she's also served as the lead singer in a band called Barking Fish) who loves her '80s and '90s rock. She takes the bar's music selection seriously. If you want to headbang while singing songs, she wants you to think of 9th Avenue Rock House first.
Don't like those kind of tunes? It's OK -- I haven't seen Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait" at any other karaoke bar in town, so don't think there aren't a few gems of other kinds within the songbook's pages.
Hayashi tells me she's in the process of adding 300 new songs to the bar's library this week. Soon you'll be able to sing songs by Blind Faith, the Eurythmics and James Taylor that aren't available anywhere else.
Sitting at the bar in 9th Avenue Rock House earlier this week, I had a strange sense of déjà vu.
My drinking partner for the night was the same person who helped me do my research at Pub Kagami back in the day. Our bartender was Hayashi, who I hadn't known during my original visit in 2002, but has since gone on to become one of my all-time favorites. And I was drinking Newcastle Brown Ale.
Big deal, you might be thinking. But it was a trip -- I didn't remember at first, until Hayashi explained what was going on. She hasn't forgotten the first time I sat in front of her, when I ordered Newcastle on a whim.
Since then, all she'll ever serve me is the brown brew. I even remember (vaguely) downing pitchers of it one night at King Street Cafe, thanks to her. And once again, as we were pulling barstools up in front of her, out came the Newcastle!
That's what I liked about Pub Kagami back then, and it's what I like about 9th Avenue Rock House now. It's a comfortable spot with employees who care about the customers who sit down at their bar.
9TH AVENUE ROCK HOUSE
Location: 3435 Waialae Ave.
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
How much for a Bud Light?
The Barfly drank Newcastle Brown Ale during his visit to 9th Avenue Rock House. A Bud Light will set you back $3.
Get things to do?
Darts and karaoke are the main attractions, although it's kind of fun to get the employees to act like fish on the televisions -- a video camera is trained on an aquarium behind the bar, and the feed is turned on when nobody is singing.
What about the grinds?
Standard fried fare is available here, with items like French fries and onion rings to go with the "famous" 9th Avenue Rock House karaage chicken. Everything is made to order, and prices vary depending on how much you want to eat.
And the help?
One of the reasons Hayashi is among my favorite bartenders is that she doesn't play favorites. While you'll run into servers who ignore new customers to cater to regulars, Hayashi strives to treat everyone like a VIP. Bottles don't stay empty for more than a minute, and she hustles to get the karaoke microphone handed off before jumping back behind the bar. If there were an all-star team for Honolulu bartenders, she'd definitely be in the starting lineup.
Barfly appears every Friday in the Star-Bulletin WeekEnd section. Reach Jason Genegabus
with suggestions of neighborhood bars to visit.