Jimmy Buffet's 2002 concert was one of many musical events to draw crowds to Duke's in the last 10 years.

Duke's celebrates  a decade of song

By John Berger

Several myths or half-truths about Waikiki have widely circulated in recent years -- that the tourist industry, in general, doesn't really want Hawaii residents taking up space in Waikiki. Or that visitors and locals don't mix well socially. That live music -- let alone Hawaiian music -- is dying in Waikiki. And the ever-popular claim, "There's no parking in Waikiki."

The success of Duke's Waikiki over the past decade proves that it ain't necessarily so. The beachfront restaurant/bar has been an oasis of live local music from the beginning, attracts a congenial mix of visitors and residents and, yes, there's plenty of validated parking available.

It's been a winning formula that has contributed to the longevity of Duke's, which celebrates its 10th anniversary tomorrow.

"When I'm talking to perspective new employees, I tell them that this is more than just a restaurant. It's an experience, it's a museum, it's a cultural impact that people feel when they walk in," Chris Colgate, Duke's senior general manager, said. The front street-side entrance is decorated with poster-size photos of Duke Kahanamoku and his athletic brothers on the beach as it was almost a century ago.

"I think the element that really brings it all together is tying in the resurgence of Waikiki and Hawaiiana ... the decision to put Waikiki back on the map and create what George Kanahele described as a more 'Hawaiian sense of place.' Duke's Waikiki dovetailed into that perfectly," Colgate said of the blend of historic Waikiki beachboy-themed decor, local music and a relaxed dress code that welcomes folks in beach attire at the club's Barefoot Bar.

Kanahele, in fact, was the posthumous recipient of Duke's Ho'okahiko Award in 2001 for his work in that area. The other recipients to date are Pualani Mossman (1999), Genoa Keawe, Violet Pahu Lilikoi and Wright Bowman Sr. (2002).

"I think the other thing, too, is that we've really gone out to make locals and tourists all feel welcome -- sort of going back to create aloha. On one hand, it's like a no-brainer -- your success is because you take care of people? -- but I think, prior to Duke's being here, a lot of the restaurants weren't really focusing on that," Colgate said.

The Ho'okahiko Awards honor local musicians and artists. Woodworker and canoe builder Wright Bowman, seated, received a 2002 award from Duke's executives Ross Anderson, left, David Allaire and Chris Colgate.

Music has been an important part of the formula. Duke's has presented an assortment of traditionalist and contemporary Hawaiian acts that has included the Lilikoi Sisters, Moe Keale, Brother Noland, Henry Kapono, Ku'uipo Kumukahi, Jonah Cummings, Kapena and Koa'uka.

Makana started playing at Duke's when he was 14 as the then-Ki Hoalu Kid and played an unobtrusive late-night gig on Sundays for years.

"The evolution of the music has been pretty amazing that we've have had a lot of the greats play here," Colgate said.

Duke's even became a concert venue of sorts last March when Jimmy Buffett, vacationing on Maui, got bored and decided he wanted to do a show in Waikiki.

An estimated 500 paying customers jammed the place, and another 1,000-plus "Parrotheads" watched from the beach. Don Ho introduced Buffett as "the only guy who smoked pakalolo on the White House roof" and then joined him in opening the concert with his trademark "Tiny Bubbles."

"We've developed a focus on our sense of place," Colgate said, summing up the reasons behind Duke's first decade of success in Waikiki.

"The stream that used to run under the hotel here used to be the spot where all the ali'i came down and partied in the old days, and so the heritage of coming down here and gathering is continuing. Oahu is 'the gathering place' and Duke's Waikiki is the gathering place in Waikiki."

Duke's Waikiki

Where: 2235 Kalakaua Ave. in the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach Hotel

Open: 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily; validated parking at the Ohana East Hotel (formerly the Outrigger East), 2375 Kuhio Ave.

Call: 922-2268

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