Jason Genegabus

Check out Panya
for pre-club warm-up

For some reason, I feel like I'm exposing a secret institution of Honolulu's "Beautiful People" with this week's column.

Panya Bistro

Location: Ala Moana Center (next to The Gap, mall level)

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays

Call: 946-6388

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Although it's been open on the mauka side of Ala Moana for some time, I'd never given Panya Bistro much thought as a drinking destination. After a friend mentioned hanging out there, the trap was set, so to speak. I had to satisfy my curiosity and visit this place myself.

Pastries and breads? Sure.

But cocktails? In a bakery?

At the mall?

AS IT turns out, Panya has always catered to the martini crowd -- take a look at the sign outside its entrance, and you'll see "bar" featured prominently alongside the words "bakery" and "bistro."

Established in 1997 by sisters Annie and Alice Yeung, the bakery morphed into a full-service restaurant with its new Ala Moana Center location in 2003. Display cases line the front section here, with Hokkaido-style goodies attracting passers-by while also serving as a buffer between the front door and dining area.

Another nice touch is a number of outside tables, although you can't take alcohol outside to chill amongst the aroma of automobile exhaust. An unfortunate but necessary regulation, due to concerns about underage drinking.

Inside, the decor reminds me of what I saw at nearby Shokudo. Mirrors line the Diamond Head wall at Panya, with a faux ceiling making the room feel a lot more intimate. Liquor bottles and martini glasses are housed behind a wall of glass at the bar, and are backlit to help kick the sophistication factor up a notch.

Bartender Iyanah Valeho puts the finishing touches on two double apple martinis at the Panya Bistro in Ala Moana Center.

There's even a curtain of metal discs hanging on the Ewa side of the restaurant, much like the one at Shokudo (just without the wood slats). Unfortunately, you can see where intoxicated customers have taken a toll -- several lengths of the discs are shorter than others, presumably from people pulling and breaking them apart.

Limited seating at the bar can make it hard to get a drink, especially around dinner time. If you can't score one of the half-dozen bar stools, the only other option is to sit at one of approximately 15 tables throughout the room.

One thing that definitely helps Panya's reputation as a watering hole is its happy hour, offered from 5 to 7 p.m. and again from 9 to 11 p.m. on weekdays.

Most martinis are priced at $3 and $4 then, with other specialty cocktails available. Beer is also a bit cheaper -- imports will set you back $3.75, while domestic brews are just $2.50.

Another bonus here is the scenery, with an interesting mix of couples and groups of what appear to be single women. Designer labels are easily spotted, from cell phone cases and purses to sunglasses and shoes.

While I'm not sure about recommending this spot for pau hana, it's a must-try for club types looking for a warm-up spot. The planned opening of Rockaku, another upscale Japanese bistro, next door to Panya will also increase the buzz about a previously quiet corner of the popular mall.

How much for a Bud Light?
The Barfly paid $2.50 for a Bud Light before jumping to more exotic picks, like the Lavendar Martini ($4) with its mix of orange-flavored Grey Goose, Parfait Armour and cranberry juice. Lychee Martinis ($3) are another specialty here.

Get things to do?
You're drinking in a restaurant, so there's not much else to keep you occupied besides the company you bring and the antics of customers at other tables.

What about the grinds?
Vietnamese Summer Rolls ($5.95) and Deep-Fried Chicken Tori Karaage ($6.95) are good bets from the pupu menu, with more elaborate items like Garlic Tomato Shrimp ($7.95) and Sauteed Black Pepper Rib-Eye Steak ($13.95) also available along with complete lunch and dinner menus. But skip the ahi poke -- you can get better fish elsewhere.

And the help?
Unless you enjoy waiting way too long to get a drink, be sure to sit at the bar in Panya Bistro. We sat waiting in front of empty glasses on more than one occasion, and it seemed as if the staff didn't have a firm grasp of the drink and pupu menus.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.
Barfly appears every Friday in Star-Bulletin Weekend. E-mail Jason Genegabus at jason@starbulletin.com with suggestions of neighborhood bars to visit.

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