Landmark Hilo Chinese eatery closes after 57 years

  • Owner Kam Shui “Grandma” Kow (center), her son, Charles “Chucky” Kow (left), and grandson, Charlie Kow closed Kow’s Restaurant Sunday after 57 years in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

HILO — The burners beneath the woks at Kow’s Restaurant have been turned off.

The landmark Chinese eatery served its final customers Sunday after 57 years in business, first as Kow Kow Korner at the intersection of Kilauea Avenue and Ponahawai Street. Other incarnations were in the former Kaiko‘o Mall and Prince Kuhio Plaza.

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For the last 30 years, the family-owned business has served lunch and dinner — and played host to hundreds, if not thousands, of graduations, weddings, anniversaries and other milestone celebrations — at its West Kawailani Street location.

Three generations: Kam Shui “Grandma” Kow, owner and head chef; her son, Charles “Chucky” Kow; and grandson, Charlie, all worked Friday, preparing for the final weekend.

A lone table of diners enjoyed an early dinner, but a steady flow of take-out customers streamed through the door. One was Daryl Castillo, a police officer who moonlights as a professional singer-guitarist. Castillo said he’s known Chucky Kow since childhood and “grew up on their food.”

“I remember every single Sunday after church we’d come here as young kids and have a meal. We’ve had many parties at the restaurant,” Castillo said.

“Chucky works hard. His mom works hard. I’ll miss the food but they deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

Kam Shui Kow was born in China and came to Hilo from Hong Kong in 1958 to work as a cook in her mother-in-law’s former restaurant, Tou In. Her in-laws also owned and operated the former Mun Cheong Lau.

She said new owners will be opening under their own name this week.

“Their food will be Chinese food, but every place is a little different,” she said.

The Kawailani location, with its rough, stone block facade, has a dining room that holds 150 people.

“I borrowed a lot of money for this. I bought the land first, borrowed money from the bank, American Savings, and built the building,” Kam Shui Kow said. “Lucky, customers come. I’m so lucky for all these years. I’m really thankful for all the customers.”

Grandma Kow said she’ll stay a couple of weeks with the new owners to help with their transition.

And then?

“I’m going to try to live a normal life like everybody else. Because I make lunch and dinner (for customers), my lunch is like at 3 or 3:30 and my dinner is at 9 or 9:30,” she said. “I don’t mind work. I love cooking. But I’m 75 years old. Life is short.”

She’s also looking forward to a 10-day trip to Las Vegas in January with her sisters.

“We’ll go see shows. We’ll go shopping. And we’ll play the machines, too. I like to play. If I win plenty, I play three machines one time,” she said, and laughed heartily. “They’re going to get tired of me, I think.”

Grandma Kow said she’s been looking forward to retirement for about a year, but will “miss all my good customers.”

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“They come up to me; they shake my hand. They told me they’re happy for me to retire, but they’re going to miss my cooking.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.