Monday | April 27, 2015
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Hilo Bay Cafe taking over former Nihon site

Come October, Hilo Bay Cafe will be “hidden in plain sight” no longer.

Since openings its doors in 2003, the restaurant has offered some of the finest food in the state from a most unassuming locale — sandwiched into the Waiakea Shopping Center between Office Max and Walmart.

“Hidden in plain sight. … The restaurant evolved out of a natural foods store, at one time located in the same mall,” reads a page on the eatery’s website, hilobaycafe.com. “Long-term leases were signed, and that’s the dark secret. Once you’re inside the doors, however, you’ll forget the forgettable location. Maybe someday this gem will be on the bay.”

That day is almost here, owner Kim Snuggerud said Friday in the dining room of Nihon Restaurant. Row upon row of glassware, bowls and silverware were lined up on tables, marked with price labels — prepared for a building-wide rummage sale on Saturday morning.

“Everything must go,” she said.

Nihon closed its doors last Saturday, she said, and Hilo Bay Cafe is busy moving into the elevated building on Lihiwai Street — located between Suisan and Liliuokalani Gardens and offering incomparable views of Hilo Bay.

“I was going to get out of the restaurant business when my lease was up,” she admitted. “My chef and I had said at one point, ‘Ten years from now, we’re going to hang it up.’ … But then this became available.”

Snuggerud said she used to drive up to the building and admire it, never thinking that one day she might have her own restaurant there. Now, she says, when the restaurant celebrates its 10th anniversary Oct. 13, she’s hoping to have all the work complete to open her doors for business from her new location overlooking the bay.

Despite her excitement surrounding the new location, Snuggerud added she is mindful of the fact that her restaurant’s gain means the loss of a well-loved Hilo institution.

“We just love Nihon, and their crew, and we’re planning on keeping all the members of their crew on who want to stay,” she said.

In fact, she said, the restaurant is also planning on maintaining the Nihon sushi bar, under the guidance of master sushi chef Roy Kaneko.

“We think the two mesh well. We’ve been working with Nihon, and we think we have a lot of talent and depth,” she said of the restaurants and their workers. “We’re going to see how they work together.”

She added that Hilo Bay Cafe’s menu will largely remain unchanged, although it may incorporate some of Nihon’s dishes. The restaurant’s long tradition of highlighting locally grown and produced foods will continue, whenever possible.

“We used to be connected with the Island Naturals store, so recycling is something that is important to us. We have established local vendors, and they try to source as much as they can. Some things we can’t get here and it has to be shipped in. But we try to source as much as we can, and that won’t change,” she said.

As for how she plans to use the nearly 5,000-square-foot space, Snuggerud says she plans to keep her dining space intimate, using Nihon’s former tatami tea room and possibly some of the outdoor lanai for seating when the weather is favorable.

The central area of the building will be a bar and cocktail lounge, while the sushi bar will remain near its current location. The opposite end of the building will serve as a location to host special events, a new business venture the restaurant is dipping its toes into.

“That’s an area we will be learning more about,” Snuggerud said. “We’re pretty adaptive.”

The restaurant will be making one major change in its kitchen — longtime executive chef Joshua Ketner will be moving on, and his sous chef of about four years, Larry Quirit, will be taking his place.

“He’s been working alongside (Ketner), and filling in seamlessly for four years,” Snuggerud said of Quirit. “He’s a Hilo boy, and we think he’s going to work out great.”

cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.