KAWAIHAE — It’s back.
The award-winning Blue Dragon restaurant — famous for being the only open-air, live-music venue in North Hawaii — announced it will reopen later this summer.
That’s good news for those who have been watching for signs of activity at the Kawaihae restaurant for the past three years.
“Honestly, after all that’s happened, I’m not sure we would have reopened had it not been for our loyal customers,” said the restaurant’s owner, Bennett Dorrance.
“Throughout everything, they’ve always supported us,” added his wife and co-owner, Delphina.
She still remembers the day in July 2015, after a magical night at the Dragon featuring jazz musicians, singing and dancing, when the couple realized a portion of the entrance driveway had collapsed and would need major repair.
“We didn’t have a septic issue, we had a wastewater issue,” Bennett said.
The restaurant’s wastewater system had been built to code but the code was undersized for the use. Other area restaurants had similar experiences but because the Dragon has less land, it was complicated to figure out and redesign.
The end resulting problem the Dorrances thought would take two-to-three months to fix ended up taking three years.
Things weren’t all bad. The restaurant’s forced closure allowed the couple to turn their attention to a new venture — restoring and reopening the 70-year-old HUB building in the heart of Hawi.
True to their altruistic nature, the Dorrances devoted time, money and tender loving care to restoring the HUB to its former glory complete with lodging; a main building for programs, classes and rentals; and a restaurant which they named the HUB PUB.
But misfortune struck once again when the HUB PUB was completely destroyed by an electrical fire on March 14.
Bennett and Delphina want people to know that the HUB PUB fire was no one’s fault and the kitchen and restaurant will be rebuilt. The rest of the HUB including the inn, classes and programs and rentals at the nearly 6-acre Kohala Village HUB campus were unaffected by the fire and remain open.
And, as Bennett likes to say, “The fire hatched a dragon.”
“We were already down at the Dragon getting ready to reopen,” he said, “but the fire certainly fast-tracked those efforts.
“It also saved me a lot of tears going forward because we could put our energy into something.”
Being closed for three years gave Bennett and Delphina plenty of time to rethink and reshape the Blue Dragon into the restaurant they’d always wanted.
For example, when the newly minted Blue Dragon Tavern &Cosmic Musiquarium opens, it will be a true music venue.
“We’re opening it up to be more eclectic with a wide variety of entertainment,” Delphina said.
In addition to local favorites including Lorenzo’s Army, Sweet Misery and Bottle of Blue, the entertainment lineup will be expanded to include country music, comedy and even dinner shows with the Blue Dragon hosting intimate theater performances and acts with visiting performers.
Other nights might be more casual with an open-mic night once or twice a month and a Kanikapila (Hawaiian music produced in an impromptu jam session) every now and then.
One thing that won’t change is the Blue Dragon’s reputation for being a family-friendly gathering place.
“The Dragon has always been a family place and it will remain that way,” operations manager Chris Scelza said.
The Blue Dragon’s food consistently earned high remarks, winning award after award. But while the food was good, “it was kinda high-end food,” Bennett said.
With the Dragon’s reopening came an opportunity to make the food more affordable.
“We’ll still have great food with great flavors, made from high quality ingredients and locally sourced, but going forward our food will be simpler and more affordable,” he said. “We want to be more reachable to more people.”
The restaurant’s inside set up has changed as well to provide enhanced opportunities for dancing and enjoying music. A more casual menu features more finger foods, and new seating arrangements include high boy tables to provide more room for dancing.
“It will be less of a composed plate situation and more hand eating,” Scelza explained. “When you’re out dancing, you want to come back to your high boy, take a few bites, get a fresh beer and then get back out there.”
The Dorrances are well known in North Hawaii for their generous and focused giving — supporting local farms, residents and island arts and musicians in affordable and eco-friendly ways.
The new Blue Dragon Tavern is no exception to that philosophy.
Food Operations Manager Carter Chu, who most recently served as the HUB PUB executive chef, said the produce, meats, seafood and other ingredients for the restaurant will be sourced from island farms, local fishing operations and local businesses. Vendors include Mamane Bakery, Hawaii Beef Producers, the Blue Dragon Farm, Sunrise Farms, Kohala Organic, Sage Farms, Best Farms and Kohala Mountain Fish Company, a sustainably designed on-land tilapia farm co-managed by Bennett.
Additionally, the new Dragon is committed to its zero waste efforts and Earth-friendly operations. Food will be served on ti leaf and compostable wares, and the kitchen will be steam cleaned, which will cut back on the amount of cleaning chemicals used in space shared by food by an estimated 75 percent. The acquisition of a new waterless men’s urinal will save on water usage.
New lead chefs for the Blue Dragon Tavern include Chu, who has worked as a private chef and has more than 30 years’ experience managing area restaurants, and Chef Craig Sharp, who previously worked at Kukio and for Big Island Booch. Sharp specializes in fermentation and will be adding that specialty to the new Blue Dragon menu.
The Blue Dragon Tavern will open Wednesday through Sunday for dancing and dining under the stars and will now also be open for breakfast with a grab-n-go menu and fresh island coffee.
It will close during the oppressive heat of midday but will reopen with a happy hour at 5 and live entertainment from 7 to 9 or 10 p.m. The kitchen will remain open and a second happy hour will be offered at night’s end to provide more food and time for patrons.
“We originally bought the Blue Dragon not because we’re crazy restaurant people but because it was the community’s arts and cultural center where people came to hear live music and dance and we didn’t want to lose that,” Delphina said, reflecting on past years at the Dragon and all the nights yet to come.
“The Dragon’s never been a money-maker,” she continued, “but with the changes we’ve made and the community’s support that will hopefully change. Going forward, any money we make won’t go into our pockets, but will be money we can put straight back into the community.”
The public can stay abreast of the restaurant’s opening date, which hasn’t been nailed down quite yet, and entertainment calendar at FB.com/BlueDragonHawaii.