Final hours for Jimmy’s: Landmark Hilo restaurant to close

  • Patrons eat lunch at Jimmy's Drive-Inn on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

  • The last day of service at Jimmy's Drive-Inn in Hilo is Saturday, Jan. 30. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

For more than 65 years, the local-style restaurant on Kinoole Street has been a Hilo landmark.

But on Saturday, Jimmy’s Drive Inn will serve its customers for the last time — at least under current management.

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Rudy Gabonia, a Waianae, Oahu, native who ran the well-known eatery with his wife, Soyo, for more than a decade, said their lease has expired.

“Because of the pandemic and the situation — not only us, because everybody’s struggling — we decided not to renew the lease and kind of semi-retire,” Gabonia told the Tribune-Herald Thursday.

Gabonia, who retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service, manages the restaurant and runs the front of the house. Soyo is in charge of the kitchen.

The couple used to operate Arirang Korean BBQ across from the Hawaii Community College campus, but assumed the reins of the downtown Hilo restaurant from the Kim family a decade or so ago.

“The Kim family wanted to retire,” Gabonia explained. “They originally were looking for somebody to take over or to sell the property. And they couldn’t do either one. And they knew my wife loves to cook, so they asked her if she wanted to take over.”

The original owner of the restaurant, which was built in 1954, was Jimmy Higa.

Gabonia and his wife, like the Kims, kept the Jimmy’s name because of the restaurant’s popularity.

“Big Island people know this establishment,” he said.

The Gabonias also kept the menu and the recipes when they took over the business.

“I called it mixed plate,” Gabonia said when asked to describe the food. “We’ve got Korean. We’ve got Japanese. We’ve got a little Hawaiian.”

Gabonia said the property was sold on Thursday, but the Tribune-Herald wasn’t able to confirm that. The county’s property tax website still lists the Nam Sun Kim Trust in Honolulu as the owner of the land and the building.

According to Gabonia, Jimmy’s has hosted both everyday people and those who are more prominent. Asked about his best-known patrons, Gabonia immediately replied, “I would say our former mayor, Harry Kim and his wife.”

Since Gabonia posted Jan. 6 on Facebook the restaurant would be closing, there has been a noticeable increase of cars in its parking lot.

“Business has been picking up. It seems like everybody wants to come for one more meal before we close. It’s not just to be a customer, it’s because this is part of their memories.”

Since emergency restrictions on restaurants have been loosened a bit to allow in-person dining with social distancing and sanitizing protocols, Jimmy’s has been able to seat about half of its normal capacity of 80 diners. Gabonia said he and Soyo couldn’t do it without the help of the wait help, Billie, Tim and Precy, and the kitchen helper Wayde, and wanted to thank them.

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“But most of all, we want to thank our customers,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but we’re going to miss it, especially the customers.

“They’re more than just customers. They become friends, and they make you feel good.”

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