Longhi’s: A Living Legacy in Lahaina
[flashvideo file=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9oX2V-KbJo /]
Opening a door. It was monumental to a teenager whose family had just bought a restaurant in Lahaina. His dad, Bob Longhi had been visiting Hawai’i on an insurance incentive trip when he happened to go to dinner in the building on Front Street that would later become his own.
“He was a ‘foodie’ back in the 60’s, before that existed. He loved Maui and had fallen in love with it in a few short days,” remembers Bob’s son, Peter Longhi. “Turns out the building was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The following day was his 43rd birthday; they were supposed to go to Kauai and he said, ‘Forget it! Maui’s the place for me; I’m gonna be buying this building and opening a restaurant.'”
Nine months later, on December 26, 1976, he did. And 16-year-old Peter Longhi couldn’t wait to get to get his hands on that door.
“I asked my dad, ‘Can I open the front door??’ I thought it was a big deal, and he said, ‘Yeah, why not?’,” laughs Longhi.
He says his dad bucked the 70’s trend of “can openers and freezers,” shunning pre-packaged, processed foods for farm-fresh produce, freshly-baked breads, house-made sauces and top-quality ingredients. Serving “food that we love” was the simple but successful criteria.
“We had our own bakery so we did our own bread, our own desserts; everything was from scratch,” explains Longhi. “There wasn’t basil, so we went out and got someone to grow basil for us, and lettuces and different herbs. So that was before ‘farm-to-table’ had a name, but that’s basically what it was. Best ingredients, don’t mess around with ‘em too much, and you can come up with a pretty good product.”
Longhi’s Restaurant began in the ground-level part of the building at 888 Front Street. In 1982, it expanded to include the upper floor of the building, where its upscale dining room still exists today. The menu, which Peter Longhi calls “gigantic,” includes fresh, local fish, hormone-free O’ahu chicken, seafood dishes, prime steaks, pastas and award-winning wines.
While some menu offerings are as classic as the restaurant itself, others take a more modern twist, especially in the downstairs dining room, which was renamed Longhi’s Front Street Kitchen in August. It serves breakfast, lunch, daily happy hour (3-5 p.m.) and a different dinner menu than what you’ll find upstairs. Like 12-inch pizzas, salads, sandwiches, tacos, hand-pattied Maui Cattle Company beef burgers, and cross-cultural hot and cold plates that feature “contemporary Hawaiian cuisine with an Asian flair.”
“We tried to keep the price point low there: burgers are $9, pizzas are around $14, appetizers run in the $8 to $12 range. We do a King crab pohole fern tempura; a lot of interesting small bites,” explains Longhi, adding the downstairs kitchen stays open until 9 p.m. “That concept, we started, ‘Hey, this is a really great dish,’ but it didn’t fit with the cuisine, like ceviche or poke. So we have a separate kitchen downstairs; we’ve had a chance to kind of play around and go with it.”
Peter Longhi, who started as “salad man” and sandwich-maker (after, of course, being the door-opener), now helps run the family empire of Longhi’s, which has added restaurants at The Shops at Wailea and Ala Moana, and spent about five years running culinary operations at Travaasa Hana. Peter’s dad, Bob Longhi, passed away in 2012, but his passion and personality evoke smiles and fond memories.
“My father was a great presence and everyone loved him,” Longhi says. “He was a really smart guy, he was a great conversationalist. He brought so much energy to the restaurant and people loved being around him.”
Bob Longhi’s purchase back in 1976 has proven to be a wise one, as the restaurant gets ready to celebrate 40 years in business on Front Street come next December. Even with 170 seats upstairs and 100 more downstairs, the family remains true to Bob’s cause of fresh produce, quality food and personable service.
“The staff is so important; to have motivated people who are happy with their work is important,” says Longhi. “We have to be a team. We want to work together and make sure the customer leaves with a smile and a great meal.”