The Great Escape

Cafe Julia is a culinary oasis in bustling downtown.

A mid downtown Honolulu’s concrete forest of skyscraping office buildings, you wouldn’t know it, but there’s a sweet sanctuary of Mediterranean indulgences harkening patrons back to yesteryear, while tantalizing taste buds in the present. Offering a feast for the palate and the eyes, Cafe Julia whisks guests away from the norm, and into a seasoned setting that’s met with a menu of enticing spices and herbs.

Before visitors have a chance to dine on lunch showcasing Pacific Rim flavors, and a dinner menu brimming with European-inspired delights, the grand entrance into the restaurant first impresses them. It is under YWCA Laniakea’s columnated façade—through stunning archways and courtyards, and then past elaborate balconies and fountains—that customers make their way into Cafe Julia. The eatery is named after Julia Morgan, the San Francisco architect who designed the Mediterranean-style structure it is housed in during the 1920s. Morgan was, in the era, the first female architect to complete a public building in Hawai‘i.

While the structure would demand reverence even from those who know nothing of its past, understanding the history behind Cafe Julia lends a particular richness to the dining experience. It is impossible to ignore the stunning architectural features of the eatery’s atrium-like dining space, marked by tall ceilings, majestic pillars and grandiose arched windows decorated with intricately patterned green grilles. Cafe Julia’s owner-and-president Emerson Ribao works to reflect European-inspired architecture in the classically rooted cuisine he serves, allowing the menu to complement its regal home.

“I favor a menu like this because it goes well with the architecture. I always say, Cafe Julia will never be open anywhere else. I could open more restaurants, but they would have to have different concepts because Cafe Julia is at the YWCA, period,” the restaurateur says.


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Cafe Julia's lunch crowd enjoys a different quiche on the menu every day.

Whether enjoying a meal in the divine main dining room or in the plush courtyard, guests fill up on executive chef Almar Arcano’s cuisine, which has a fine-dining feel that patrons can comfortably savor in a casually elegant environment. Lunch service sees the downtown office crowd munching on house-made quiche of the day served with soup and salad, scrumptious furikake salmon and even a gourmet loco moco prepared with Kaua‘i-sourced pâté. The dinner menu is billed as Mediterranean but maintains a number of other culinary genres as well, from prime steaks and fixings to island-fusion dishes.

On a breezy, starlit evening, it isn’t easy to decide what to order first, as there are so many starters I don’t often find on Hawai‘i menus these days. Will our table go for the escargot or lobster bisque? Or perhaps foie gras with port wine balsamic reduction will do the trick. Ribao suggests trying a Cafe Julia staple—and that, we can’t refuse. And so, our meal kicks off. And despite the Italian-esque villa we are dining in, we are indeed still in the Islands.

‘Ahi poke tacos shine with unbelievably flavorful, chilled fish served on a bed of coleslaw in crunchy taco shells. The secret, as Ribao reveals, is the balance of flavors in poke marination, as sweet honey, spicy wasabi and citrusy yuzu combine to unleash a powerful pop of unforgettable. Island-style tacos are perfected with a drizzle of creamy Sriracha and sprinkling of fresh kaiware sprouts. On a menu filled with universal classics, such as slow-roasted prime rib, filet mignon and chicken Marsala, the modernity of ‘ahi poke tacos offers a fun surprise for patrons—as does our next course: The Emerson.

Named for Ribao himself, who created the refreshing salad, this signature item definitely is worth ordering. The sizeable dish could be a complete meal by itself, presented with a mound of leafy spring greens mixed with cherry tomatoes, corn and carrot tendrils. We dig into tender chicken breast that has been brined overnight to maximize softness and flavor. The whole dish is dressed with house balsamic vinaigrette sweetened with honey or sugar, and the juicy kernels of corn meld with the dressing to create a flavor profile ringing with fruity apple notes. The best part of The Emerson, though, is whole, crisp taro and sweet potato chips mixed into the salad like candy-colored treats I can pick out and crunch on as I graze on my veggies.

Over the course of the evening, a jazz musician tucked in the corner serenades our party with his smooth melodies. It is an ideal backdrop for our meal, and just one of many old-school touches Cafe Julia employs. In addition to the near-century-old architecture, the restaurant gets its vintage charm from a warm wait sta?. Ribao, who floats around the floor ensuring patrons feel welcomed and satisfied, still remembers the good old days in the ’70s and ’80s when waiters wore tuxedos and followed strict etiquette. He aims for his staff to impart the inviting and dignified qualities of that type of service, but without any fussy outfits or pretension.

A respect for tradition also is felt throughout the menu, especially with dishes like osso buco, our main course. For decades, chef Arcano has worked in many notable Honolulu establishments, including Waikiki mainstay Hy’s Steak House. His experience shows in entrées like this one, prepared with a rich, French-style brown sauce to coat long braised, fall-off-the-bone tender veal shanks. As I did, you’ll want to use the garlic-mashed potatoes to soak up every bit of the velvety sauce, which earns its richness from Marsala wine and bone marrow. A medley of buttery vegetables, sautéed individually for each plate, as well as extra bits of bone marrow resting inside the veal shanks, add lovely touches to the dish.

They say one should always leave room for dessert, and at Cafe Julia, this is more than just a suggestion. Imparting sophisticated appeal to the dessert menu, tableside service ensures nostalgic sweet endings still have a place in today’s restaurant scene. Flames ignite for cherries jubilee, while bananas Foster offers the tastiest of options. And we couldn’t help but close out the evening with an Irish coffee nightcap.

First-timers leave Cafe Julia feeling especially enriched by the entirety of the dining experience—not just its menu, but also its surroundings and service. I’d be willing to bet they’ll seek another escape to this spot soon.

Cafe Julia, YWCA Laniakea, 1040 Richards St., Honolulu, (808) 533-3334 or

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