I was in Honolulu, Hawaii, last week to talk at a green design conference, and in my two quick days there I was able to see a few of the sights. Though I managed to eat at some trendy, and rather well-designed spots—tip of the cap to Salt and Morimoto—I was reminded of a fundamental lesson of design over a decidedly unhip breakfast at the Hau Tree Lanai Restaurant at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel. Sometimes a single element of a space's design (in this case, the hau tree) can make it so magical that the fetishism so often shown for meticulously sourced tablewares and organic pork belly goes completely out the window. Located down at the Diamond Head–end of Waikiki in an unspiffy old hotel, on a pretty but pedestrian stretch of beach, the Hau Tree Lanai eschews just about every design trick in the book—see the pink tablecloths, white wrought-iron patio furniture, and institutional tile floor. But that hau tree creates such a perfect canopy, shielding diners from the hot sun while giving us this ribbon-width view of the flat blue sea, that you don't want to be anywhere else.
Inches overhead is a tangle of branches that offers cool shade, a slight whoosh in the breeze, and the perfect contrast to bright ocean and sandy beach. Instead of basking in the boozy shallow thrill of urban cool-hunting, I ate my poi pancakes and (yes!) slice of Spam in utter peace, marveling at how this giant bit of foliage could so elevate what is about as anodyne a restaurant as I could imagine.
Sure, sitting just yards from the vast Pacific helped, but without the cover and framing of the hau tree, the view would have been clip-art cute, and the runny eggs, well, kinda runny. With it, however, I relearned that a space is only as good as it makes you feel, and sometimes only one big move is all it takes.