Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: St. Louis Drive InRestaurant Insider
July 31, 2022
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: ANTHONY CONSILLIO
ANNE LEE speaks with St. Louis Drive In owner WAYNE AKIMOTO
It’s hard to find local mom and pop restaurants still going strong, but St. Louis Drive In has been in operation for 60-plus years in the heart of Kaimuki. Named after a well-known private school across the street, owner Wayne Akimoto, along with his daughter Chelsea, operate this popular eatery, getting up at 3 a.m. every day to prep a busy day of hungry patrons that await. These homemade recipes have been handed down for generations — portions are large, prices are reasonable and the flavors are big. I shared a few plates with Wayne as he shared the history behind this restaurant, and how he keeps it still going strong till this day.
AL: How did you get started in this industry?
WA: I needed a job while attending University of Hawaii, so I got a job at Pagoda. The bar manager at the Sheraton came in one night and asked me to work for him. I worked there for 10 years bartending. An opportunity came to open up a drive in and I took that chance and left the Sheraton. How I got St. Louis Drive In was that Mr. Nakata, the previous owner, and I were operating Big T Drive In in Aina Haina at the time 40 years ago, and he told me to take it over.
AL: What specials do you have during the week?
WA: On Tuesdays, we have our fresh corned beef and cabbage plate, served with rice and mac salad. Every day we offer four or five specials. On Sundays, we have short ribs ($10.40) and beef stew ($8.95); Mondays, we have shoyu chicken ($8.95) and curry stew ($8.95); Wednesdays, we have tripe stew ($9.20) and meatloaf ($8.50); Thursdays, we have mushroom chicken ($8.50), roast beef ($8.65); Fridays, we have Hawaiian plate ($9.50) or Hawaiian plate deluxe ($10.35); and Saturdays, we offer a fried rice with pork teriyaki sparerib plate with one egg ($8.40).
AL: What did you prepare for us to try?
WA: Today is Thursday, so we made the mushroom chicken plate for you to try. This recipe is actually from my Aina Haina drive in. There’s also the seafood bento special ($10.30), which comes with salmon, two pieces of shrimp tempura, teri ahi and scallops, served with rice furikake, ume and an egg roll. We have the super Japanese plate deluxe ($11.50) with fresh ahi sashimi, teri beef, mochiko chicken, scallops and shrimp tempura, served with rice and tossed salad, and a roast pork plate that comes with two scoops of rice and choice of mac or tossed salad. And we have the Green River drink ($2.30 small, $2.40 medium and $2.75 large) — older folks know it as that, younger generation calls it lemon lime.
AL: The restaurant was named after Saint Louis School, which is right across the street. What’s the most popular dish ordered by the students?
WA: They are hungry boys, so they order everything off the menu. Breakfast is popular and we have student specials like two BBQ burgers, french fries and medium drink for $8.05; a tuna tomato sandwich, french fries and medium drink for $6.80; and the autumn/winter/ spring/summer special ($6.90), which includes a BBQ cheeseburger deluxe, french fries and large drink. Before the pandemic, the students would line up for breakfast and, back in the day, lunch time is the busiest so, if you can, call us to order ahead.
AL: I hear there is an honor coin system in place. Tell me how that started.
WA: This actually was started by the students at Saint Louis 50-plus years ago. They would leave their spare change on the top of the win dow ledge. If they needed some change it was there and if they received change from their food purchase they would leave it. It is still honored today by customers and students.
AL: What is the secret to your success?
WA: My team — without a good team you cannot operate a business. They work hard and are loyal. We couldn’t do this without them. We have been fortunate to have well-known people that come here to support us, such as famous Saint Louis alumni and political figures. We appreciate everyone’s support.
AL: Anything else you want to share?
WA: If you are wanting to taste some of our items from Big T’s, we have a few specials that we feature weekly, such as the mushroom chicken plate on Thursdays and pork tofu on Wednesdays. We are working on building a website and trying to open up our dining room. We are looking for someone to join our team. Once we get some more bodies, we can get that open for dine in!