By Anni Caporuscio
Kaua‘i restaurateurs are unintended purveyors of island history. Whether they make it a theme of the place itself, or they want to pay homage to a location’s tradition, or the clientele can’t keep from telling stories in the cafe, a long-time restaurant will take part in spreading Kaua‘i lore.
In the case of Tip Top Café, they are Kaua‘i history. Tip Top celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. That is one hundred years, readers. One hundred.
Denjiro Ota, great-grandfather of current manager Jonathan Ota, opened Tip Top Café in 1916. Mitchell Ota, Jonathan’s grandfather, was a creative chef who expanded the business to include a full-service bakery starting in 1925.
It was the first restaurant/coffeeshop in Lihu‘e. Denjiro Ota was the former cook for the plantation manager, and he lived in the building behind what is now the Kilohana Plantation. The manager lent him money to start the restaurant, so that there would be a good meeting place for business people in the heart of the new seat of county government. Its original location was in the Tip Top building, which is where the name came from, and where the mayor’s office is now, in the circular building. The breezeway between the DMV and the other Pi‘ikoi building used to be the road that the Tip Top building fronted.
In 1962, the Ota family was notified that they needed to move the business, so they finalized the purchase of the current location by 1965 for the hotel and café. They’ve been in their current location, a block from Lihu‘e’s main drag, ever since.
Jonathan Ota moved back to Kaua‘i after college to join the business in 1990, and he’s been running the place for about 25 years. He is full of stories about old Kaua‘i social life. For instance; Tip Top was known as the city center and was sometimes referred to as the “Times Square of Lihu‘e.” There was even a time when they traded stocks in the back room on a chalkboard. One of the omelets is named for the former Mayor Kunimura, close friend of Mr. Ota.
I asked Jonathan about generational trends, and how Tip Top has adapted to suit them. His answer was, they haven’t. They are consistent. They don’t veer from their standards. They stay the course and do what they know how to do. They keep consistent for their customers — and generations of customers.
Everyone knows Tip Top. Governors and officials make it a must-stop when on island. Concierges recommend it to tourists as a local favorite. People come for their favorites that they can’t get like it anywhere else. They don’t do specials, they don’t do catering; it’s a no-nonsense café that still, after a whole century, is the gathering place of business people and families on Kaua‘i.
“We’ve been lucky because of our hard-working and loyal employees. It wouldn’t be the same without them,” Jonathan said. His grandfather, he said, took care of them and now it’s his job to do right by them. Generations of staff, grandchildren of staff have worked at Tip Top. This, in my eyes, is a great measure of their well-deserved success.
Visit Vimeo.com and search for a video made by local middle school students under the name of CKTV Media Productions in honor of Tip Top’s 100th anniversary. It shares pictures and more history. Follow Tip Top on Facebook for lots of pictures and positive reviews.
Tip Top Café is at 3173 Akahi Street in Lihu‘e.