By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The moon is setting at Casa de Luna, and soon Pineapples will be sprouting in downtown Hilo. After a rocky start for the new restaurant earlier this year, Casa de Luna is making changes, most notably to its name and menu.
So say adios to the “Spanish-Mexican fusion cuisine with a twist,” and welcome to Pineapples, featuring “island fresh cuisine.”
Casa de Luna opened 10 months ago with some of owner Dave Owens’ favorite Spanish-Mexican dishes, but as it turned out, the chef hired to create them had little experience with any style of Mediterranean or south-of the border-style cuisine.
Poor reviews starting cropping up about the food and the service. With Owens out of the country on an extended family vacation, three of his siblings back in Hilo decided they couldn’t wait around and watch the restaurant sink. Scott Owens, who owns Hilo Bay Hostel, and sisters Pam and Trish Owens, who own the Hilo Homemade Ice Cream and Hilo Garden Mart in Keaukaha, pitched in to keep the place afloat — with Dave’s long-distance permission, of course.
Dave Owens was the one responsible for renovating the building at the corner of Mamo and Keawe streets where, after a protracted battle with county officials over permits, he created a highly visible and attractive open-air dining room and bar on the first floor of the corner building.
But the early managers “didn’t work out,” said Pam diplomatically. Scott is more blunt. “The food was terrible.” Now Trish, also a chef, has taken over the kitchen, while Pam oversees the “front end” of the business.
Scott said guests at his hostel often ask where they can get good food with a Hawaiian experience. After referring several guests to Casa de Luna in the beginning, however, he stopped. Decidedly mixed reviews on Internet sites such as Yelp, UrbanSpoon and TripAdvisor, reflected many of the sibling’s concerns.
“People are dying for something local, an evening out, open air, and seafood. It you’re from Missouri, now’s your chance,” Scott said. “We get people coming over from the Farmer’s Market, where they saw a lilikoi and want to know what that tastes like in a drink,” he said. “Now they can take a few steps down the street and find out.
“I don’t think many tourists from California want Mexican food. Now I’m happy to send people down there. This is what Hilo needed. The open-air style is popular in Honolulu and with the big hotels, but Hilo has not had the experience,” he said.
“It’s always had a lot of potential,” said Pam. “The original concept wasn’t really our vision. (But) we’ve been making a go of it. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve had growing pains, trials and tribulations and we all have other jobs. We’re keeping it together until David gets back.” That’s expected to be within a week or two.
“We’re excited, ” Trish added. “We hope anyone who’s tried us in the past, will try us again.” She already has at least one customer in that category.
Alice Moon, director of the Downtown Improvement Association, who’s spent two decades in the restaurant business, was disappointed the first couple of times she dined at Casa de Luna. “I know my way around the business,” she said. “In Hilo, you know, you gotta get it right.”
Moon stopped going until she learned that the Owens family had taken over. “I came back and I was totally thrilled. Distinctive flavors … good-sized portions.”
Trish Owens said the new kitchen will feature chefs such as Jordan Johnson, formerly of Kaleo’s in Pahoa, and Jonah Von Gieson, formerly of Keawe Kitchen. “We have some really good people on board. Our chefs excel with fresh local food.”
The Owens hope to reopen the restaurant as Pineapples on Dec. 18. Local, fresh food will be the menu’s mainstay, though a few of the more popular items from Casa de Luna will remain.
Hours will remain the same, 11 a.m. til pau Tuesday through Sunday — for now. The future may include breakfast and a Sunday brunch, Pam said. Local musicians the likes of Bruddah Waltah, Daryl Castillo and Randy Lorenzo are also being brought in to entertain.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Moon said. “They’ll be using more local products, local flavors. I encourage people who may have had a bad experience to go back and give it another try.”
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.