This is a part of our 9-day Big Island Itinerary. Day 6, Part 2.
Saturday, December 30, afternoon. A friend mentioned the famous Merriman’s Waimea Restaurant, and we decided to give it a try and book for tomorrow for a New Year dinner. Alas, too late! Everything was booked for the next few days, with the only time available today at 5 pm for an early dinner. We are taking it. After doing Kohala Waterfall Adventure with Hawaii Forest & Trail in the morning, we’ll have time to change, rest an hour, then drive to the Big Island Waimea – Hawaii Ranch Town for a walk before our early dinner.
In the map below, our rental cottage is marked red, Hawi, where we started the Kohala Waterfalls Adventure – green, and Merriman’s Waimea restaurant – blue. It’s all situated in one corner of the Big Island, with both destinations within 30-40 min drive from our cottage.
The Meaning, Pronunciation and an Alternative Name of Waimea
Waimea (pronounced “Why-mAY’-ah, not “Why-mE-ah”) means “red water”. There is plenty of rain and waterfalls in Hawaii and the water is often red from the iron and aluminum oxides in the volcanic soil. No wonder this name was used often, and there are several other Waimeas – Waimea Canyon and Waimea town in Kauai and Waimea Bay and Waimea Valley in Oahu. Conveniently, the Big Island Waimea has an alternative name – Kamuela – Hawaiian for Samuel (Parker), who played a big role in both Hawaiian politics and the development of the land.
As we drove up towards Waimea, the desert views of black lava fields changed to emerald rolling hills, meadows, pine and eucalyptus trees.
Snow-capped Mauna Kea is straight ahead as we navigate the picturesque and pleasant rolling drive up to Waimea.
We arrived to Waimea around 4 pm, which gave us an hour to stroll around, visit a few local stores and enjoy a warm and sunny afternoon. The streets were quite empty as many businesses closed for winter holidays. Unfortunately, this was the case with Isaacs Art Center, which has a great representation of local artists.
The Short Story of Merriman’s Restaurant
Peter Merriman arrived to the Big Island in 1983 to work as a cook in a hotel. In only two years he became an executive chef of a restaurant at Mauna Lani Resorts. In just 3 more years, in 1988, Peter opened his first signature gourmet restaurant in upcountry Waimea, that was the first to offer dishes prepared from freshest locally-grown and raised ingredients. With twelve other renowned chefs, Peter launched the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. They encouraged farmers to grow all sorts of produce locally and used Farm to Table approach in their cuisine. Chef Merriman’s vision and work shaped and advanced both local agriculture and Hawaii culinary landscape during the last 20 years. What a vision, what a career! And this afternoon we we heading to the exact location where all this had started.
We didn’t read any online reviews prior to this visit. We came trusting the name and the legend around it to experience the best fine cuisine of Hawaii. The following is an unbiased review of our family’s dining experience in Merriman’s Waimea. I would also like to add that our family eats quite well every day. We rarely eat out, cook our meals from fresh and mostly organic ingredients, we eat many vegetables – raw and cooked, and our palate is not impaired by overusing spices, salt and fats.
The front entrance to Merriman’s Waimea Restaurant looked old, charming and small. But as we came in, we found ourselves in a large and bright dining hall with an open kitchen. The contrast between the outside and the inside was quite striking.
Our reservation was for 5 pm, and we were one of the first parties to arrive. We were seated at a cozy corner table, as far away from the open kitchen as possible. We were very happy with the seating, because it provided at least some privacy. Honestly, we were not expecting such a large and industrial-looking hall with so many tables so close together. As the restaurant filled with people, the place became very busy and loud.
The service was friendly but somewhat intrusive: too many servers came to our table in succession, asking the same thing – how we liked it. It seemed that every next thing delivered to our table was brought by a new person. We couldn’t figure out who our main server was, but there was always someone available around.
We didn’t much like the food. The bread (they bake bread in house) was fresh and tasted good. The salads were just fine. The three of us ordered 3 different entrees, and for the price of $50-60+ per dish we expected all three to excite our taste buds. But all three dishes were bland. The lamb and steak were a bit dry and flavorless. The fish was just OK, nothing to write home about. The same light-green-colored mashed potatoes was on the side for both steak and lamb. The cauliflower on top of the steak’s mashed potatoes looked uninviting. Overall, we were disappointed with the food and the ambiance given the price we paid.
When we came back home, I went to Yelp to read reviews and discovered that most negative reviews named poor execution of entrees the culprit. I also learned that Chef Merriman only comes here once every two weeks. The recommendation I liked was to stay with appetizers and desserts. Another good one – if you have a party of at least 4 people, it makes sense to order the Shared Dinner at $79 per person; it will allow to taste many dishes for a reasonable cost.
We are still willing to try other Merriman’s Restaurants in the future and hope to have a better experience. But I will make sure I do my homework and read the reviews first.
How to Read Online Reviews
Well, lesson learned: in the age of information overflow and all sorts of marketing tricks at least read online reviews! But can you really trust the reviews? Merriman’s Waimea has over 800 reviews on Yelp with most top reviews coming from folks that have written from a few hundred to over a thousand reviews.
Though Yelp discourages business owners from asking their customers to write reviews, this practice takes place. I would be very critical of any long review that is written by a prolific reviewer, is overly detailed, praises the business and even tells stories about it. Those might be planted by the business.
A good way to pinpoint possible problems is to look for patterns in negative reviews. Unfortunately, Yelp doesn’t have a way to read only 3-star, 2-star, or 1-star reviews. I decided to search for keywords that could possibly appear in negative reviews. For Merriman’s Waimea Restaurant, I searched for the word “bland” and for the word “overpriced” as that was how we felt about their food. Right on the top came a few reviews that were concise, to the point, and written by people with less than a 100 reviews under the belt.
Next: Day 7 – Swimming with Dolphins at Hilton Waikoloa Village (Dolphin Quest [coming soon]
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