The Willows Restaurant was a beautiful garden restaurant first opened in 1944. There were "grass shack" type eating areas and lush gardens. The first time I went there in the '80s, the highlight of the night were the roving Hawaiian musicians.
By this time, however, the place seemed to be kind of run down and the food was, quite literally, forgettable. I could not give you the faintest hint of what I ate. Not surprisingly, the restaurant closed down in 1993. Six years later, under new management, the restaurant re-opened with significant upgrades, both in decor and food. It became the standard by which all other Hawaiian oriented buffets were compared. All the food that you would expect to find at a luau was there - poi, kalua pig, laualau, lomi lomi salmon, chicken long rice, poke - plus local and buffet favorites like crab, barbecue chicken with teriyaki, multi-ethnic salad bar, carving station, and a table filled with desserts, such as pies (such as macadamia nut cream pie), cakes (especially haupia cake), and frozen yogurt. There also were Japanese dishes such as sushi, tempura and a soba bar where you can make your own noodle bowl.
The Willows is celebrating its ten year anniversary since re-opening. Becky's sister's family is visiting, so we all went to the Willows last night. For the month of August (and according to the waitress, perhaps even longer), there is a special tenth anniversary price: $24.95, which is $10 dollars below the regular price. This is definitely a good deal. You figure that at a conventional sit-down restaurant, the cheapest appetizer, entree, and dessert combination would equal or exceed $25. Throw in all you can eat, and it is a bargain.
An approximately 30% reduction in price, however, comes at a different kind of price. Becky and I independently thought the buffet was smaller, maybe by as much as 30%. The Japanese food was mostly gone (there was some nigiri sushi), and a lot of other items weren't there. The dessert table, while still good, didn't have as much as before (notably absent: Ted's Bakery chocolate haupia pie). The haupia cake was the best selection that evening.
But the all you can eat ahi limu poke (which I could get back my dinner price on that alone) was still there, the Hawaiian food in general was still good, and there's plenty to eat. Of special note: the server we had could not have been more friendly, attentive, or accommodating.
It's still a great deal, and the food is still good, and we're very grateful to have been hosted by Becky's sister's family, but it was a tick under the experience of previous visits over the last ten years. I would still recommend it at $25 per person, but not at $35, unless they restore the items omitted.
Grace and aloha,
P. S. "Hawaii Aloha" is a standard way to end occasions in Hawaii. Here's a link to a YouTube video of the song featuring Bruddah Iz (the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, whose version of "Over the Rainbow" has become nearly as beloved as Judy Garland's): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_17vGYa81s
What many people don't know is that the words to "Hawaii Aloha" were written by the Rev. Lorenzo Lyons, a Congregational Church pastor, and that the tune was originally written for the Christian hymn "I Left It All with Jesus," composed by James McGranahan. King Kamehameha IV liked the hymn-tune so much that he commissioned Rev. Lyons to write the new words.
When "Hawaii Aloha" is sung, it is customary to hold hands during the singing and raise them at the end of the last chorus. At our church, we sing "Hawaii Aloha" on the first Sunday of the month when we have Holy Communion, a fitting symbol of the community always formed by the Grace of Christ.