Plate Lunch consists of popular Hawaii dishes like chicken katsu, shoyu chicken, hamburger steak, along with scoops of rice and mac salad...all in one big plate. Here’s everything you need to know about Plate Lunch and where to eat it.
What Is Plate Lunch?
Plate Lunch is a classic Hawaii meal.
The typical plate lunch includes:
- Two scoops rice
- Once scoop macaroni salad
- Meat entree
It's called Plate Lunch because everything is piled together in one plate. Plate lunch is convenient, delicious, and affordable...can't beat that combo ^_^
We have plate lunch on a pretty frequent basis. Whether you're getting a quick meal to-go, or meeting up with friends, meeting up at a plate lunch spot is easy and there's always something on the menu for everyone.
Types Of Plate Lunch
Plate Lunch is the "main" category and the catchall term.
There are three subcategories within Plate Lunch. They include:
- Local Plate Lunch - Also just called, "Plate Lunch." This is the focus of today's post.
- Hawaiian Plate Lunch - Full post here.
- Korean Plate Lunch - Full post here.
Origins Of The Plate Lunch
Where did plate lunch come from?
Plate lunch is a local Hawaii evolution of the Japanese bento.
Like many local dishes (including saimin, Spam musubi, shave ice, etc), the plate lunch was created during Hawaii's plantation era. Many of the people working on the plantations came from parts of Asia, and rice was the foundation of their lunch meals. The rice was topped with a meat dish, and packed into a container they could take to work on the sugar plantations. Plate lunch has that same packaged takeaway concept like the bento.
The mac salad part was added later on - we have local influences to thank for that (plus it goes so good with rice and gravy). The green salad part is a much newer add on (because we are all trying to eat healthier now haha).
Plate lunch continued to live on after the plantation days came to an end. Post-plantation days, plate lunch was commonly served from lunch wagons. Nowadays plate lunch is served at many local restaurants that range from small family run spots to bigger chains with many locations.
Who eats plate lunch? Everyone! It's a popular takeout meal for office workers, construction people, people on vacation, and even students and grandparents. Everyone loves plate lunch.
Local Plate Lunch Is The Default
When someone says "plate lunch" and doesn't specify which type, they are referring to Local Plate Lunch.
When we say "let's get a plate lunch," we actually mean, "let's get a local plate lunch." If we want Hawaiian or Korean Plate Lunch, we'll specify the Hawaiian or Korean part. The default is Local Plate Lunch.
To make things more confusing, sometimes visitors ask for a "Hawaiian Plate Lunch," but it turns out they're actually looking for a local plate lunch!
Why does this mixup happen? People confuse "Hawaiian" with "Hawaii." Hawaiian is a culture with its own type of food. Hawaii is a place.
Visitors want a Hawaii-style plate lunch (aka Local Plate Lunch), but when they say "Hawaiian Plate Lunch," we think you're looking for a Hawaiian spot!
What applies for food also applies for people. I am born and raised Hawaii, but I'm not technically a Hawaiian person (because I don't have Hawaiian ancestry).
Note: in the last few decades, more people have been saying that if you're originally from Hawaii (or have lived there for a long time), you should be able to call yourself Hawaiian (essentially, to use the word "Hawaiian" the way people use the words "New Yorker" or "Californian"). It's neat to see both points of view. All I know is that I'm very grateful to be from Hawaii ^_^
What's In A Local Plate Lunch?
All the good local dishes! Think loco moco, chicken katsu, hamburger steak, etc. Let's take a closer look here...
Starch (Both Items)
- Rice - Usually 2 scoops of rice.
- Macaroni Salad - Usually 1 scoop of mac salad. Full post about mac salad here.
Meat (Pick One)
- Hamburger Steak
- Chicken Katsu
- Shoyu Chicken - So easy to make at home, recipe here.
- Loco Moco - Full post about Loco Moco here.
- BBQ Beef / Teri Beef (Beef Teriyaki)
- BBQ Chicken / Teri Chicken (Chicken Teriyaki)
- Mahi Mahi
- Chili - We eat chili with rice in Hawaii.
- Mix Plate (will include multiple meat options)
Greens (Substitution Option)
- Salad - Some places have the option of replacing rice and/or macaroni with a tossed green salad.
Where To Eat Plate Lunch
There are endless places to get plate lunch in Hawaii. This list will get you off to a good start.
Note: All plate lunch places are casual. Some are super casual and others serve slightly fancier type plate lunch (but in a still very casual atmosphere).
Diamond Head Market and Grill (Oahu)
I get the loco moco or mix plate here. Mix plate includes hamburger steak with onions and gravy, char siu, and teri chicken. All with rice and mac salad. Make sure to visit the attached market/bakery next door for snacks. They have everything from Spam musubi to butter mochi, pumpkin crunch, and those famous blueberry cream cheese scones. Full post on Diamond Head Market and Grill here.
Rainbow Drive-In (Oahu)
Rainbow's has been around forever. People love coming here post-beach, post-hike, etc. Make sure you visit the original location on Kapahulu Avenue. I like the chili plate (we make good chili in Hawaii, always served over rice) and the slush float (which is a strawberry drink with vanilla ice cream).
Gochi Grill (Oahu)
I love getting lunch from Gochi Grill whenever I'm downtown. They always run so many good specials but 90% of the time I default to the chicken katsu plate...it is super onolicious! Simple and no frills but just so, so good. You get two scoops rice, one scoop of an excellent mac salad, and one of my favorite chicken katsu. Make sure to also check the daily specials. Parking is a hassle downtown, but definitely do not miss this plate lunch.
I first mentioned Feast in our Manoa Eating Guide. Manoa is one of my favorite residential neighborhoods on Oahu. It's peaceful and serene, and filled with lots of great food. This is one of the "fancier" types of plate lunch plates. I get the Deluxe which is a combo of hamburger steak and fried chicken with mushroom gravy poured all over. Come with rice and "keto mac salad" made with cauliflower instead of elbow pasta. Look out for the daily desserts, and make sure to get the pumpkin crunch.
Pioneer Saloon (Oahu)
Pioneer Saloon applies a fun Japanese twist and aesthetics to the local plate lunch. The menu is huge and offers many plate lunch options. My go-to items are the mochiko chicken plate and the ginger chicken plate. I also really like the beef tongue stew and local moco. Pick between white rice or mixed grain rice. In place of mac salad, they serve a light pasta salad or green salad.
Hamada General Store (Oahu)
Many good options on the Hamada General Store menu. I've had everything from the katsu curry moco (think pork katsu meets local moco with curry in place of the gravy) to the wafu hamburger steak. The potato-mac salad is great. They also have a 4x2 breakfast which includes bacon, Spam, Portuguese sausage, and link sausage. Comes with rice and eggs any style. It's Hawaii's classic Spam, Eggs, and Rice breakfast, intensified.