Local restaurateur and chef Mariano “Maro” Molteni—former owner of Maro Wood Grill—has taken over operations at the iconic Royal Hawaiian restaurant in Laguna Beach.
The restaurant closed for renovations on Tuesday, Jan. 22, with the goal of reopening by the end of February.
The Royal Hawaiian—established in 1947 by Harrold Hanna and Francis Cabang—most recently changed ownership in 2015 when local real estate investor Mohammad Honarkar purchased the commercial block that includes the well-known eatery. Honarkar’s management team has been operating the “tiki bar” since then.
Honarkar’s company will now act as landlord, while Molteni owns and operates the restaurant.
Hasty Honarkar, vice-president of concept creation for Laguna Creative Ventures, confirmed that the Royal Hawaiian is currently on hiatus as they consider “new opportunities to evolve the space with local restaurateur Maro Molteni, the new leasee.”
“When we acquired the famed tiki bar and restaurant in 2015, we worked hard to restore its status as a beloved local hangout,” Hasty said. “Over the last three years, we’ve made a lot of wonderful memories with our Laguna and Tiki ‘ohana. We look forward to having a Lapu Lapu when the Royal Hawaiian reopens soon!”
Locals likely recognize Molteni’s name from Maro Wood Grill, which he sold in July 2017 before returning to his native Argentina. It was back home that he was able to work with his older brother, Martin, on a number of culinary projects. Molteni returned to Laguna Beach last year, determined to find a larger restaurant space, and found what he was looking for at Honarkar’s Royal Hawaiian.
“The Royal Hawaiian is an iconic restaurant, it’s famous worldwide,” said Diane Armitage, marketing director for Molteni Kitchen. “They wanted to get somebody in here who could live up to its name and really make it work. It just hasn’t worked for the last several years—with all kinds of wonderful attempts. It just hasn’t quite clicked.”
In this new venture, Molteni will once again be working with his brother, Martin, on the Polynesian restaurant concept. Molteni has begun hiring staff, while Chef Martin is handling kitchen management decisions and the revised menu. Molteni said he’s looking forward to working with his brother, who he affectionately calls “an amazing chef.”
“When we were kids, he taught me to be a pastry chef,” Molteni recalled. He was just 17— Martin was 20 and had graduated from culinary school—and together they opened a bakery in Argentina.
“He was my mentor,” Molteni said. “Now we’re going to be doing it again after 20 plus years, and with a lot more experience. It’s going to be super.”
Molteni said his vision is to put love into the restaurant and work together with the Honarkars to create an amazing Polynesian steakhouse. He plans to clean up the interior and make it a bit more modern while keeping the same beachy, Polynesian flair.
“I believe I need them, and they need me,” he said.
Molteni said he aims to bring locals back to the Royal Hawaiian by serving up “great steak and seafood.” He and his brother will continue to pay homage to Royal Hawaiian’s Polynesian culture with wood-grilled beef, chicken, pork and seafood.
“For centuries, Hawaiians have crafted their meals over open wood fires in the great outdoors, a culinary skill that syncs beautifully with similar Argentinian heritage,” Molteni said.
Molteni noted that patrons don’t have to worry about losing their Lapu Lapu’s or Mai Tai’s—they’re not going anywhere.
But most importantly, he aims to create a sense of family again at the Royal Hawaiian. And it would seem he’s off to a good start—Molteni said about 80 percent of the staff will be comprised of locals, including well-known Laguna bartenders and mixologists, as well as high schoolers looking for work.
Even a former protégé of his, Rob Batista, who is currently working as a chef in San Francisco, heard the news and is on his way back to work for Molteni. Batista is from Laguna and learned how to grill from Molteni at Maro Wood Grill.
“The idea is to bring all of these local people back, hire local workers, and have a big living room over here,” Molteni said. “Good food, good vibes, and fun.”
The Royal Hawaiian is located at 331 N. Coast Highway.