Driving into Paia, I just knew that I would like Eric “Chewy” Cereceres, the new chef at Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon.

I heard that he has excelled in restaurants from the Big Apple to the Virgin Islands. But the real reason I knew I’d like him is that he goes by the same name as my beloved dog, Chewy. Plus, Charley’s, a landmark in Paia for more than four decades, was named after original owner Jim Fuller’s Harlequin Great Dane.

Let me assure you – I’m certainly NOT implying that Charley’s has gone to the dogs. In fact, after we were seated in one of the many booths, we sank our teeth into some of the best food to come out of its kitchen in a long time.

“We are excited that Chef Chewy joined our team in early November,” says owner Jonathan Herman, who bought it from Fuller in August of 2011.

“Chewy was most recently the executive chef at Hali’imaile General Store, and he has greatly improved our menu, offerings and consistency. He’s met our goal at Charley’s to provide quality, local and fresh food at an affordable price for the people who live in Maui full time and for the visitors that join us each year.”

This is good news, because Wednesday, the competition got stiffer with the opening next door of the much-anticipated Rock & Brews by Kiss.

Charley’s is certainly barking up the right tree with its exciting new menu. Of course, breakfast has always been a popular staple, but the rest of the menu needed a little work, and Chewy did it justice.

“We’re making some nice strides,” says Chewy, who moved here sight unseen as his wife’s family is from Maui and she wanted to be near them. “I have had one and a half months under my belt, and the menu is being really well received so far.”

“Breakfast continues to be a great time of day at Charley’s with our pancakes as good as they have ever been,” adds Herman. “We also are thrilled about our banana, mac-nut and caramel French toast. A new healthful addition is our tofu scramble served with griddled tempeh ‘bacon.’ “

Sundays, the Bloody Mary Bar is all the rage from 7 to 11 a.m. The house pours your choice of vodka or tequila (Bloody Maria) and you get the glass and add your choice of two kinds of mixes, including one that is housemade. You’ll also find pepperoncini, pickles, olives, Tabasco, Worcestershire, horseradish, A-1 and varied hot sauces of the week. What fun!

“We continue to strive to make almost everything from scratch,” says Herman. “We use as much locally sourced products as possible. We have also added a number of healthy vegetarian and vegan options to the menu.”

Salads come in appetizer and entree portions. Even the small ones are big enough to share when you order other items. We loved the Haiku baby greens blend with quinoa, smoked paprika roasted pepitas, roasted local pumpkin and herb goat cheese with creamy fresh Maui papaya dressing.

The Haiku baby greens is one of the signature dishes, noted with the Great Dane icon next to it on the menu. Other signature dishes we tried that had our tongues wagging with delight were poke style steak bites with cilantro, red onions and tomato; and the crispy and juicy buttermilk fried chicken with applewood-smoked bacon doughnut and jalapeno maple glaze. Let me tell you, fried chicken doesn’t get any better than this on the entire island.

Servers Anne Holmes and mother, Linda Chestnut, are part of the team who have been there for years and make you feel right at home.

“For lunch and dinner, our locally raised, all-natural half-pound Hawaii Ranchers burger is amazing,” says Herman. “We also use Hawaii Ranchers beef for our new roast beef Philly cheese steak sandwich. We have added pineapple teriyaki ahi poke and roasted garlic black bean hummus, too.”

During dinner, do save room for Chewy’s new citrus mango mahimahi ceviche and shrimp and Portuguese sausage jambalaya.

In addition to the stellar new menu and island vibe, Charley’s remains a world-famous Maui music venue nightly. Do check it out. Charley’s is definitely man’s (and woman’s) best friend in Paia.