After 43 years, Longhi’s on Front Street closes doors

Not enough business, says owner; other restaurants remain open

The original Longhi’s Italian and seafood restaurant with its open doors and signature black and white tiles along Lahaina’s Front Street closed Tuesday after 43 years.

“We couldn’t keep it going. We weren’t doing enough business, plain and simple,” said Peter Longhi, owner and son of the late founder Bob Longhi, who began the business in 1976.

“The labor market is super tough now,” he said Tuesday. “During busy times, couldn’t get enough staff. If you’re losing money every month, it gets to the point where we couldn’t go on.”

Longhi said the family’s two other restaurants, Longhi’s Wailea and Longhi’s Ko Olina on Oahu, are “doing well” and remain open.

“We’re going to keep serving Longhi’s food. Some employees are transferring. Unfortunately, we’re not in Lahaina anymore. I remember, I opened the door on the first day of business, and now I’ve closed it on the last day, too,” Longhi said.

The restaurant has even been frequented by celebrities from winemaker Robert Mondavi to Hall of Fame basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“We’ll definitely miss it in Lahaina town; it was an institution,” said Sne Patel, president of the LahainaTown Action Committee.

Patel, who was “in shock” when he found out Tuesday morning about the closing, said he will miss the Lobster Longhi, “the best dish in town.”

“It felt like an endless supply of pasta, and it was an amazing moment when they bought that and plopped it on that table,” Patel recalled.

He also had fond memories dancing upstairs at the restaurant, which he did in his “younger days.”

“Surely, it is going to be missed. It was a favorite for locals and tourists alike,” Patel added. “A lot of the employees, they were like family. I know it’s going to be a tough time for them as (they) found out.”

Server Robin Johnson said that she was “shocked” to hear the announcement. Unlike other restaurants where she’s been employed, workers would have a hint when there was an imminent closing.

The Longhi’s closing was unexpected, she said.

“I’m fortunate I have a night job in Kaanapali,” she said, while employees were cleaning the restaurant after breakfast service and the announcement.

Workers were offered positions in Longhi’s Wailea restaurant, Johnson said. She didn’t expect many Longhi’s Lahaina employees to transfer because many live in West Maui.

She estimated that there were fewer than 20 employees at the Lahaina restaurant.

Johnson, who has been at the restaurant since last year, said that many longtime employees worked in the evenings. One cook goes back to when Bob Longhi took over the restaurant that was the former Capt. Jack’s Family Restaurant at 888 Front St.

She will miss the oceanfront view, as well as the food. She was a customer as well.

Bob Longhi was an insurance agent with “a larger than life personality” who brought his employees from New York City to Maui in March 1976 for a one-week vacation.

The second night of the vacation, Bob Longhi walked into Capt. Jack’s and asked the owner if he knew of any restaurants for sale. The owner said his building was, according to Longhi’s cookbook, “Longhi’s: Recipes and Reflections from Maui’s Most Opinionated Restaurateur,” published in 1998.

Peter Longhi said Tuesday that his father ate a “crappy Greek salad” at Capt. Jack’s, a day before his 43rd birthday. Then he bought the restaurant later that year.

Bob Longhi got out of the insurance business and opened Longhi’s Cafe in December 1976. Later, he shortened the name to Longhi’s.

Bob Longhi described himself as a “good cook” and said his cooking skills blossomed after receiving a cookbook as a Christmas present. He created all the Longhi’s recipes himself, such as the Italian specialties linguine with clams, Lobster Longhi and tiramisu.

After Bob Longhi’s death in 2012, Peter Longhi ran the Maui restaurants with his siblings.

“We made it to 43 years, right up to what would have been Bob’s 86th birthday,” Peter Longhi said.

Lahaina resident Sara Gadarian, who went to Longhi’s almost every Sunday for jazz and even sponsored some special jazz events at the restaurant, said “it was a good run.”

“It was just always the place to have good food and good music, and we will miss it,” she said.

Gadarian and her late husband, Blackie, owned Blackie’s Bar, which was also a jazz club. After Blackie’s was sold, she ventured elsewhere for jazz and eventually ended up at Longhi’s.

She also liked the food. “The veal was just lovely, besides the seafood, the scallops, excellent.”

She enjoyed the artichoke with lemon butter and Parmesan, pastas and the calamari was the “real one, not that calamari steak.”

She also remembered the verbal menu that servers would recite to customers from memory.

“There were lot of specialties people kept coming back for,” she said.

The restaurant left its customers a thank you and farewell message on its Facebook page Tuesday afternoon.

“We have had the most amazing journey, we are so grateful for each and every one of you who have passed through our doors, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts, but it is time to say goodbye.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com. Carla Tracy and be reached at carlatracy@mauinews.com.