A Brief History of Plate Lunches in Hawaii

Though poke is now a “thing” on the mainland, here in Hawaii the plate lunch is still king. So what is a plate lunch? Simply, a plate lunch is a scoop of macaroni salad, two scoops or rice and some sort of protein. Popular proteins include chicken katsu (fried chicken breasts or thighs, pictured above), kalua pig, shrimp, kalbi ribs, pork lau lau and of course, loco moco. Most places also serve a “mini” plate, which includes just one scoop of rice and cut-down portion of the meat.

It’s believed plate lunches originated during the 1880s in the pineapple and sugar plantations. Workers would bring bento boxes for lunch that consisted of leftovers from the previous evening, usually fish or meat, which were then supplemented with rice to make the meals more filling. From these humble beginnings came food carts and trucks. The carts visited the fields every afternoon allowing the workers to purchase inexpensive plates full of food. It was during this time that the moniker “plate lunch” was attached. A simple mac salad, made with mayonnaise and salt and pepper, was added to the plate around this time.

Though the plantation era ended in the 1950s, plate lunches were here to stay. Diners and drive-ins thrived selling plate lunches. Throughout the islands, L&L Drive-In is a popular joint for cheap and tasty plate lunches. But if you want try one of the original plate lunch drive-ins, head over to Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu. They still serve their meals using a plate covered in wax paper and held together with a rubber band.

In general, if you’re on a diet or trying to reduce your carbs, steer clear of plate lunches. But if you’re with a group who wants to indulge, there are some lower calorie options available, like grilled shrimp and grilled chicken breasts. Most places will allow you to replace the mac salad with a green salad. That said, if you really want to go for it, we recommend you start with a classic loco moco. Loco moco is basically a heart attack on a plate: two scoops of rice topped with a hamburger patty and a couple of fried eggs, smothered in brown gravy.

No matter your order, plate lunches are a staple in Hawaii. Here on Maui, these are our favorite plate lunches. But wherever you choose to indulge, you really can’t go wrong. We’ve never had a bad plate lunch!

Let us know your favorite places in the comments below…