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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nu'uanu restaurant closes doors

by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Hungry Lion, known for the huge tree growing through its dining room, fell behind on its rent and was evicted.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Waiter Bob Hopper is dwarfed by the Hungry Lion's famous banyan tree. It was planted in the 1870s by Chun Afong and is believed to be the oldest banyan growing in the Islands.

Advertiser library photo

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The last meal at the Hungry Lion was served last night.

After 27 years, the restaurant in Nu'uanu known for its mascot and a giant banyan tree rising through the dining room closed after losing battles with the tough economy and a tough landlord.

"It was rough," said Kazu Goto, who bought the restaurant in July 2007 with plans to continue running the diner at the corner of Nu'uanu Avenue and School Street in Nuuanu Shopping Plaza.

Hungry Lion had about eight years left on its lease, but fell behind on rent and was evicted by Walgreens, which bought the neighborhood retail center in May 2008 with plans to redevelop the property and further expand its presence in Hawai'i with another store.

Mitchell S. Wong, an attorney who represented Hungry Lion in the eviction case that Walgreens filed in District Court in November, said Goto tried his best to keep the restaurant open, going so far as to extend his personal finances to help save the business that employed about 15 people.

"He was hopeful to work something out with the landlord," Wong said. "It's sad."

According to court records, a judge ruled in favor of Walgreens last month, allowing the company to repossess the Hungry Lion space.

Walgreens spokesman Robert Elfinger declined to discuss the lawsuit, but said the retailer plans to build a store on the property next year. Other center tenants that include Radio Shack continue doing business, though others such as Huckleberry Farms Natural Foods and TCBY Yogurt closed over the past year.

Roy Shimonishi founded Hungry Lion in 1983 with the idea that it should have a mascot the way sports teams do. Shimonishi, a sports fan, regularly had someone dressed in a lion costume wave at passing drivers.

In 2003, Shimonishi sold the restaurant to two Japanese business investors. Goto became the third owner just as Hawai'i's economy was nearing the end of a strong expansion cycle.

Though Hungry Lion only dated to the 1980s, it had the sense of an old-fashioned coffee shop restaurant with its long operating hours (6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays), green-cushioned booths and a big menu that included pancakes, fried rice, saimin, oxtail soup, apple pie, banana splits and shakes.

What made Hungry Lion a landmark was its banyan tree, which was planted in the 1870s by Chun Afong and is believed to be the oldest banyan in Hawai'i.

The restaurant was built around the tree, which towers above the building and extends upward through the dining area in an enclosed structure painted to look like the tree's trunk.

Walgreens has committed not to harm the tree.