A long lost Honolulu landmark: M’s Coffee Tavern

James P. YongeHere’s another random photo I came across this week in my mother’s “stuff.” It’s my uncle, my mom’s younger brother, dated 1949.

To get a better look, just click on the photo to see a larger version.

Where was it taken? There are two landmarks shown. The sign on the wall behind him reads “M’s Coffee Tavern”, and across the street, in the background, is a low-rise building with a large “Star-Bulletin” sign.

Both those provided crucial clues.

According to one local website:

Famous for its coconut cream pie, M’s stood on Merchant Street in the location of what is now the Financial Plaza of the Pacific. “M” was originally Emma Millikin, who opened the restaurant in 1920. She later sold to, conveniently, Kenneth Emerson, and yes, you are correct! EMerson also operated two other landmark eateries, M’s Garden Buffet in downtown, and M’s Ranch House, which once stood in Aina Haina.

I found several items from M’s Coffee Tavern listed on ebay, including this placemap map of downtown Honolulu.

collectible placemat

The Star-Bulletin building was another key landmark. It was on Merchant Street, across on the makai side of the street. M’s Coffee Tavern was across on the mauka side.

[text]Here’s the Star-Bulletin building in 1912. The evening newspaper was housed here until 1962, when it entered into a joint operating agreement with the Honolulu Advertiser.

I believe that when my uncle’s picture was taken, he was working on Matson ships. He started on freighters, then moved to the passenger liners that cruised the Hawaii route. He spent a number of years as chief purser on the Mariposa, and was chief purser on the last voyage of the last of the famous white liners which once sailed under the Matson flag, and later were operated by Pacific Far East Lines.

He was always my favorite. He (and his friends, including local comedian Kent Bowman) were the best story tellers i had ever heard as a kid, and may still hold that rank in my memory. When they would visit my parents, the liquor would be broken out of the closet, and I would try my best to hang around and laugh at the tall tales. He did drink a bit, and after we graduated from college, he drank us under the table on several long evenings when his ship was in town.

And could he write! Every letter I’ve found of his is a small and wonderful piece of art. More on those later!

Unfortunately, he died in Portola, California, in 1994 at age 73. Far too early to lose one so talented. We scattered his ashes around the Diamond Head buoy. Late in life, my mother decided to sell her cemetery plot alongside her parents in Nuuanu and join Jimmy out at sea. That’s another thing to look forward to.

14 responses to “A long lost Honolulu landmark: M’s Coffee Tavern

  1. Correction, Ian. The Star-Bulletin building fronted on Merchant Street across from M’s, as is shown on the underlying site for the lower photo. The S-B staff (and neighboring Big 5 employes) took their coffee breaks at M’s every morning and most afternoons where the majority of news tips and gossip originated in those days. There was a cop who use to lay in wait when Editor Riley Allen crossed the street to M’s so he could ticket him for jay walking, much to his fury since traffic was so light! Nobody else seemed to get tickets. The Stagenwald (sp?) building next door housed AP and the Hilo Trib’s bureaus. It was a convenient location to cover business (the stock exchange was on the ewa corner of the block) and the cops (two blocks down) in those days as well as catching the pilot tug to the Matson passenger ships entering the harbor in order to grab celebrity interviews before they docked on “boat day.”

  2. Constantinos Papacostas

    The old Star-Bulletin Building is on Merchant Street next to the Stangenwald building.

    When completed in 1901, the six-story Stangenwald was among those that the local newspapers described as “skyscrapers!”

    Another “skyscraper” was the Boston Building on Fort Street. See my October 2012 article:


    An excerpt:

    {The December 7, 1899 issue of the Hawaiian Star [HS] placed the four story (with basement) Boston in the company of other “marks of the city” such as the still-standing Judd and Stangenwald buildings. These “skyscrapers of Honolulu” were described as reaching “higher than any other objects on shore and give the city a very progressive appearance” to passengers “far out at sea.”}

  3. Haven’t thought about M’s for a long time, but I do recall that it was an occasional – and very special – destination for meals away from home when I was a kid.

  4. I think that was when the Star-Bulletin was housed in the old Stangenwald Bldg. on Merchant, (I think next door to the Reyn’s outlet)

  5. As I thought I would when you told us your Mom had passed, I’m enjoying the nuggets you are sharing from the archeological dig at her house.

    Couple things:

    I know it’s a little late but, if you can, try to take note of the proximity of some of these things to each other, especially as you get down to the older “layers.” A shot from your iPhone capturing the physical relationship between objects may later provide clues as to the meaning of each. Your mother knew the relationships, but she has taken the map with her!

    Also, your description of the location of the Star-Bulletin building and Mr. Papacostas’ post has left me a bit confused. Richards Street runs basically mauka/makai, as shown on the placemat map, so Richards has an ewa and diamndhead “side” but not a mauka and makai one. So, maybe Mr. Papacostas is right and what is pictured is Merchant street (which runds basically ewa-diamondhead) with the Star-Bulletin on the opposite/mauka side of the street. But, then, the placemat would be wrong because it shows M’s Tavern sign on the mauka side of Richards but the phot shows the sign on what would be the makai side of Merchant. Help, I’m confused!

    • Constantinos Papacostas

      The old Star-Bulletin Building and the Stangenwald next to it are on the makai side of Merchant Street.

    • Constantinos Papacostas

      Some additional points of reference:

      The building on the other side of the old Star-Bulletin building in the background of the photograph of Ian’s uncle is the Alexander & Baldwin Building at the ewa-makai corner of Bishop and Merchant Streets.

      The building next the the Strangenwald in the 1912 photograph is the Judd Building at the waikiki-makai corner of Merchant Street and Fort.

  6. At what point did M’s move across the street and down a little alley off of Merchant Street?

  7. Was on a field trip to the Star-Bulletin Bldg. when the vote for Hawaii Statehood came through on the teletype (I think it was called that). Was a most memorable field trip and I would think about it from time to time when I walked passed the bldg. during my “working” years. Thanks for sharing all these great photos from your mom’s collection. Really a trip down memory lane.

  8. Oh good grief, is this memory lane day? M’s was also down the lande next to the Castle and Cooke bldg. where I worked a zillion years ago – loved their sandwiches. Your uncle and Kent B. would have been coming into C&C on business since Matson was a subsidiary and ran the waterfront. C & C also owned Kohala Sugar, Ewa and Waialua plantations, Dole Cannery, Hawaiian Equipment Co., etc., etc. Maybe HC&S in Aiea. Days of the Big Five! Genie Pitchford hung out with my Dad’s youngest brother and things were always lively when they were around. jk

  9. I frequented M’s Coffee Shop almost daily while working at First Federal Savings & Loan across the street! M’s had the best Coconut Cream pie ever!

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