Create, eat, repeat
Hollywood Road is in the tangled old heart of Hong Kong. It snakes along the lower slopes of Victoria Peak, around the feet of high-rise condos that totter up the hillside with ever more desirable views over the harbour. Long known as a centre for antiques and fine art, it was reinvigorated when the PMQ creative hub opened in 2014.
It is the ribbon that ties together a patchwork of communities. The ‘Ho’ of Hollywood is used to define the districts on either side of the road: SoHo south of Hollywood and NoHo on the other side, each with its own dining scene. Their younger sibling PoHo is the area around Po Hing Fong street at the western end of Hollywood Road. It found its feet in the mid-2010s as the kind of place where ‘yuccies’ (young urban creatives) go for modern cooking and contemporary art. Alas, its galleries have fizzled out, unable to compete in an industry as cut-throat as the city’s F&B scene.
But the art stayed in PoHo: it simply moved to the streets. Today, walls and doors and lamp posts are crowded with street art, and it’s not just spray paint graffiti and tags. There are ‘invaders’ (that’s 3D or mosaic art), ‘slaps’ (or stickers) and stencils, and ‘yarn bombs’ (guerrilla knitting!) too.
Little PoHo is buzziest on Sundays, when people selfie the street art before sharing lunch (on social media, that is) at the area’s eclectic eateries, such as Frantzen’s Kitchen, a Scandi restaurant on a corner plot that coolly looks both ways: to its Nordic roots and to Asian moods and ingredients. Think ‘sashimi of Norwegian salmon’.
Nearby, Mrs Pound is an Instagram-worthy speakeasy with an intriguing line in retro-diner dishes and a secretive facade that resembles an old Chinese name stamp shop. And around the corner on Hollywood Road, Chachawan does earthy larbs and gai yang (grilled chicken) as unselfconsciously as anywhere in Thailand’s Isan region.
Chachawan is one of a string of restaurants run by Yenn Wong. With a reputation for eye-catching spaces offering authentic cooking, she has successfully joined forces with British chef Jason Atherton on several ventures. Wong also brought in locally born, French-trained David Lai to be culinary director at Fish School, her restaurant that championed local seafood.
“People want a direct connection with their food,” Lai tells me, “To know who caught it, how it was caught, that the fishermen’s livelihood is secure.” Alas, Hong Kong restaurants are no less vulnerable. Wong and Lai couldn’t make Fish School viable, despite their wealth of creative and business talent, so it sold up. Pedigree can’t fight the brute force of Hong Kong’s high prices and saturated market.
Lai gets satisfaction from hand-picking ingredients, changing a menu weekly, and making daily specials from small quantities – a process that he can make work at Neighborhood, his restaurant (off a lane off Hollywood Road) that opened a year before Fish School, in 2014. This year at 37th spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, it’s still getting nods and, more importantly, its fill of customers.
I follow Lai across the harbour to the Nelson Street wet market on the steamy streets of Mongkok. The chef looks at home, chatting with stallholders and buying handfuls of whatever takes his eye. We then sit and chat in a greasy-spoon café while the kitchen flash-fries seafood for us.
“With restaurant space so tight, costs so high, with customers questioning where and especially what they eat, you learn to be efficient,” says Lai. This brings Lai’s first venture to mind.
Fish School was situated on the edge of Sai Ying Pun, a graffiti-tinged grid of streets two stops from Kennedy Town on the west of Hong Kong Island. Its neighbor, Locofama, an organic restaurant that sources as much produce as possible locally, is now in its sixth year.
According to founder Larry Tang, it wasn’t a “calculated, strategic move” to set up a little out of the main action, but they have never underestimated links with the local community—on Sundays, for example, Locofama hosts pet adoption events—and they adapt the menu to their regulars’ changing tastes. “People like Hong Kong flavours again these days.”
Tang concedes that if a business is to succeed, part of the battle is won if it’s positioned at the heart of a district.
Try telling that to Charlene Hua. Her Africa Coffee and Tea (ACT) café is on the 15th floor of an office high-rise on the seemingly ‘wrong’ side of Wong Chuk Hang. ‘WCH’ is a workaday district in the south of Hong Kong Island, a box-park of 1960s and 1970s warehouses and multi-occupant factory buildings. It was a little out of the way – until the South Island transit line arrived in 2016 – but that was part of its arty allure. Galleries and design agencies opened there at the turn of the decade, followed by a handful of restaurants, then hotels.
Despite first appearances, WCH is rather easy to eat your way through, from stalls in Nam Long Shan Road market, via chain restaurants, to the occasional pop-up and private dining experience. The moment you take a seat in ACT café, though, you realise that this is indeed the very best side of WCH. It has sweeping views of Aberdeen’s typhoon harbour (plus iconic old-school floating restaurant Jumbo). Hua wanted a coffee business that traded directly with growers. So, she went to Africa and came back with some beans and a love for the continent. Eventually, she opened ACT, where apart from a superior cup of joe, they also serve up moreish food such as ‘rolex’ (a chapati-like flatbread from Uganda rolled around meat or fish and salad).
Farther along Heung Yip Road, Sensory Zero manages to juggle the coffee/café concept too, so that whether you’re simply after a ristretto or a Japanese risotto, it fits the bill. The mixed-use space also works as a shop and a martial arts dojo – ‘Sensory Fight Club’ – where karate, Muay Thai and Thump boxing classes give diners a floor show.
Co-founder Alvin Hui can often be found in a judo scrum (he’s a fourth-dan black belt as well as Japanese rice-quality grader!) He knows the value of building a fighting-fit business as the twenty-twenties loom: places to eat and drink that are adaptable, creative and worth talking about.
- The best months to visit Hong Kong are November to February – the skies are bluer and the air cooler too.
- Hong Kong covers more than 1,100 square kilometres – go hiking in the New Territories’ country parks, head to the beach, or take a trip to Lamma or Cheung Chau islands for a harbourside lunch.
- The transport system is extensive and efficient – invest in an Octopus prepaid smart card so you can easily tap on and off the MTR subway, light railways, buses, minibuses, trams and ferries.
- Parts of Central district, beaches, parks and public transport can be especially busy on Sundays – plan your visit during the week when they can be quieter.
- English is widely spoken, but saying ‘thank you’ in the local Cantonese dialect goes a long way – it’s romanised as m̀hgòi but sounds like mm-goy.
- Do not miss the dim sum, particularly popular for breakfast or an early lunch but sometimes available 24 hours. If someone tops up your tea cup, the local way to give thanks is to tap the table a few times with your fore and middle fingers.
- It may be warm (even hot) at times on the streets – if necessary, be prepared to carry a cardigan or overshirt, as air-conditioning in malls and restaurants can sometimes be set to freezer levels!