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Hidden down Hong Kong’s back alleys, behind unmarked doors and on the upper floors of the city’s high-rise buildings are dozens of private kitchens, speakeasies and members' only clubs.
These beloved establishments are frequented by in-the-know locals, serving as a status symbol and as a place where important occasions like birthdays or anniversaries are feted. Eating and drinking at these places is an inimitable glimpse at a side of Hong Kong life that isn't always plainly visible but is a crucial part of residents' after-hours social lives. Far from being inaccessible, though, travellers just need to know where to look -- and have the foresight to call in advance for a reservation.
The hottest bar of the moment is 001, which at street level looks like nothing more than a dimly-lit buzzer on a black door. With a strict reservations-only policy (852-2810-6969) and limited seating, this speakeasy-style watering hole forbids big groups and photography but serves up some of the best-mixed cocktails in town, such as an excellent gimlet, as well as a spot-on grilled cheese sandwich to the accompaniment of soft jazz. At nearby Jaa Bar, an intimate space designed to feel like a living room with chandeliers and upholstered couches, annual membership costs 888 Hong Kong dollars, but in return you are gifted a bottle of Veuve Clicquot worth almost that much.
Hong Kong’s members' only establishments range from achingly hip nightclubs like Privé and Volar -- defined by bottle service, thumping music and wall-to-wall crowds -- to laid-back bars, like local favourites Le Jardin and Feather Boa. Le Jardin is a semi-outdoor, trellis-covered alternative to the packed bars of the popular Lan Kwai Fong district located on the streets below, while Feather Boa lacks any sort of signage out front and serves fruity daiquiris in massive glasses with chocolate dusted rims. Visitors to the city can easily access these two bars – although they may ask you to fill out a membership form at the door, there is no charge. To avoid the annual membership fee at Privé or Volar, call ahead and book a table for a week night or early on a weekend evening.
Some restaurants, like the Ning Po Residents Association, require a nominal annual fee (around 200 Hong Kong dollars), but in return you gain access to excellent food (in this case, recipes from the city of Ningbo, near Shanghai, such as delicate, juicy soup dumplings and sweet-and-sour fish), in an exclusive but usually unpretentious setting. Residents Associations, which were originally intended as a way for Chinese immigrants to have food from their home province after settling in Hong Kong, are excellent places to try traditional, authentic and lovingly prepared food. Visitors to the city should ask their hotel to make a reservation; when you get there you can pay the membership fee and the meal in one go.
Essentially restaurants that are located in refurbished apartments, private kitchens usually seat a small number of guests and cater to groups. With lower rents and less stringent licensing regulations than regular restaurants, these private kitchens are favoured not only by chefs but by customers looking for affordable and authentic dining options. They tend to offer set menus with BYO wine in an atmospheric setting, but some allow you to order a la carte. Some specialise in Cantonese food, which is the local fare, but Hong Kong's many private kitchens serve up a wide range of cuisines, from Sichuan and modern Shanghainese fusion to Cajun and French. (One restaurant is even on a boat.) Reservations are required for all private kitchens and can usually be made in English.
For all these special eateries, bookings are required, often weeks in advance. And sometimes, as is the case with the increasingly prevalent mobile supper clubs, you might not even be able to pin down their location. Even better -- especially for lovers of the private-dining experience, always on the hunt for the next hidden secret -- new ones keep cropping up.
Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel