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.
R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel