3 Cutting-Edge Hong Kong Restaurant Designers
In Hong Kong's ultra-competitive restaurant scene, groundbreaking design is the magic touch lighting up the city's dining landscape. By KISSA CASTAÑEDA-MCDERMOTT.
Published on Jan 4, 2017
IT TAKES A LOT OF MOXY to open a bar or restaurant in Hong Kong. For every success story like fine-dining Amber or hipper-than-thou Yardbird, there are dozens that vanish in months, barely making a dent in the city's crowded culinary market.
In an era when we eat with our eyes (and invariably phones) first, it's not surprising that good design has become what sets a place apart. Here we profile three Hong Kong-based studios whose works propel restaurants to even greater heights, and ask the designers to reveal a few of their tactics and tricks of the trade.
1. DESIGN FIRM: NC DESIGN & ARCHITECTURE
SPECIALITY: SPEAKEASY STYLE
Sometimes to stand out you need to blend in. This strategy proved fruitful for two speakeasy-style establishments in Hong Kong, Mrs. Pound (drinks for two HK$220) and Foxglove (drinks for two HK$280), both of which caused a social media stir when they opened thanks to their hidden-in-plain-sight novelty. ncda.biz.
Foxglove's sleek and well-stocked bar. Courtesy of Foxglove.
TACTIC 1: BUILD A MYSTERY
In 2014, Mrs. Pound drew crowds through a playful take on their surroundings of Sheung Wan's Hollywood Road area, which is lined with galleries and boutiques retailing Chinese antiques. Concealed behind the façade of a traditional stamp shop is a bar and restaurant with a whimsical interior reflecting the fictional story of a certain Mrs. Pound. Part of the fun was figuring out how to gain entry via pressing a particular stamp. "Our design philosophy centers around developing new ways for people to interact with their world," explains Nelson Chow, founder of NC Design & Architecture. By playing this teasing game, he was able to toy with the public's curiosity and desire for discovery, creating the feeling of an in-the-know elite clientele.
Mrs. Pound's hidden entrance. Courtesy of Mrs. Pound.
TACTIC 2: MASTER MISDIRECTION
From the outside of Foxglove, all you can see is a beautiful umbrella store with a window display not too different from the Berluti boutique down the road. "The idea of hiddenness and attraction helped create this tension between wanting to be seen as well as remaining invisible," Chow stresses. "The duality of purposes enabled us to create an intriguing misdirection."
The vintage-themed façade sets the tone for the dramatic interior inspired by the golden ages of transportation (think: plush private planes, opulent train carriages, and elegant automobiles from eras bygone). "Design is about reinventing space to help create meaningful connections," Chow says.
2. DESIGN FIRM: JOYCE WANG
SPECIALITY: VISUAL STORIES
In the unveiling of a new restaurant, the chef's culinary pedigree usually takes center stage, but not when it's designed by Joyce Wang. The acclaimed architect and designer often gets equal billing with the chef, a well-deserved accolade if you consider how much she brings to the table. From the cinematic Ammo (dinner for two HK$750) to the mesmerizing Mott 32 (dinner for two HK$800), which was named World Interior of the Year in 2014 at the Inside Festival in Singapore, Wang creates polished spaces that transport and enthrall. joycewang.com.
Polished chrome at Ammo. Courtesy of Ammo.
TACTIC 1: FOCUS ON DETAILS
A meticulously crafted narrative influences each and every element in Wang's interiors. At Mott 32, she turned an unfavorable basement location into a desirable den that merges Chinese touches and British colonial references, imparting Hong Kong's richly layered history into the 700-square-meter space. The bar takes after a traditional Chinese apothecary, there's a private room devoted to mah-jongg, and the rope-and-chain motif celebrates the city's origin as a fishing village.
For Ammo, one of her first projects in Hong Kong, inspiration was two-fold: the design was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville as well as informed by its location at Asia Society, a heritage site that was formerly a ballistics compound. Wang employed glass and concrete, and a modernist approach in her design, as a reference to the film noir's futuristic plot. The architectural setting of Asia Society played a large role; the floor-to-ceiling windows helped create a cocoon within the larger structure and Wang's use of copper throughout channels the building's military past.
Joyce Wang's award-winning interiors at Mott 32. Courtesy of Mott 32.
TACTIC 2: DO IT YOURSSELF
"Everything we do is custom-made, from the tables and bar chairs down to the lighting," Wang says. Bespoke lighting, in particular, is one of Wang's calling cards and the use of gleaming metals and stunning lighting has become the studio's signature. At Isono (prices vary by tasting menu), which hosts new guest chefs each month, she built a lighting installation above the circular bar area that is a curious rendition of fluorescent tubes. At Rhoda (dinner for two HK$500) in the up-and-coming district of Sai Wan, she transformed washing machine drums into a dazzling upcycled chandelier. Of course, knowing exactly where to shine the spotlight is at the heart of the work and here she decided, "Rhoda is all about Nate," Wang says, referring to Rhoda's chef Nathan Green. She took inspiration from Green's style of cooking, which is about creating modern comfort food using everyday ingredients. Her dedication to customization is seen in an area nicknamed "Nate's Den," an intimate corner filled with details that speak of the chef's passions, from beard grooming to tattoo flash art.
Joyce Wang's bespoke touches light up Rhoda. Courtesy of Rhoda.
3. DESIGN FIRM: CHARLIE & ROSE
SPECIALITY: HIP BUT HOMEY
A hallmark of a good restaurant is one that you'd easily return to. Often, these are places that help us relax—where you can turn up after work or on the weekends wearing shorts, ready to knock back a beer. Behind most of Hong Kong's venues that enjoy a large repeat clientele is Australian designer Ben McCarthy, founder of Charlie & Rose. "Growing up in Queensland really helped me develop a relaxed approach to design and an affinity with the outdoors," McCarthy says. Case in point: Limewood (dinner for two HK$700), a beachside restaurant in Repulse Bay that wouldn't be out of place in Byron Bay. Local yet global, modern but familiar, this is an example of how the best balancing acts look effortless. charlieandrose.com.hk.
Beachy charm at Limewood. Courtesy of Limewood.
TACTIC 1: KEEP IT PLAYFUL
From the laid-back beachside shack feel at Limewood to the vintage, Sherlock Holmes-inspired interior at Mr & Mrs Fox (dinner for two HK$800), each of his restaurants has a tongue-in-cheek edge, with interiors chock-full of witty touches that encourage interaction. "Our design for Mr & Mrs Fox includes a lot of fun details," McCarthy says, "enough, in fact, that there is plenty for visitors to discover upon return visits." From the taxidermy squirrel lighting to the secret room hidden behind a bookshelf, there's no shortage of clever details to populate your Instagram feed. What to try next at this popular bar and restaurant? "We are looking forward to sampling the beer at Little Creatures," McCarthy says, "crafted in-house at their brewery, which sits proudly front-and-center to the main bar."
The Den, the secret hideaway of Mr & Mrs Fox. Courtesy of Mr & Mrs Fox.
TACTIC 2: RESPECT THE FOUNDATION
Subway tiles, exposed ceilings and metal furniture: a fail-safe formula that has been adapted by so many restaurateurs that it's almost a design default. Some may pigeonhole McCarthy as an industrial-chic designer given that he was able to execute several spaces in this manner—Fish & Meat (dinner for two HK$800) is a good example—but he stresses that the unfinished aesthetic has more to do with the space's provenance. "The raw look you see in some of our work is a result of aiming not to overdo things. We like to acknowledge in some way the space that was there before us or celebrate the inherent character of a building," McCarthy says. At Fish & Meat, the simplicity of the interiors relates to the restaurant's mandate of uncomplicated, ingredient-focused cooking.
Charlie & Rose keep it simple at Fish & Meat. Courtesy of Fish & Meat.