Recreate the essence of French chic ... chez toi

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am


Hongkongers' love affair with French cafes and restaurants seems inexhaustible. Every month a new bistro or brasserie opens that looks as though it's been plucked straight from France and placed incongruously on a street in Hong Kong. And long-established haute cuisine establishments remain firm favourites among residents here.

Good food and wine aside, a large part of the appeal is the appearance. Le style Francais is an elegant look that is innately and unmistakably French and an aspirational dream to everyone else. And even more appealingly, it's a look that can be achieved at home.

Libertine on Aberdeen Street in SoHo is one of the more recent openings and also one of the most successful examples of bistro design style. Designer Hernan Zanghellini wanted to create a simple interior reminiscent of a 'working man's cafe in Europe', which is both functional and welcoming. While we're not suggesting including displays of bread and wine bottles in your home design (although the open-plan shelving could be copied for storing china) it's a look that could be taken as inspiration for introducing simple French touches to a home kitchen.

Pick just one or two elements so that you don't look as though you're about to open a cafe. The small, round marble-topped cafe tables a deux are perfect for a space-poor kitchen and suit simple wooden chairs. If you have even less room, high round tables with rattan bar stools are even more compact. And if space isn't a problem look higher for inspiration. Both the dark wooden ceiling fans (which Libertine sourced from a flea market in Paris but which are much copied in Hong Kong) and globe lights are other simple additions that help achieve a casual French look.

Then there are the walls. The white tiling at Libertine was salvaged from a Victorian butcher's shop but similar-looking tiles are available in Wan Chai and elsewhere, and create a clean look in a modern kitchen.

Large mirrors are another signature French brasserie touch. At Libertine the menu is written on some but at home just an oversized antique mirror is effective in a living room or open-plan kitchen diner (as well as creating a feeling of more space). You might also add a framed retro French poster or two. To keep the design unfussy Libertine chose not to go down this route, but they are used effectively at other French-influenced establishments around town, such as Marmite on Elgin Street.

For a more sophisticated look suitable for a living area or dining room, take inspiration from Chez Patrick, the much-loved Hong Kong restaurant that has just moved its premises from SoHo to Wan Chai. Chez Patrick's remit has always been to make diners feel as though they are in a Parisian apartment - a feat that was relatively easy in a cute pavement-level venue in Peel Street but a challenge in a second-floor flat of an apartment block overlooking busy Queen's Road East.

Darryl Goveas of Pure Creative has achieved the Parisian apartment ambience nonetheless. As designer of Dior and Van Cleef & Arpels stores, he knows a thing or two about French interiors and in this incarnation the restaurant puts a contemporary twist on traditional French style - much like chef Patrick Goubier's acclaimed food at Chez Patrick. So the floors are herringbone-patterned wood and the walls are wood-panelled and painted dove grey with the grain showing through. But the sconces and chandelier are unmistakably modern. A highlight is the hand-painted gold and red wallpaper depicting exotic birds and plants. Rather than overwhelming the space, the wallpaper is a feature - used in conjunction with the wood panelling.

'Some people have said the wallpaper is oriental but it is very much French,' says maitre d' Jean-Noel Narberburu. 'The French style is taking different elements from around the world and mixing them.'

The chinoiserie wallpaper works beautifully; the gold and red lift an otherwise neutral palette without becoming garish. Overall the feeling is serene.

'Even though it is brighter and busier than the Peel Street restaurant I feel the design is very calming.'

It's a mixture that could work equally well in a Hong Kong home.

At Agnes b La Loggia in the IFC mall, a French country residence was the inspiration for renowned architect and interior designer Andre Fu's plan. In fact La Loggia is the name of Agnes b's holiday home in the South of France. The informal cafe section of La Loggia, which serves as a blueprint for the many Agnes b cafes around Hong Kong, is reminiscent of a courtyard with pretty mosaic-tile flooring. The striking round tables with wrought iron bases, and wooden chairs with fabric seats, make for a smart take on bistro style.

In the more formal restaurant, Le Pain Grille, Fu has created a series of rooms he says are 'a tribute to social salons of a bygone age'. The rooms each have a distinct look and feel from a cosy bar area with a velvet 'love seat' and zinc-topped bar imported from France, to a book-lined 'library' and an intimate dining room with corner banquettes.

'Each connected salon is distinctive in character to provoke a sense of journey within a French home,' says Fu, who concentrated on a palette of warm grey, smoky green and dark chocolate. With washed-oak flooring and wooden wall panelling painted an elegant matt green, he achieves his aim of 'a pared-down atmosphere of French chic'.

Fu has gone big on mirrors, creating a mirrored wall broken up by wood frames, to effect the kind of drama and sophistication that would be stunning in a sitting room. Internal glass double doors (as well as ones that lead onto the terrace) add to the French flavour. Huge potted plants, luxurious swathes of curtains tied back at doorways and the use of velvet create a Belle Epoque feeling brought up to date.

Fu understands Hongkongers' penchant for the French style: 'The French lifestyle has always been an aspirational one and if the look and feel is well executed, it possesses a certain quality of charm,' he says. And he believes the French look can be successfully achieved at home: 'The use of washed, timber-herringbone floors and wood-panel cladding would work within the typical Hong Kong condo or apartment,' he says. And once the basics are in, then the fun really begins in searching for pieces that will lift and add to the theme: 'Objets d'art or small touches of vintage pieces would help to provoke a shabby-chic sensibility.'