Coffee, anyone?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 October, 1999, 12:00am

A decade ago there was a dearth of coffee shops. If you wanted a caffeine hit or to linger over a cappuccino you invariably found yourself in either a hotel cafe or DeliFrance. Not anymore. Coffee culture is alive and well in Hong Kong: the problem now is deciding where to go.

SoHo is the main coffee zone. Anywhere along the escalator you are just a stone's throw from a fresh brew and there are also some good spots in Central. Faced with the arduous task of finding Hong Kong's best coffee shop, we took into account more than just the caffeine - decor, ambience and service are at the core of the perfect cafe. By the end of our research, we had the shakes badly - but we knew where we would be regulars.

Cafe Gypsy is the clear winner. The restaurant-cum-bar-creperie just off the escalator has a strong following among the French, but anyone will enjoy the mellow music and chilled atmosphere. The decor is muted, with earthy colours; and the verandah doors are always thrown open to give an outdoor feel.

Cafe Gypsy takes its coffee seriously: the espresso is an excellent shot guaranteed to give you a jolt; the cappuccino ($30) has an impressive head of froth. This is coffee at its finest.

While the restaurant is packed in the evenings, it is quieter in the mid-afternoon and a perfect place to chat, read or simply relax. Cafe Gypsy is an oasis in Central and it is easy to understand why the French and some Mid-Levels residents treat it like their living room. The service is faultless and the cafe has proved so popular in Hong Kong that it is expanding to Singapore.

A couple of stops down the escalator, the Bayou Bar is a great people-watching spot. It is well worth stopping for a cappuccino ($30), which is made in the Bayou restaurant next door, but the regular coffee ($28) is disappointing. Although it is also brewed next door, it is kept on a hot plate and loses the aroma of fresh coffee.

The staff are always friendly, so remember to tip as there is no service charge.

The slope immediately outside the Bayou is being replaced by steps. While this may be a sound safety move - sadly, an old woman recently had a fatal fall on the steep slope - the jackhammers are not conducive to a relaxing atmosphere. The good news is that the work will be finished by the end of the month. The Bayou offers the best deal in the area for take-away coffee: regular coffees are just $10 and cappuccinos $15.

The best-value coffee is at Delicious on D'Aguilar Street. Cappuccinos cost just $20 and are served in funky, colourful cups. As with the cafes already mentioned, the daily newspapers are provided.

Another good deal is at Post 97 in Lan Kwai Fong. The cappuccinos are good, but at $36 a cup they are not cheap - unless you go at happy hour. From 3pm to 7pm, all beverages, aside from bubbly, are half-price.

They also do a great afternoon tea set for $49, which includes any coffee and a choice of dessert.

Just around the corner, Kaldi's Kafe on Wellington Street is a connoisseur's coffee shop. They serve everything from Brazilian to Sumatran, Kenyan and Egyptian coffee, but the variety and quality comes at a price. Coffees average $40, including service charge, and a cup of genuine Jamaican Blue Mountain sets you back $68.

Cafe Le Bleu on Lyndhurst Terrace is a sweet, Mediterranean-inspired coffee shop. There is no missing the wooden figure of a woman in a blue swimsuit who spins outside the cafe on a barber's pole. The staff are all smiles and happy to chat, but the coffee ($28) is not the best in town and is thin.

Staunton's Bar and Cafe in the heart of SoHo is a hip hangout and becoming a trendy nightspot, but when it comes to coffee its act can do with sharpening up: the coffee lacks bite; there is no body to the cappuccino. It is a shame, as Staunton's has everything else going for it.

Hong Kong coffee standards are high, so it is a shame that there are a couple of places that are letting the side down. Tony's, on Cochrane Street, serves watery cappuccinos ($29) with barely any froth. Another spot to avoid is M Kitchen on Elgin Street. The staff are friendly and it is a good spot for a secret rendezvous as there is rarely anyone in the afternoon, but they should not be allowed to serve coffee.

They charge $30 for an almost undrinkable cup. The froth on their cappuccino ($33) is reminiscent of the scum at the bottom of a bath and the coffee itself is bland. They should stick to serving wine about which they are obviously far more knowledgeable.