Love at first pint

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 April, 2009, 12:00am

I would never call us a restaurant,' says Elliot Luckly, the manager of Happy Valley pub The Jockey. 'We're midway between a restaurant and a home - there's none of the formality behind a restaurant and none of the legwork [that comes] from cooking at home.'

Luckly says a 'proper pub' should offer a solid menu, unlike certain alcohol-only watering holes. At The Jockey, food sales account for as much as 30 per cent of the total revenue.

At The Chapel, where food makes up 40 per cent of proceeds, owner Surjit Mahal says some of his regulars dine there so often they leave their house keys at the bar in case they get locked out. 'It's a bit like the TV show, Cheers, where everybody knows your name. This year alone, I'm attending three customers' weddings, and 90 per cent of the people that walk through the door are regulars. Not only do our customers know us, they also know one another,' he says. 'In fact, a lot of news headlines were broken in this very room by journalist customers.'

While other dining establishments are going belly up in these tough times, pubs are bucking the trend. Mahal has seen little impact on business over recent months, and says daily turnover did not dip even during the Sars crisis in 2003. 'Here in Hong Kong, the pub is not something residents are ready to sacrifice. We all live in tiny apartments - the pub is our communal space,' he says.

'The Hong Kong pub market is rather resilient,' says Luckly. His pub's outdoor seating area doubles as a children's playground on weekends. 'The parents guzzle a pint and eat; the kids play. There's no stigma behind bringing kids to a pub - it's the way it's always been in countryside pubs in the UK.'

The Jockey menu includes the usual pub-grub suspects: steak and Guinness pie, bangers and mash and beer-battered fish and chips. Flavourful and satisfying without putting too much of a dent in the wallet, they are perfect comfort food.

Riding on the popularity of gastro pubs, which elevates pub meals to a more gourmet realm, Luckly launched The Stable last September. This new pub carries an extensive list of offerings with 'a more creative twist', such as a Mediterranean-style mezze platter, cream cheese-filled chicken with Parma ham and Thai chicken curry.

The Chapel's chef, Tarun Chakravarty, cooks each dish to order. 'He doesn't slice an onion or cut a piece of chicken until a customer asks for it. Then each individual portion is assembled, and not just ladled up from a large stock pot,' Mahal says. The pub only serves Indian fare, a fitting choice, he says, despite it not being traditional pub grub.

'Indian food is the single most popular cuisine in the UK,' he says. In the past, pubs in Britain were forced to close by 11pm, so revellers often continued their late nights at Indian restaurants, he says.

Over at the Chill Out Sports Bar in Central, owner Michael Lee Jeong-chan calls his food 'international', but the undisputed favourite is the Korean fried chicken, made using a secret mix of spices from South Korea. Thinly battered and fried twice for extra-crispy skin, the chicken is coated with a spicy or mild sauce and served with cold pickled radish and fries.

'Everyone who comes in orders the chicken,' Lee says. 'In Korea, it is part of the pub culture - one hand on the glass of beer, the other on a drumstick.'

Profits have doubled since Lee took over the bar 16 months ago and started serving food. 'A lot of bars around the SoHo area offer menus from nearby restaurants, and then pay them a commission,' he says. 'We decided to take some extra effort and cook our own food, and it has made all the difference. Good food can really draw a crowd.'

It isn't just expatriates who are enjoying the pub experience, publicans say.

'From westerners who have lived in Hong Kong all their lives to Chinese who grew up all over the world - on any give night, they all make up a piece of the pie,' Mahal says. Luckly says he has seen a 10-15 per cent increase in local Chinese clientele compared to three years ago.

The pubs are also attracting more women. Both The Chapel and The Jockey report an almost even gender mix.

In line with the casual pub spirit, Luckly and Mahal say they are willing to cater to customer requests for dishes - including an order of haggis and blood pudding-filled pakora (an Indian fried snack) at The Chapel.

Luckly, who offers Thai chicken wings by popular demand, says: 'There's no velvet rope between us and the customers. We have an ongoing dialogue and we listen.'

For the most part, though, diners are satisfied with what the pubs offer. 'We keep it simple,' Luckly says. 'It's a no-brainer - customers don't even need to look at the menu, they know the same staples are going to be on there, and love it for that.'

During all its years of operation, The Jockey has made very few changes to its menu apart from the occasional promotional item such as its recent March 'Irish Burger', with caramelised onions in Guinness for Saint Patrick's Day.

Unlike restaurants, which are packed on holidays such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, pubs have different peak times.

'On Wednesdays, it's horse racing. Saturdays it's soccer. And when the Rugby Sevens came, it was one of our busiest times,' says Luckly. At The Chapel, Thursdays are also popular, thanks to Mahal's Thursday Quiz Nights.

The pubs also stay open later than most restaurants. 'There's often a second wind on weekdays, when people come in after a late night at the office,' says Mahal.

For many, pubs fill a much needed space in Hong Kong's dining scene, providing an oasis of sorts.

'Even for Hongkongers who move away, when they come back to visit, we're often one of the first stops,' says Mahal. 'Visiting an old pub is like visiting an old friend.'