Raising the bar
BY THE time you finish reading this article, another bar will have opened in Hong Kong. Well, probably. It certainly feels like it, and with the city's notoriously fickle party crowd always looking for the hottest new place, it's tough for any new bar to stand out from the crowd. A lot try to do so with overwrought themes and short-lived gimmicks, while others stick to the tried-and-tested tactic of shamelessly aping whatever the latest must-visit place's special feature happens to be. Some, however, manage to stand the test of time, and they do so because they create an atmosphere that makes people want to come back again and again. As much as the service, as much as the drinks list, as much even as the location, they do that with the decor. Here, we look at four recent openings that have got it right. Their vibe varies from casual to plush to decadent; what they have in common is that they're well thought out places that make the experience of going out for a cheeky beverage or several a memorable one.
Lily & Bloom
Already well established on the Wyndham Street circuit, this double-storey bar-restaurant owes its upscale-speakeasy style to the New York of a century ago. Wooden floors, walls and ceilings join wrought iron, exposed brickwork and padded leather to create a sumptuously romantic environment.
The bar was the first project in Hong Kong of New York-based hospitality design firm AvroKO, which in addition to designing bars and restaurants also owns and operates several of them in its home city. 'There was a desire from the clients to maximise the New York style and spirit,' says AvroKO founding principal William Harris. 'We were looking to bring a bit of the energy and the aesthetic of New York dining to Hong Kong. We looked at a lot of cityscapes and streetscapes of New York at the turn of the last century - geographical references to build the restaurant experience around.'
The upshot is that the place doesn't feel ersatz or overly themed; a bar of many features, it's nonetheless more harmonious than gimmicky. Among the focal points are the double-height, factory-style windows ('we wanted to create a dialogue between the floors,' says Harris), the public hand-washing bathroom fountain, and the wrought-iron gate that separates bar area Lily and dining area Bloom, which is based on grate pattern found on a century-old New York building. 'We like honest and authentic design experiences, not over-polishing and over-manipulating,' says Harris.
Another new bar with the view firmly front and centre is Ozone -and what a view it is. Perched on the 118th floor of Kowloon's International Commerce Centre, it's the soi-disant highest bar in the world.
It was the view, naturally, that got designer Masamichi Katayama's creative juices flowing. ''With this magnificent location, I knew I had to be surreal and think romantic,' says Katayama, founder of Tokyo-based interior design firm Wonderwall. 'I came up with an idea of Eden, and bringing it into the future.'
The result is a maximalist collision of features, a febrile riot of ideas let loose in a rambling bar where the decor is ever-changing. Like the view, it's a lot to take in. 'I wanted a space that is experience-based, with details such as the flooring and the ceiling having the sort of finish you've never seen before,' says Katayama.
Ozone, he adds, doesn't really have a single focal point. That's partly because, when you have the world's highest bar, the focal point should always be the view - but also because it's designed with such a consistent intensity, Ozone is, effectively, a big collection of focal points. As well as the more-is-more aesthetic, the bar is broken up into areas, including the main bar, terrace, lounge, tapas bar, private rooms and so on, each of which has its own signature design flourishes. 'It was challenging to create each area to be independent yet still part of Ozone,' says Katayama.
Whisky bars don't, in general, have a reputation for being devastatingly stylish places. Fortunately Angel's Share, on Hollywood Road, is about as far as you can get from a stuffy, wood-panelled watering-hole.
It's a pleasant, unpretentious space - airy by day, cosy by night. Glitzy enough for a drink to be an event, but relaxed enough that you'll want to stay for more than one. 'When you think about people drinking whisky, you think of older gentlemen in a smoky, dark, old-fashioned place,' says owner Charlene Dawes, who's also behind Wellington Street's novel self-service wine bar Tastings. 'I didn't think having a drink should be so serious. The key is to pick something that's going to be different, but not reinvent the wheel.'
The result of this philosophy is a combination of snug leather furnishings and the odd patch of bare concrete wall that, Dawes says, actually took more effort to get right than the finished-looking areas. Carefully constructed but studiedly casual is an intricate pattern on a window that mimics one in the Central Police Station, visible opposite the bar (sadly, 'no one ever notices,' says Dawes), and the comfortable seating extends to the bar - capacious, comfortable, creaking leather chairs as opposed to the usual precarious, bum-numbing stools. 'If you're going to sit at the bar, you might as well be comfortable,' says Dawes. 'And it creates an environment where you can eat on your own.'
Pride of place opposite the bar is given to a 150 litre cask of Macallan: 'So people can visualise what a cask of whisky actually looks like,' says Dawes. 'It's a bit theatrical - you can imagine what it would be like if you visited the distillery in Scotland and tasted it from the barrel.' It's from whisky casks, of course, that the bar also gets its name - the 'angel's share' is the whisky that evaporates when it's in the barrel.
Mamoz is a very grown-up bar. That doesn't mean it's formal, hushed and intimidating -for this destination bar on the 27th and 28th floors of the Cubus building in Causeway Bay, with a killer view to match, words like smart, suave and seductive would be nearer the mark.
This is a place to impress - but not in a showy way. 'I think in Hong Kong there have been few great bars that people in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s want to go to,' says Ariane Steinbeck, principal in charge at hospitality design firm Gettys, which designed the bar. 'We didn't want something that was hot for two months and then gone. We wanted the environs to be timeless - not desperately screaming for attention as so many bars do. The more you linger, the more you see.'
Dark, reflective flooring ('so it looks best at night', says Steinbeck), vertical lines and a certain barely-there quality define the furnishings, because everything here is designed to draw the drinker's focus to one thing: the view. 'We can't compete with the view, but we're looking to highlight it,' she says.
The bar's inspiration, rather than just being visual, is experiential verging on synaesthetic, coming as it does in the form of Italian red wine Barolo. 'It's that velvety taste that sort of envelops you,' says Steinbeck. 'We wanted to translate that taste sensation into the interiors. And hopefully project the feeling that one glass may not be enough.'
Even the bar is designed with the wine in mind, she adds. A beautiful piece of solid, grained wood carved from a single tree trunk, its uneven edge 'recalls the texture of the vine itself and its length the long rows of vines in the vineyards'.