Classic Hong Kong restaurants: The Red Pepper, Causeway Bay
Little has changed since this Sichuan pioneer first opened its doors, and that's the way its owners and regulars like it, writes Janice Leung Hayes
"In the seventies, restaurants serving Sichuanese food were a rarity in Hong Kong. From a business standpoint, we saw an opportunity," says Jimmy Lee, director and co-founder of The Red Pepper.
At a time when almost all we hear about restaurants is their dedication to culture, ingredients and the chef's vision, Lee's candid response is refreshing - after all, restaurants are businesses.
Along with his brother and father, Lee started The Red Pepper in 1971 in a small shopfront on Lee Garden Road, Causeway Bay. Their father was the only one with experience in the food industry. After a few years they had outgrown the location and in 1975 moved to the current two-storey property on Lan Fong Road.
Despite being a Chinese restaurant with chefs from Sichuan, their clientele has always been largely non-Chinese. Soon after opening, the Lees found that they were getting many Western tourists.
"Westerners, particularly from the US, were more familiar with Sichuan flavours than Hongkongers were back then, because of restaurants opened by Sichuan immigrants in their country."
Hong Kong's food scene has changed significantly in the 42 years that The Red Pepper has been around, and Lee says that while he has thought of modernising he has always resisted. "People come here for a sense of nostalgia, and to find the same flavours they have always had."
Almost every table orders the sizzling chilli prawns and the mapo doufu, which have become the signature dishes.
The sense of nostalgia is reinforced by the decor, which, much like the menu, has remained largely untouched since their move in 1975. The entrance is decorated with green glazed ceramic tiles and a bright red sign proudly displays the restaurant's name in Chinese, " Nam Bak Lau", which means "south and north restaurant".
As for the English name, "We need foreigners to know we serve spicy food," he says.
The Red Pepper Restaurant, 7 Lan Fong Road, Causeway Bay. Tel: 2577 3811. Open: 11.30am-midnight