South Villa was the first restaurant opened by Lawrence Koo's parents in 1978. Their business is in fashion and trading, but they decided to open a restaurant to diversify, and also to give them a place to entertain their clients. Later, they opened North Villa.
In 1982, the first West Villa was born in Sheung Wan. Despite the fondness for compass bearings, the food served at their restaurants was always firmly centred around Cantonese cuisine, in particular, hearty, everyday dishes. "Our focus is on dim sum, siu mei [Cantonese barbecue] and stir-fries. You can't get past these basics when speaking about Cantonese food," says Koo.
Today, only the West Villa brand remains, and there are three branches dotted around Hong Kong Island. "Our goal is to continue serving Cantonese dishes made the traditional way," says Koo. "We've seen a lot more fusion taking place in Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong recently. We seem to be losing the spirit of Cantonese cooking, which is to take simple ingredients, give them a lot of care and attention, and highlight their natural merits."
That said, he does cite a few changes in their own food throughout the years. For example, game meats like the ricebird are no longer available as they are endangered. But the restaurant continues to serve the controversial shark fin.
"Our feeling towards the issue is neutral. We don't hard-sell shark fin dishes, and we don't force them on our customers," Koo says. "It's an important food, central to Cantonese culture. Serving it to one's guests is a form of li [the Confucian concept of ritual and etiquette] and politeness. Who are we to take a dish with such meaning away?" One creation they are known for is slow-braised pigeon stuffed with shark fin.
Koo acknowledges that the prices are above average. "Our customers are picky eaters. We concentrate on classics because each dish takes a lot of time, and they appreciate that and know that they're getting what they pay for," he says.
Koo says that it is getting tougher to do what they do. "The hardest part of the business now is finding talent. Working in restaurants is hard work, and many people just don't want to enter the industry. Rents and the price of ingredients make things harder than before, too."
He is grateful for the friendships he has with the many regulars at West Villa. "It's very normal for several generations of a family to dine together here. Many have become good friends," he says.
West Villa, 16-20 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, tel: 2543 3990; shop 208, 2/F Cityplaza II, 18 Taikoo Shing Road, Taikoo, tel: 2885 4478; Lee Gardens One, 5/F, 33 Hysan Avenue, Causeway Bay, tel: 2882 2110. Open: 11am-11.30pm (Sunday from 10am)