You might think the global financial crisis put an end to the era of the long lunch. But the truth is, although power lunches and dinners are shorter and perhaps less indulgent than they once were, they still play a key role in the city's business life.
Lunch breaks for stock exchange traders were cut by 30 minutes in March, but many deals are still ironed out over dim sum or an Italian pork chop. A convivial meal always helps grease the wheels.
Key to a good business meal is the venue. Ideally, this should be close to your office. Those bankers that have moved away from Central in recent years, such as Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank following Morgan Stanley, have therefore had to investigate new and unfamiliar surroundings. The venue should also offer a relaxing environment, where one can talk without being overheard. Tables that are sufficiently far apart from each other are essential - and on occasion private rooms may be necessary when one doesn't want to be seen, for example as a price-sensitive transaction or potential senior hire are being discussed. Unobtrusive service is also a prerequisite.
Investment bankers or brokers will usually rotate between half a dozen favourite venues, where they will become creatures of habit, ingratiating themselves over time with the staff. One word of warning: the best restaurants tend to be booked up quickly; trying to secure a table at the last minute in one of the business districts can prove a nightmare, even for the most insistent of personal assistants. Price-wise, every firm will have its own policy, but bills for HK$300 to HK$600 per head for lunch - more for dinner - will generally be in the right ballpark.
Here is a list of some of my best-loved haunts.
6/F Four Seasons Hotel, 8 Finance Street, Central Clients invited to lunch here will feel they are being taken very seriously indeed. Caprice is one of only a handful of restaurants to have been awarded three Michelin stars in Hong Kong, and one of a few to fully deserve the accolade. The view it offers over Victoria Harbour and the Kowloon peninsula is probably overstated, but the dining room exudes opulence.
The French cuisine under chef Vincent Thierry is some of the best in the city. While this is quite a formal venue, restaurant manager Jeremy Evrard knows how to make you feel right at home, while at dinner sommelier Sebastien Allano will unearth rare, sometimes reasonably priced vintages. Service is superlative and the table spacing offers just the right amount of privacy, although a private room offers even more seclusion. The set lunch has to be one of the best deals in town, with appetisers such as rockfish consommé, with saffron infusion and fish rillette and main courses that include a free-range quail stuffed with foie gras, mushrooms and spinach in civet (onion) sauce.
Just what you need to chew the fat (so to speak) with a client between the exchange's morning and afternoon sessions.
40 Gough Street, Sheung Wan This is a good venue for a more discreet chat, away from more commonly used restaurants. Opposite its perhaps more informal rival On Lot 10, Gough 40 shares with it a charming piazza off Gough Street which, weather permitting, offers in season the rare advantage of an alfresco meal. The food is French - with a twist. In a city where restaurants open and close at an alarming rate, the longevity of this old timer speaks volumes about the quality of the fare. Service is also charming and prices are fair. This will probably be a better place for an early dinner, but the small and intimate venue is equally suited to a quiet lunch - albeit a longer one than usual, given the location.
The China Club
13/F Old Bank of China Building, Bank Street, Central
Conversely, The China Club is a venue I enjoy for lunch rather than for dinner. This is perhaps best to host visitors from out of town, who will marvel more at the busy, retro-chic setting and at David Tang's Asian art collection, than the fairly average and less memorable dim sum menu. The location, however, next to HSBC's glass and steel headquarters, can't be beaten. While technically a private club, one can readily settle bills using cash or credit cards rather than chits - and any persuasive PA should be able to make a booking for non-members. The place can be noisy - so I usually book in the side room on the 13th floor, which offers a quieter setting more suitable to a business discussion. The China Club also offers a wide range of private rooms for a team celebration - or even a larger event for those that still enjoy an entertainment budget in these days of austerity. The Long March bar and the terrace upstairs are good for pre-prandial drinks, too.
12/F Old Bank of China Building, Bank Street, Central Not as well known as its upstairs neighbour, Cipriani offers a good - if classical - Italian lunch in a fairly formal but elegant setting. Think baby artichoke salad and avocado with shaved parmesan, and an array of pasta and risotto dishes. The portions are generous and the desserts are vectors for death by chocolate - so conclude the meal with an espresso instead.
The venue is all about wood-panelled walls with frescoes, and 1950s Italian posters that add a touch of old-world, retro charm. Service is efficient without being obtrusive. The same private club routine seen at The China Club applies here.
A plus is the formal - but intimate - private room that could accommodate a (small) closing dinner, where speeches will be made and mementoes handed out to the client's senior management.
1/F Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road West, Central
The Chinnery is a Hong Kong institution and remains a good venue for a more informal chat with a colleague - or a competitor. On its menu can be found traditional British fare (fish and chips, bangers and mash) and rather good curries. The old-school decor is thankfully unaffected by a hotel renovation a few years ago, and is reminiscent of an old boys' club. Depending on where one sits, tables can be fairly close to one another and it's almost impossible not to bump into someone you know there - so definitely not the best location for that discreet meeting with a headhunter. Another drawback is that it does not take reservations for lunch so the place is packed just a few minutes after noon. Service is quick and efficient, however, and you can be in and out within an hour.
9 Star Street, Wan Chai The Principal is ideally placed for those financiers based in or around Pacific Place.
In the premises previously occupied by Italian favourite Cinecitta, this restaurant- which is part of the Classified stable - is big on neo-Spanish cuisine (gazpacho with berries, oil, caviar, tomato-sherry sorbet and Thai basil, or suckling pig with lemon purée, sautéed red endives and pomegranate jus). The tables are suitably spaced for a serious, chatty dinner, and the wine list is one of the most original in Hong Kong with rare offerings from countries such as Slovakia, Greece or Morocco. The ambience is classy and serious but entertaining here will not break the bank - good to know at a time where even high-powered financiers fall victims to cost cuts and scrutiny from bean counters.
Lower Level II, Kowloon Shangri-La, 64 Mody Road, Kowloon
Like its Hong Kong Island cousin, Nadaman is housed in the Shangri-La Hotel, and has a sushi bar and a teppanyaki grill. Book one of the Japanese-style private rooms, where you will be able to discuss that important business proposition - or treat your visiting Japanese colleagues or clients - in complete privacy. Wear loafers - you will need to take your shoes off. A good, elegant and classic alternative in Kowloon to the more recent shopping mall restaurants, which can be packed, noisy and often have a more "touristy" feel than the alternatives in business or high-end hotels. It's also only a short taxi ride for those bankers who have recently been relocated to the ICC complex.
Philippe Espinasse is the author of
IPO: A Global Guide
and holds a diploma in wine from the WSET