EVERY NIGHT, just after 7pm, a woman appears outside a shop on Kingston Street in Causeway Bay to pick up strangers and escort them to an apartment across the road. Neighbours are puzzled as she enters and leaves the flat throughout the night. Whispers that the woman is up to something illegal are only half right. The flat is a private restaurant and the people, at least 12 a night, pay big bucks for high-end food. 'The landlord doesn't know we run a private kitchen and he never checks on us,' says Joyce Kung, a 30-year-old former hotel waitress who, with three friends, co-owns the French and Italian private kitchen, Allez! Allez!. It is estimated that more than 100 private kitchens have sprouted in Hong Kong, offering a variety of cuisine. Private kitchens are defined in the trade as family-run unlicensed eateries in residential blocks. They offer fixed menus and do not accept walk-in customers. Diners must book by phone and, because there is no licence, are usually clandestinely ushered in by owners such as Kung. The trend exploded in the late 90s and has heralded a new dining culture as more people opt to dine in home-like apartments. Under the Food Business Regulation, people must apply for a food business licence to run an eatery, but these kitchens don't. But owners say that for years, the government has turned a blind eye, acting only on complaints. Last November, despite growing protest by licensed restaurant owners, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) proposed legislation exempting them from licensing, arguing that private kitchens would bring 'economic benefits' by attracting tourists and providing jobs. The announcement, observers say, was like giving existing unlicensed kitchens a seal of approval and prompted more people to open shop. The trend is so popular that Lonely Planet's food guidebook named it a top culinary choice, and wine traders opened such kitchens to sell their products. Even restaurants such as the French bistro W's Entrecote at Times Square and hotels used the philosophy as a gimmick by providing private dining in quiet corners and cooking for the clients on the spot. Even the Peninsula hotel wants to get onboard, with its executive chef Florian Trento saying it is considering introducing small dining rooms in its restaurants. 'Our clients have eaten in private kitchens and told us about them,' says Trento. 'We thought 'ah, it was interesting', and started noticing it, but when we heard about it more from our clients who ate in the kitchens, we wanted to know what was behind it.' Many private kitchens are run by redundant hotel chefs and job-seekers who are good cooks. The phenomenon means anyone can be a restaurant owner as long as they have a flat, several tables and chairs, and special dishes to offer. Many cash in on names or reputations. A Hunan chef in Causeway Bay claims he learned from the offspring of the chef of Chairman Mao Zedong and specialises in making Mao's favourite fatty fried pork. Filmmaker Alfred Cheung Kin-ting whose 'cousin's private kitchen' on Johnston Road, Wan Chai attracts celebrities such as entrepreneur Gilbert Yeung Kei-lung and former Democratic Party leader Martin Lee Chu-ming; and famous disc jockey and actor Leung Sze-ho also invested in two private kitchens. The cachet of private dining is a major reason why the trend has grown. It is also a chance to sample unique cuisine based on secret family recipes, and - in some cases - cheaper prices. The exclusive, private and quiet dining environment is another. Many are patronised by film stars, celebrities, tycoons, tourists and even government officials. Most establishments rely on word of mouth for custom. Yet many are booked months in advance. A frequent diner to private kitchens, businessman Alain Lam Hing-lun agrees. 'I felt very proud as I showed my friends the secret places. As they enjoyed the food, I felt I had face,' says Lam. The clandestine operations also give diners an added frisson. Lau Kin-wai, an art critic and the brains behind private kitchen Yellow Door on Cochrane Street, Central, says: 'A private kitchen is a mysterious place and sounds a little unsafe, and going there is like an adventure for people. It has something to do with their criminality, people feel going to the illegal place, they are like committing a crime.' Lau claims he kicked off the trend in 1998 by opening his homely eatery with several friends. Soon word spread, and every night dozens of people sought out his shop. 'It was a miracle,' Lau recalls. 'It was a fixed menu, and you had to have at least 10 people to be served, each paid $150. We used no MSG and the way we made our food was like a family.' As many restaurants struggle, private dining is booming. At Allez! Allez!, former hotel chef, Dickie Lee, and Kung say they never imagined they could open a restaurant because of the expense to fulfil licensing requirements, but the rise of private kitchens gave them a chance. With $400,000, they rented a three-bedroom apartment in Causeway Bay for $15,000, and turned the bedrooms into small dining rooms and the main living room into a dining hall. It is difficult to imagine that inside the flat is a medieval-European style home with grand dining tables and old wall paintings and crystal lights, looking out from the balcony are forests of concrete flats. Every afternoon, Kung leaves her Tai Wai home to tidy her 'restaurant'', and by 7pm, the lights are on, the essential oil is burning, and she's ready to welcome her clients. Not to arouse suspicion with the neighbours, Kung laid thick carpet to muffle the sound of footsteps and asks clients to lower their voices. Though the apartment has no sprinklers or a fire exit, Kung says she believes her clients are safe. 'We have a fire extinguisher and a fire blanket, people can escape through the door,' Kung says. By law, restaurants need to install fire equipment and must be in buildings with two staircases. Kitchens must have fire proof walls and door, and there must be ducts directing fresh air from outside. Most don't meet these requirements and don't follow food hygiene standards. Cleanliness is also an issue. A watchman of a Causeway Bay building says: 'We had one private kitchen in our building last year, Every night it threw lunch boxes, rice and sauces over the stairwell. It was really dirty and attracted rats and cockroaches. People living next door were annoyed.' An FEHD spokeswoman says they don't keep addresses of the kitchens and will not check on them unless there is a complaint, adding that until early July, they received only seven complaints - two over emission of hot air and the rest over illegal operation. Only two resulted in prosecution. Complaints can disrupt the new trade, however. The neighbours of a flat on Robinson Road - where 69-year-old Tang Mei, or Auntie Mei, the former chef of tycoons including Dickson Poon and the third wife of Stanley Ho Hung-sun, often cooked her famous crab-papaya soup and specially steamed chicken for rich tai tais and celebrities - called the FEHD. 'They came to warn that they would prosecute us,' says Tang's daughter, Annie Yip On-nei, 28. 'I felt unsafe and moved away.' Last August, they moved to a building on Elgin Street in Central, and get around the law by applying a club licence to serve 'members only'. Such illegal operators annoy David Ng Tak-leung, president of Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, who argues that they are putting the public at risk because there is no monitoring on food hygiene and fire safety, while he criticises the government for taking a relaxed stance. 'It is unfair competition,' Ng says angrily. 'These people don't need to pay fees and surcharges such as the sewage treatment and licence fee, but since we restaurant owners comply with the law, we have to pay more and are subject to checks and prosecution. It is unjust,' Ng says, adding restaurateurs opposed exemptions of full licensing requirements for private kitchens.