Death knell for Life Cafe, where Hong Kong’s organic health food revolution began

Restaurant that’s latest to fall victim to rent squeeze opened by the Mid-Levels escalator soon after Sars outbreak and was first in Hong Kong to serve quinoa and gluten-free food, says founder; for years it was a hangout for the yoga crowd, and a film and music venue too

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 2015, 10:14am

Vegetarian and vegan restaurant Life Café on Shelley Street is the latest victim of high rents and will close its doors this Saturday after over a decade in business. Its sister locations in Discovery Bay and Wan Chai having already closed, it will be the end of Life Café as a brand and a concept.

For founder Bobsy Gaia, the restaurant was a pioneer in offering quality healthy organic food to people starving for an alternative to fast food or places that didn’t break the bank.

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Although he left Life Café in 2009 to focus on Mana!, which he later opened in Wellington Street, Central, Gaia has fond memories of the Soho restaurant, particularly its humble beginnings.

He started Bookworm Café on Lamma Island in 1997, and it soon became the place for international healthy organic fare. Customers encouraged Gaia to open in Central, but it took him a few years to not only find the necessary capital, but also the right spot.

“We were looking at locations towards the end of [the] Sars] outbreak and the sentiment back then was this desperation for healthy food was so strong,” recalls Gaia. “When we opened, I had a three-storey banner that read, ‘Finally! An organic health café in Hong Kong’ and from day one we had queues. At the time there was nowhere else to eat healthy and organic.”

Life, which later became Life Café, introduced many firsts to Hong Kong, Gaia says, including gluten-free food, quinoa and a salad bar concept.

The restaurant did more than serve food; it was a communal spot for social events, like farmer’s markets on the rooftop, live bands, and screenings of films. There was a community board for people to put up notices; Gaia even had a library featuring books on healthy food.

“We were the hub for the yoga community who before then didn’t have anywhere to eat. We had celebrities like Sting and Andre 3000 eat at Life Café, and yoga celebrities like David Life and Sharon Gannon,” Gaia says.

Perhaps his fondest memory is of the café somehow being able to cram a six-piece reggae band complete with steel drums into the narrow space around 2006.

With Life Café about to close, Gaia has been trying to have a meal there every day and reminiscing about the success of the place, which did not depend on alcohol to make the rent for 11 years.

“There were six different restaurants there before us and people said that space was jinxed,” he says. “But for us it was the exact opposite.”