Why every Western chef wants a Kennedy Town restaurant

The opening of an MTR station and influx of Westerners priced out by high rents in Central and Sheung Wan have made western end of Hong Kong Island a hot spot for overseas cuisine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 1:49pm

Since the opening of the MTR line to Kennedy Town at the end of 2014, there has been a flurry of restaurants sprouting up in the area. Jaspas was one of the first chain outlets to open, followed by Tivo, and other restaurant groups have followed suit with places such as Butcher & Baker and Comptoir.

For some chefs such as Philippe Orrico and Matt Abergel, it’s a chance to open a secondary or tertiary spot that is more casual than their previous restaurants.

Best known for Upper Modern Bistro in Sheung Wan and ON Dining in Central, Orrico says Kennedy Town was a location he had in mind for a while.

“I used to go to Bistronomique regularly on Sundays three or four years ago, and it has a nice location by the water,” the French chef-owner recalls. “I had a good feeling about the area and asked an agent about spaces. They told me there was one spot left where car garages used to be on Forbes Street by the MTR station so I discussed it with my partners and we took it.”

They transformed it into Picnic on Forbes, a French-style café reminiscent of those typically found in the centre of villages in France. “It’s a country café, where people come in for a coffee or a plate of pasta,” Orrico says.

When it came to deciding on a name, the word “picnic” evoked images of casual dining and being with family. The restaurant even offers small picnic baskets filled with jars of small gourmet items to graze on. On the weekends, many customers enjoy picnic baskets for take-away, for an HK$80 deposit.

A few blocks away on Catchick Street is Sunday’s Grocery co-owned by Abergel, best known for Yardbird and Ronin.

The shop offers sandwiches made à la minute, as well as fried chicken, hummus and sweet potato mash, and the shelves are filled with bottles of beer, sake, shochu, wine and whisky.

“We wanted to start something new in retail, and it’s different from running a restaurant so it’s been a learning experience. In restaurants it’s about frequency, but in retail you can’t really guess how busy it will be. We only know there are lots of customers on Saturdays and Sundays,” Abergel says.

“We’ve been open for almost two years and business has just picked up in the last six months,” he says.

“The shop brings in people to have different experiences. They can come in to shop for a bottle, get a sandwich, have a tasting, so we interact with them in different ways.”

Arguably the first Western fine-dining restaurant in Kennedy Town was Bistronomique, opened on Davis Street by David Lai (now of Fish School and Neighborhood) in 2011. He remembers at the time his neighbours were a pizza joint, Chinese seafood restaurant and a bar, and that other nearby spots were occupied by garages. He says his friend had opened a bar and signed a lease for another space, and invited Lai to take a look.

“I saw it and it was a no brainer – there were hardly any [Western] restaurants in that area. You either had to go to Central or Cyberport for dining options, and even Cyberport doesn’t have much there, so Kennedy Town was a good place in between.”

A year after Lai opened the French fine-dining restaurant, Bistro du Vin arrived along with its sister restaurant Piccolo Pizza, filling out the Davis Street strip by the water.

Lai left Bistronomique at the beginning of 2014 after he and his partners had different plans for the business. Bistronomique had expanded quickly to include a bakery and gourmet shop, but they were soon closed to focus on the restaurant, which, due to an increase in rent, moved into what had been the bakery. Another branch was opened in SoHo.

Meanwhile Lai went off to start up Fish School with Yenn Wong in Sai Ying Pun last November, focusing on local seafood.

“Even two years leading up to the opening of the MTR in Kennedy Town, people were starting to jockey for shop space,” he says,pointing out this that phenomenon is not confined to that area.

“Maybe it was too much too fast in the past two years and now there are five or six high-profile places competing for customers,” Lai says. “To open a restaurant you have to provide something that’s very distinctive. At the end of the day it’s about local demand. There are some destination diners who specifically come to Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town to dine, but now there are newer apartments in Kennedy Town, so the restaurants there are in a large part fulfilling local demand.”

Perhaps Lai is referring to the growing number of expats living in the area, because when local shop owners were asked about the impact of these new restaurants in Kennedy Town, they didn’t seem to mind.

“They cater more to Westerners and our customer base is locals,” explains Aggie Kwok, the manager of Fresco Dim Sum. “We open at 6am and it’s an elderly clientele, followed by people from the local area later in the day.”

When asked about fears of rent increases, she said that didn’t affect them too much because they occupied a small space, compared to Western restaurants that needed more room.

Kai Kee Restaurant is a cha chaan teng located by a bus stop on Belcher’s Street. Many university students go there to dine, and even tycoon Cecil Chao has been spotted dining there.

Manager Chan Lok-tin also says that the new dining establishments don’t affect their business much, though the ones by the MTR may be in a good position to grab more customers on their way home.

Nevertheless, Orrico and Abergel are not too concerned about the possibility of more competitors moving into the neighbourhood.

“Unfortunately I’m not alone in coming to Kennedy Town, but we’ve created a good dinner venue, a good alternative, says Orrico. “Many people go into the restaurant business but not everyone survives. We trust people in Hong Kong know more about good quality food and that we are in the market of doing that.”

Abergel looks at the rash of restaurant openings in one area and then another as the way things are in Hong Kong. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s good for everyone. Someone asked me the difference between Hong Kong and New York and I said things change here constantly and it pushes people to do things. A year from now the place where everyone’s opening up restaurants will be somewhere else. As long as people do good things, there’s room for everyone.”