Secrets of three of Hong Kong’s oldest restaurants: quality, loyalty and consistency
From Tai Ping Koon, which opened in 1860 and served Sun Yat-sen, to Gaylord Indian Restaurant, open since 1972, to the award-winning abalone served in Forum since 1977, these restaurants have stood the test of time
In a city where restaurants come and go with dizzying speed, those which have stood the test of time are few and far between.
Some number the history of their business in decades, others more than a century, but three stand out for their longevity and signature dishes which have proven timeless in their appeal.
What do Dr Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh and Chow Yun-fat all have in common?
They’ve all been customers at Tai Ping Koon, which has been in business since 1860 – making it one of the world’s oldest continually operating Chinese restaurants.
With four locations across Hong Kong, it retains the dishes and unique philosophy which has seen it last almost 160 years. The fifth-generation owner, Andrew Chui, is quietly proud of the restaurant’s past and the legacy he continues to uphold.
The restaurant was opened in Guangzhou, then known as Canton, in southern China by Chui Lo Ko, who gave a Chinese twist to Western dishes. He was famous for his roast pigeon, steaks, and Portuguese-style baked chicken.
It was a marinade sauce, however, including a blend of soy sauces, that was to become the restaurant’s signature and prove its enduring legacy to this day. It also provided the name for the style of cuisine as it is popularly known in the city, namely “soy sauce western”.
Chui says: “Only a handful of people knew anything about Western food, so our restaurant was really the first to introduce Western cuisine to Chinese people. We came up with the idea to cook Western food but with Chinese ingredients, mainly soy sauce, still in most of our dishes today.”
The restaurant has a colourful history. In 1938, with the Sino-Japanese war raging in China, Chui’s grandfather opened the first Hong Kong Tai Ping Koon in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island. By 1956, the Guangdong branch had closed, making Hong Kong the restaurant’s new permanent home.
When it opened, many of Tai Ping Koon’s customers were high-end officials, visiting what was considered a fine-dining restaurant. Today the clientele includes many Hong Kong stars and tycoons, as well as regulars who return for the nostalgic dishes.
Some of the recipes have remained unchanged since the very first menu, such as steak with black pepper sauce. Arguably its most famous dish, and the one most frequently ordered in all four branches, is Swiss chicken wings.
Chui explains how the unusual name came about. A Western customer once said how he particularly liked the chicken wing because it was “sweet”. The waiter tried to remember the word he had heard, told a colleague who had better English, who then assumed the customer had said “Swiss”.
The name stuck, and today customers visit for the gloriously sticky, sweet wings steeped in the mahogany-coloured secret sauce.
Another restaurant that has withstood the ravages of the notoriously cutthroat Hong Kong dining industry is Forum, still one of the city’s best-known restaurants. That’s thanks mainly to its founder and head chef, Yeung Koon-yat, known as Ah-Yat, who has worked in the restaurant daily almost without fail since it opened in 1977.
Forum’s fame is down to the dish which has given Yeung his nickname, “the abalone king”. Today a sprightly 86 and impeccably dressed in a smart grey suit, the diminutive master explains the secret to the success which has seen Forum hold two Michelin stars.
Yeung’s knowledge of expensive dried abalone is extraordinary.
“We rehydrate the Japanese abalone for 24 hours before they are steeped in a broth made from pork spare ribs and chicken, then cooked in a clay pot on high heat for at least 14 hours. We test whether it’s ready by putting a pin in it, but I can smell the freshness of the abalone and sense it when I touch it – how the abalone absorbs the flavour,” he says.
Originally on Lockhart Road, in 2014 Forum moved to Sino Plaza in Causeway Bay. Over the years, Yeung has cooked for a succession of the great and the good, among them late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, former governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten and former French president Jacques Chirac among them. Yeung’s assistant shows a signed letter from Chirac at the Elyseé Palace, thanking him for dinner.
Surrounded by photos and countless awards and honours, Yeung is thankful for the Michelin recognition, but still ambitious – and not entirely satisfied. “Two stars is already great, but three is better! The goal is to maintain the quality, staff, service and system.”
Abalone has always been a staple in Forum,” he says. “For obvious reasons, it’s becoming more scarce, so we come up with solutions to find the right suppliers. In Hong Kong, if your product is the best, people pay for it – some people pay HK$20,000 for it – and then come back.”
A remarkable energy and drive keeps him going, ensuring that local and global diners continue to experience the wide-ranging menu, and a demand for excellence still pervades everything he does.
“We have one objective: to be the best. Everyone does abalone but the point is we have to be the best. If they do good, we have to do better.”
Hong Kong’s oldest Indian restaurant, Gaylord, celebrated its 45th anniversary last year. The name Gaylord refers to a “Happy God”. The restaurant was opened on Wyndham Street, Central, by O.P. Seth. It moved to Chatham Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, before moving to nearby Ashley Road, where it has been for the past 29 years.
Affable and gregarious, Rajeev Bhasin is the managing director and a passionate advocate for his home country’s cuisine. He puts the restaurant’s history in context.
“One innovative approach back in the early 1980s was the buffet lunch, which allowed Chinese diners, in particular, the chance to try Indian cuisine, to dispel the misconception that our food is extremely spicy. It’s not about being spicy, it’s about being fragrant.”
He explains that consistency has been key to success. “We’ve barely changed anything since we opened. Maybe 10 per cent in 45 years.
“We changed the look and feel of the menu, made it a little bit more contemporary, went more modern with plating, but no real changes to the food. Maybe reduce the oil level a bit, but some things you can’t change. You can’t fry samosas in water!”
A big draw is the tandoor oven where impeccable rotis, naans and other breads are joined by delicately spiced and beautifully roasted tikka paneer, prawns and chicken. The lamb rogan josh, butter chicken and black dal all have legions of regular fans, some of whom have been dining since it first opened.
There are six chefs among the staff of 20.
“When you do Indian cuisine in the right and proper way, you need that many. One of our chefs has been here 28 years, one of our waiters for 26,” Bhasin says.
Gaylord and Forum may both still be some way off Tai Ping Koon in the longevity stakes, but given their reputation and signature dishes, there’s every chance that they’ll be clocking up their own century in the 2070s.
Tai Ping Koon
Four branches across Hong Kong www.taipingkoon.com
1/F Sino Plaza, 255-257 Gloucester Rd, Causeway Bay, tel: 2869 8282, forumrestaurant1977.com
1/F Ashley Centre, 23-25 Ashley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2376 1001, mayfare.com.hk/gaylord-overview.php