Diner’s Diary

Classic Hong Kong restaurants: Olé’s Spanish owner on 20 years in business at same Central address and the secret to success

Carmelo Lopez, whose restaurant is still in the spot where it opened, admits he’s been lucky to have an understanding landlord, but credits its longevity to four things: the best produce, good chef and atmosphere, and friendly service

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 6:07pm

With so many restaurants in Hong Kong opening and closing, it can be hard to keep track of those that are still around. One that has stayed the course is Olé Spanish Restaurant in Central, which is not only celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but 20 years in the same location.

Not many others can boast such a feat.

Owner Carmelo Lopez, 69, hails from Madrid and recalls that, when he moved to Hong Kong over 30 years ago, there were two Spanish restaurants in the city, which he said sold “imitation Spanish food”.

Lopez felt he had a leg-up on the competition, having owned a Spanish restaurant in Madrid and worked in a restaurant in Hong Kong for a year-and-a-half.

Asked his recipe for success, he says simply: “I always insist on the best produce, good chef, friendly service and a good atmosphere.”

Lopez also prides himself on being a pioneer in Hong Kong, as the first to import Iberico ham, as well as baby eels the size of toothpicks, fresh anchovies in vinegar and even percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, which feature among the restaurant’s most popular items.

“Hong Kong diners were interested in ordering gooseneck barnacles, but didn’t know how to eat them, so I would go to the bathroom to wash my hands and then show them what to do,” he says. Lopez would demonstrate by holding the hard shell as a handle and then pulling the meat out of the neck – meat that is coral-coloured and tastes similar to lobster.

He observes that in the past six years a slew of Spanish restaurants have opened in the city, only to close (Lopez says restaurants like FoFo by el Willy, La Paloma and La Rambla specialise in cuisine from Catalonia, a Spanish region).

“People think opening a restaurant is easy. But you have to invest a lot of money. Customers are not silly. Everyone can see what you are,” he says.

In addition to good food that appeals to Hong Kong diners, Lopez says he is lucky to have an understanding landlord who is aware Ice House Street isn’t an area with heavy foot traffic. Olé is also technically on the first floor – a few steps up from street level – which is why the landlord doesn’t charge him exorbitant rent, unlike other restaurants that have been forced to close.

The restaurant is quite large, seating 60 diners. The walls are covered with paintings, while small nooks are decorated with vases and jugs from Spain, all picked by Lopez. He says he decorated the place 20 years ago and it hasn’t changed a bit except for the furniture and tableware.

When I was a kid growing up in Madrid, the mothers cooked traditional Spanish food, so when they go out to eat, they want to have different food. And now because the wives work, they don’t cook, they want to eat traditional food
Carmelo Lopez

Olé, like many restaurants, has gone through its ups and downs, impacted by events in Hong Kong or overseas. Lopez says events such the Asian financial crisis, the war in Iraq, 9/11, and the Severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak severely impacted business.

He and his staff weathered these storms by not cutting corners. “When there is a crisis, keep bringing good food to customers, keep smiling, keep doing your job properly and when the crisis passes, they will come back,” he says.

Lopez has another restaurant, Casa Lisboa, which opened in LKF Tower in Central, then moved to Wyndham Street a year later. It serves Portuguese cuisine.

“The trend in Spain now is to go back to traditional food. When I was a kid growing up in Madrid, the mothers cooked traditional Spanish food, so when they go out to eat, they want to have different food. And now because the wives work, they don’t cook, they want to eat traditional food.”

His first trip to Hong Kong was in 1973, when he was 23 years old and working for Coca-Cola, whose factory was in Tsuen Wan, in the city’s New Territories, and later moved to Quarry Bay on Hong Kong Island.

“It was really fun. There was no Cross Harbour Tunnel. If you drove, you had to take a car ferry to go across. There weren’t so many cars then,” Lopez recalls.

It was in Venezuela, South America, that he met his Shanghai-born wife, a colleague at Coca-Cola who grew up in Hong Kong. They got married in Japan and had their two children in Hong Kong. The children are now 35 and 40 and he has two granddaughters and another on the way.

Why stay in Hong Kong? “You don’t decide. Your wife decides,” he says with a chuckle. “She missed Chinese food. Six years ago we took a break and lived in Miami, but we didn’t like it and the Chinese food there was horrible.”

Olé Spanish Restaurant and Wine Bar, 1/F, Shun Ho Tower, 24-30 Ice House Street, Central, tel: 2537 8856.