Once upon a time, SoHo was the thinking man’s Lan Kwai Fong. If LKF was for tourists, flight crews and international school kids, the bars and restaurants of SoHo were purer dens of gentler iniquity. SoHo people were five years older and at least two years wiser. They wanted a good drink without the yelling, the tottering and the smashed glasses rolling downhill. SoHo was the “good” Lan Kwai, and if you spent time there you were—at the very least—not a total disgrace. These days? Not so much. That holy trinity of streets—Staunton, Elgin, Peel—has thrown aside its cool. It’s a trinity of mediocrity now. Average food for over-average prices? SoHo’s got you covered. A pint of beer starting at $80? Welcome, friend. Stay until your credit card is maxed out, in approximately three drinks’ time. SoHo: no go? Photo: Oliver Tsang/SCMP “A lot of my regular customers all have this complaint: why doesn’t Peel Street look like Peel Street anymore? Why doesn’t SoHo look like SoHo anymore?” says Joyce Peng of jazz bar Peel Fresco (49 Peel St., Central, 2540-2046). “In any city, ‘SoHo’ means cool, artistic. There are galleries, tea houses, movie theaters. Before, SoHo had a lot of local industries: printing houses, metal places, warehouses, shoe repairers. But now it’s more like a second Lan Kwai Fong.” Too much of the bad and not enough of the good; SoHo has turned into a strip of restaurants which blend easily into each other, punctuated with the occasional, always empty, boutique. Wrong Rents Inevitably, a lot of it comes down to that boring old problem: rent. It’s stratospheric throughout Hong Kong, and SoHo has it worse than almost anywhere else in town. Rents in the area start at around $80k a month, and on the main drag they’re in the $150-$180k range. Phil Spruce has been running bars in Hong Kong since 1999: these days he owns Bar Medusa (B/F, 49 Staunton St., Central, 2858-3129). He says that prices are rising, but that competition is also fiercer than ever. “The landlords have just put us right on the edge of the market,” he says, “but there always seems to be another sucker coming along who thinks that they can make it.” And the landlords seem to be happy to sit around and wait for the right sucker to come calling. Take 49 Elgin Street, that huge space sitting right beside the Mid-Levels Escalator. Once the flagship of the now-closed Fat Angelo’s chain, the spot was taken on in 2012 by the Staunton’s Group, which opened Nico’s Spuntino in the space. It closed after a year and a half. The landlord wants $500,000 a month from the next taker. This space: $500,000 a month, please $500k. To make a profit with a restaurant you need to be making an absolute minimum of four times your rent. That’s more than a couple of kegs of beer you have to shift to cover your costs. The same landlord also owns 65 Peel Street, a three-story space once home to SoHo mainstay Boca. The asking price? Also $500,000. Since Boca closed in 2010, the space has been sitting vacant, waiting on someone willing to pick up the tab. Do the math: just how much rent is spiraling down the drain, while they wait for that one magical moneybags to show up? “If what one hears is true, there are optimistic new and coming restaurants in SoHo that are taking on rent rates that it will simply be impossible to afford, no matter how popular they are,” says JR Robertson, founder of the El Grande restaurant group, whose Mo Bros (16 Elgin St., Central, 2525-5770) is a rare gem, tucked away off the main SoHo strip. ”Meanwhile, there are glaringly empty shop spaces just sitting around.” Inevitably, of course, the price hikes get passed on to the consumers. “Go eat at a restaurant on Friday, and you’re not paying for the food: you’re paying for the empty tables on Monday and Tuesday,” says bar and restaurant consultant Manuel Palacio, who’s worked on outlets all over SoHo. SoHo Money, SoHo Problems Then there’s a laundry list of other problems. Landlords aren’t just greedy in how much they’re asking for: they’re also unwilling to commit to tenants. “Rents are high, but what really bites us in the back is the duration of the lease,” says Syed Asim Hussain of Black Sheep Restaurants, which has four outlets in SoHo. “It used to be six years, but now it’s becoming two-plus-two [two years with an option to renew for two more]. It’s very hard to do anything of substance with a four-year lease.” Yours — for four years, if you're lucky. At the same time, politics are also coming into play. Central and Western district councilor Ted Hui Chi-fung appears to be on some kind of an anti-bar crusade in the area—even if that sounds like campaigning for prohibition in a brewery. The Democratic Party councilor takes pains to challenge anyone who’s applying for a new liquor license—or even to renew an old one—in SoHo. Councilor Hui says he’s looking out for the interests of local residents, who might not otherwise have a voice in an entertainment-heavy neighborhood. But Phil Spruce is not so sure. “On the surface, it looks like it’s a granny vote direction—‘foreigners ruining the area’—but a lot of these grannies actually own the buildings that are rented out.” Also in the pipeline: Sino Land’s controversial project at 20-26 Staunton Street. It was originally mooted as a 24-story office building, which would have killed the feel of the area and set a dangerous precedent in the low-rise residential/commercial zone. Things went quiet after a vocal 2010 campaign against the third iteration of the plan, and Sino tried to retarget the development as a 90-room boutique hotel—again, 24 stories high. The plan was blocked by the Town Planning Board last year. The property is listed by Sino Land as still “under development,” and work is underway at the site as we speak. 20-26 Staunton Street is now a construction site El Grande’s JR Robertson thinks SoHo has a lot to offer, but is wary of what’s to come. “The future of SoHo comes down to the developers and what the government lets them do,” he says. “If it lets them build their bulky commercial buildings between Staunton’s narrow neighborhood streets, then Elgin Street will likely be up for grabs next, and then yes—I fear that will mean no-mo’ SoHo.’” The SoHo Shift It wasn’t always like this. “I remember when SoHo first came up, in the mid-90s,” says Christopher Mark of the Black Sheep group. Lan Kwai Fong was expensive and had fewer restaurants than it does now, and so people began to shift up the hill. “SoHo was residential and they couldn’t get liquor licenses, so it became a cheap place for dinner because you would bring your own wine. If you spent $700 in Lan Kwai Fong, you’d spend $300 in SoHo.” Roundhouse Taproom: offering something different So is there any chance SoHo might go back to its glory days? Some people do think so. Take the Roundhouse Taproom (62 Peel St., Central, 2366-4880), which sits right at the unfashionable, steepest end of Peel Street. Yes, their drinks don’t come cheap—but they’ve also got a unique selling point: a fantastic selection of interesting beers on tap, the likes of which you’ll not find anywhere else in Hong Kong. It might be at the top of a near-alpine hill: but people are willing to go mountaineering if there’s actually a good brew to be had at the end of it. Then there’s Little Lab , (50 Staunton St., Central, 2858-8580) a cocktail joint which serves up uniquely and actually tasty Hong Kong twists on classic cocktails. Again, you’ll pay for the privilege—but you’ll have something to show for it. Little Lab: interesting drinks Joyce Peng may have been burned once by landlords when rent for her artists’ bar Joyce Is Not Here jumped from $38,500 to $60,000 last year: the longstanding bar had to shut down, and Joyce was left jaded. But in the past year she’s put all of her effort into Peel Fresco across the road. And best of all, she’s found a landlord she can work with. “It’s all about the cooperation,” she says. “I do think some landlords have a heart. But even if the landlords give you a really good price, if you don’t know how to run a business, do you think you can survive?” She suggests that SoHo’s future lies in reinvention. “We have to make ourselves better. I think that’s the only solution. We need more independent investors. We need more cool artistic people—who also know how to run a business. Be more unique, be more interesting and stand out.” Yes: SoHo, despite it all, does have its cheerleaders. “When we were starting our company 3.5 years ago, seasoned restaurateurs told us that it was a bad idea to do something in SoHo,” says Syed Asim Hussain of the Black Sheep group. “SoHo was dead, SoHo was dying, the rents were silly. At the time, we made a commitment—I think it may have been the wine—but we said, ‘We will bring SoHo back.’” The group now owns Motorino, Chôm Chôm, La Vache and the brand new Ho Lee Fook, all in SoHo—as far as good restaurants go, that’s an impressive hit rate. One thing these new restaurants—and a few others, such as Bep (LG/F, 9-11 Staunton St., Central, 2522-7533), have in common is a philosophy that will have to become the guiding light for the new generation of SoHo restaurants. They serve good food—and for once, it feels like good value. Chôm Chôm: Part of a new generation of SoHo restaurants “Good value” to the consumer means lower profit margins to the owner, of course. But this also marks a shift in the way restaurateurs are looking at SoHo. “We’re not in this for a two-, three-, four-year thing,” says Black Sheep’s Hussain. “We’re going to be doing this for a long, long time.” Good food, for a good price. Amazing, isn’t it, that it feels like a rarity in this city of ten thousand restaurants? But that’s what SoHo was created to be, 20 years ago. And if a group of bar owners, restaurateurs and maybe even landlords can reshape SoHo in a better image: well, that would be a boozy, beautiful thing on a Friday night. Actually Worth It Five places in SoHo actually worth your time (and money) La Vache Salad. Steak. Fries. $258. Really quite a good deal, and the dessert trolley also has its share of admirers. Good pastis, too. Wear a stripy shirt and you’ve got the French trio locked down. 48 Peel St., Central, 2880-0248. Leaf Dessert One of Hong Kong’s last open-air dai pai dongs. Officially a dessert shop, but their noodles are just as good. Perch on the Elgin Street slant and dig in. Incredibly cheap and indelibly Hong Kong. 2 Elgin St., Central, 2544-3795. TakeOut Comedy Asia’s first full-time comedy club sits in a basement off Elgin Street. Bring your own beer, stay out of the front row and laugh at the funny bits. It’s not complicated. B/F, 34 Elgin St., Central, 6220-4436. Little Lab This unassuming cocktail joint serves up classic drinks made with uniquely Hong Kong flavors. If you grew up here, you’ll recognize the tastes of your childhood. Didn’t grow up in Hong Kong? Come here, order a drink, and pretend that you did. 50 Staunton St., Central, 2858-8580. Rico’s Spanish restaurant with generous portions, nice people, good food and reasonable prices. Four things SoHo sorely needs. U/G, 51 Elgin St., Central, 2840-0937.