Hong Kong's 10 Most Iconic Restaurants
In a culinary landscape where diners have to rush to new places before they fold in a matter of months, there are few reminders of the times before food trends. But the restaurants which have withstood the test of time are cherished portals to a Hong Kong long gone: Their cracked, colorful tiles, lavish appointments, generations-old recipes and quirky traditions hint at the formation of our culture’s cuisine.
Here are the most iconic and historic restaurants in Hong Kong.
1. Mido Cafe: the Jewel of Cha Chaan Teng Culture
Opened in 1950, the Mido Cafe is considered iconic for a reason. Its mint green booths, blue tiled floors, vinyl seating and large second floor windows overlooking historic Public Square Street only get better with age. Stepping inside this classic cha chaan teng feels like stepping into Old Hong Kong before it was Old Hong Kong. Rather than feeling touristy or overly aestheticized, the cafe seems to have retained a sense of normalcy. The menu hasn’t changed, the service is still unpretentious and brisk and the colorful furnishings have been gently maintained but not obsessively restored. In fact, the only reminders of the passage of time are all the DSLRs at the ready.
2. Yung Kee: From Dai Pai Dong to Roast Goose Royalty
Yung Kee is not the blink-and-miss-it dai pai dong it started out as in 1936 when founder Kam Shui-fai began selling his siu mei on Kwong Yuen West Street by the old Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Pier. Almost 80 years, three moves, several expansions and a high profile lawsuit later, this ornate and imposing six-story, golden-faced restaurant is still owned by the same family, selling the same quintessentially Hong Kong roasted goose and century eggs.
3. Jumbo Kingdom: The Imperial Swan of Aberdeen
Before the waterfront of Aberdeen was stacked with high-rises and Ap Lei Chau became the second-most-densely populated island in the world, there was the Jumbo Kingdom lighting up the Aberdeen Channel, ostentatiously gilded in the style of an ancient Chinese imperial palace. The twinned restaurants of Tai Pak Floating Restaurant (established in 1957) and Jumbo Kingdom (established in 1976) have served up classic Cantonese banquet fare to the good, the great—and the tourists—for decades.
4. La Taverna: Italian Social Club
La Taverna was the the city’s very first Italian restaurant, established in 1969. Founded by the sons of a merchant trader as a meeting space for the then-loosely connected Italian community, La Taverna became an institution in not just Hong Kong, but it also expanded to 19 locations including Singapore, the Philippines and Bali at the height of its success. Their Tsim Sha Tsui location has been largely untouched: Their exterior is reminiscent of a Milanese streetside cafe, the walls are adorned with copper pans and maritime art and it’s still the coziest little corner of the city to enjoy classic Italian family favorites.
5. Amigo: The Fairytale Palace in Happy Valley
These days, there’s no shortage of French restaurants in Hong Kong, but in 1967 when Yeung Wing-chung, toy tycoon and son of rice entrepreneurs, founded upscale French restaurant Amigo, no one seemed to mind that its name was actually the Spanish word for “friend.” The restaurant opened in the middle of the 1967 leftist riots, but it weathered the storm and 50 years on, Hongkongers are still heading to this Happy Valley institution. Inside the Spanish-colonial revival Amigo Mansion is a European dream from a bygone era: Sumptuous hand-carved wood fixtures, Western antiques, watercolors by Sir Russell Flint (each valued at over US$1 million) and a ballin’ wine cellar with over 2,000 French bottles evoke a Medieval château feel.
6. Luk Yu Teahouse: A Culinary History Lesson
This two-story restaurant on Stanley Street on Central is a perennial stop for families and visitors alike. Established in 1933, it seems not to have updated its look since. And thank goodness—with its ornate dark-wood lattices, masterpieces of Chinese calligraphy on the walls, and waitresses still carrying around dim sum from a tray around their necks, a trip to Luk Yu is like taking a culinary history lesson into Hong Kong’s tea culture. And sometimes, reality catches up with its glamorous cinematic appeal: In 2002, Luk Yu played scene to a murder, when a businessman was assassinated by a killer contracted by a triad boss. The assassin apparently waited until he was done paying the bill, calmly walked over to his target, held his neck while he shot him in the head and calmly walked away. If the stuff of Triad films doesn’t persuade you to go? Their giant chicken buns will.
7. Mak An Kee: Great Things in Small Packages
For the best bowl of wonton noodles, you have to compromise on certain expectations: Mak An Kee, also known as Mak's Noodle, doesn't churn out massive bowls of day-old shrimp wontons on a bed of soggy noodles floating in sodium-rich broth. Instead, they do controversially small bowls of perfection topped with teaspoon sized wontons: And they have since the ‘60s, when founder Mak Woon-chi served the dish to Chiang Kai-shek. Now owned by the third-generation of the Mak Clan (or at least some of them: family feuds have led to several other Mak's around town) the noodles have not let up on quality. The delicate broth is made from dried shrimp, flounder and pork bone and the wonton itself contains ocean-fresh shrimp topped with little pearls of roe: the way it should be.
8. Tai Ping Koon: The Father of Soy Sauce Western
Everyone knows the anecdote behind soy sauce western restaurant Tai Ping Koon’s famous syrupy Swiss-sauce Chicken Wings. The dish got its name from a misheard comment from a foreign diner. He said “sweet sauce,” they heard “Swiss.” It illustrates the trend that the restaurant set ever since it was founded in 1860 in Guangzhou: When you have a mishmash of cultures, even moments lost in translation can turn into something new yet familiar. Its menu includes Western interpretations of Chinese delicacies such as roast pigeon, smoked pomfret and Portuguese-style chicken, all served by tuxedoed waiters in a wood-paneled dining room. After rinsing their fingers in the finger bowl, diners can dig into the massive signature soufflé, a dessert well worth the prep time. Currently there are four locations across Kowloon, Central, and Causeway Bay, each emanating a distinctly classic feel of yesteryear.
9. Jimmy’s Kitchen: American Opulence in the Far East
One of the oldest restaurants in the city, Jimmy’s Kitchen still serves up classic old-world American and British fare--think Chicken à La King, Steak Diane and Baked Alaska—in their richly appointed dark-wood dining room. They first opened in 1928 on Lockhart Road, before being shut down after the Japanese Occupation. Owner Leo Landau was sent to a Japanese war prison, but after the war the restaurant reopening in Theatre Lane in Central, with their surviving staff serving food to British and American soldiers, Jimmy’s held court for Cary Grant, John Wayne and William Holden in its heyday: Now, its nostalgic value in both their TST location (opened in 1969) and their Wyndham Street restaurant (opened in 1975) captures those with a taste for times gone by, as well as those who are simply curious about what the grapes add to a “Sole Véronique.”
10. Australia Dairy Company: Dine and Dash
Named for the founder’s tenure working at a farm in Australia in the ‘40s, the Australia Dairy Company (established in 1970) draws crowds for two things: the clipped (sometimes downright rude) manner in which their waiters serve you, and their knock-out milk pudding (and club sandwiches, and scrambled eggs). As typical as a cha chaan teng gets but executed to a high quality, the line outside might seem long: but diners are in and out in 10 minutes flat. It's Hong Kong-style efficiency at its finest.