“Michelin-starred”, “fusion”, and “gastronomy” – do these words sound familiar to you when you consider where to eat for a special occasion?
Surely, restaurants with the above badges are among the most desired ones with long waiting lists and extremely high price tags. But does that mean they produce good food? Let’s investigate.
Chinese food: Only if you know where is the best
Restaurants in Hong Kong have a good mix of food from all over the world, but nothing would beat the quantity of Chinese restaurants as Hong Kong locals grow up with Chinese food, or more precisely, Cantonese food.
Many of the Chinese restaurants are of the low range tier catering to the locals living in the neighborhood where the businesses are located. I must say, the quality of food at those low-range restaurants is extremely uncertain. You can get a rice with roasted pork that tastes like heaven at Restaurant A or it could taste like a left-over dish from the night before at Restaurant B (i.e. you feel like the kitchen just simply heat up the food from last night without doing anything else).
Mid-range Chinese restaurants’ food quality is surprisingly consistent, regardless of where it’s located. Restaurants in this range is more diverse in terms of the region where the food is from, be it Shanghai, Beijing, Sichuan, Guangdong or Chongqing. In this type of restaurants, the decoration is more refined; the servers are more polite; the food looks more nicely done. Most of them also charge the standard 10% service fee too. I found that mid-range Chinese restaurants always have a stable quality of food with reasonable prices.
The high-range restaurants, namely from self-acclaimed “King of Roasted Goose” (燒鵝大皇) or “God of Kitchen” (廚神), showcases an interesting relationship of price and quality. From my experience, these restaurants, often Michelin-starred or heavily reported in food magazines, always produce amazing food. It’s only the price tags that get you crazy. For the same portion of good-quality food, different high-end restaurants can charge one dish at the cost between HKD300 to HKD1,000. The implication? If you know where are those high-end restaurants with the relatively lower price range, you will get the best value for money plus good service and location. Of course, in the extreme case we can’t exclude the case that you might find a random, local and low-end “tea restaurant” (Cha Caan Tang) that makes better food than a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Summary of Chinese restaurants:
- Lower price range – food quality is uncertain
- Mid price range – food quality is relatively high and certain
- High price range – food quality is very high but it might not worth the price
Western food: Higher price means higher quality but with exceptions
What about Western food in Hong Kong? The location matters a lot.
Low-range Western restaurants, or I would call it the Hong Kong-style Western restaurants, are usually located in the Kowloon and New Territories side and in both residential and commercial areas like Mong Kok, Kwun Tong, Tsim Sha Tsui etc. Those restaurants are either small family business or chained restaurants. As for the quality, it could be good quality in locals’ eyes, but bad in Westerners’ eyes. After all, the chefs of these restaurants might be also local Hong Kong people. Nonetheless, you can’t deny that some local style Western food could be good ones, such as Hong Kong style French toast.
Mid-range Western restaurants are more concentrated in the Hong Kong Island commercial area, such as Central, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. They are mainly catering to expatriates and overseas-educated Hongkies working or living in those areas, although during the weekend even locals would travel all the way from New Territories to Central just to have a nice brunch. The quality of these restaurants is often good with friendly servers and fairly nice environment to enjoy a meal. But do take note that people who dine at this type of restaurants often confine their daily activities also in the same 50m2 area too, including living, working, gymming, dining and partying. Think of a book titled My Life in the 50m2 of Hong Kong.
For high-range Western restaurants, the quality never fails and the service is exceptional. And because celebrity chefs are usually the ones who own the restaurants, they have unique ways of cooking, so you rarely see duplicates of similar dishes in other restaurants at the same range. The quality of food is extremely high, with royal-family-like and traditional serving (e.g. the server cut the big piece of steak in front of you before serving you).
Summary of Western food:
- Lower price range – mainly local-style western food the quality is low and uncertain, however some people like it like that
- Mid price range – food quality is good and more stable
- High price range – food quality is very high and dishes are unique
The rise of hipster restaurants
One phenomenon worth mentioning is that dining in Hong Kong seems more like a social activity than just eating. Of course, nobody wants to dine alone, but what I mean here is that some people would go for a popular and trendy place in the Central and Western districts just for being there, because everyone of my friend has been there but I haven’t yet. That explains why sometimes brunching in Hong Kong isn’t about food but fashion. Central and Sheung Wan are full of “hipster” restaurants like this, and now Kennedy Town is also rising.
Another kind of hipster restaurants is another extreme. They’re local restaurants, or sometimes just a small kiosk (think of water leaking from the roof), located at small alleys on an unknown and low-traffic street in the middle of absolutely nowhere that are loved by the locals. Is it because the locals think that since the owner open the restaurant in an unknown place, it can only be good or it would go out of business? I have no comment for that.
In general, I like going to the same few mid-range restaurants I like. When I’m in a rush, I would go for a local restaurant just to fill my empty stomach (as in this case you don’t really care about the food when you’re crazily hungry).
In my observation, mid-range restaurants have a more consistent and higher quality of food and a good value for money. For low-range restaurants, you really need to get around and find out the best dish. For high-range ones, Western restaurants would have a better value for what it costs.
Just my humble opinion.