A guide to eating alone in Hong Kong
Author: Candice Chung
Photography: Jonathan Maloney
Dining in Hong Kong is a picture of secular communion. In cramped barbecue restaurants and noodle houses, friends and families gather regularly for noisy conversation over plates of crisp-skinned roast meats, braised brisket and bowls of wontons.
In one of the most densely populated and expensive cities in the world, the practice of table-sharing is so common it has a name, daap toi, and it's this thriving communal-dining culture that makes Hong Kong a solo traveller's haven. A diner having a solitary meal might be drawn into a family lunch with three generations, say, or a companionable dinner with an octogenarian who shares a passion for roast duck. In the right company, it's a pleasant together-separateness that beats a table for one.
But first, some daap toi etiquette. Most shared-table action happens at budget eateries, where service is reliably grumpy and owners are under pressure to turn over tables swiftly. "Get in, get out" is the implicit understanding. Diners who linger too long in popular restaurants such as Yat Lok in Central are likely to find themselves unceremoniously ushered out by a waitress.
Some of the city's most acclaimed restaurants are also the most affordable, which means a dining companion isn't required to help defray the cost of ordering across the menu. Wonton noodles at Mak's Noodle and Kau Kee's beef brisket, for instance, draw long queues and cost less than an average food-court meal. For a budget Michelin crawl, start the night with a cocktail at Belon, then head to a strip of low-key diners on Wellington Street bearing red Michelin stickers. Stop by Yat Lok for the best roast goose in town, Tsim Chai Kee for fish balls and wontons, and for dessert, take the MTR to nearby Causeway Bay for a bowl of silky steamed milk pudding, called dun nai, at Yee Shun Dairy Company.
For more refined but still unpretentious fare, a growing number of restaurants offer impressive counter dining. Yakitori bar Yardbird is beloved for its grilled dishes and an all-Japanese beer and liquor list, as is its seafood spin-off, Ronin. There's a French-Chinese tasting menu at VEA, a slick 25-seat counter run by Vicky Cheng, who claimed a Michelin star before the restaurant's first birthday this year.
French toast and Hong Kong-style milk tea in a cha chaan teng, the ubiquitous Cantonese cafés that are seemingly impervious to fashion, is an essential Hong Kong experience. Most cha chaan tengs also offer cheap, all-day set menus featuring their most popular dishes, a sound alternative for those who have decision-fatigue. Take afternoon tea at Lan Fong Yuen in Central, or in the 1950s wooden booths at the atmospheric Mido in Yau Ma Tei.
From booth to bar stool and shared table, solo diners are well served in Hong Kong. Here's our guide to the best tables for one.
Though the Mak family's recently renovated noodle house has a modern Chinese gloss, the restaurant was founded in the late 1960s as an open-air food stall in Central by Mak King Hung (nicknamed Mak Ngan, or "skinny Mak"), whose father, Mak Woon Chi, brought his wonton noodles to Hong Kong from his native Guangzhou. A few things distinguish Mak's acclaimed dumplings. While most wonton makers bulk out their filling with pork, Mak's just uses prawns. The resulting parcels are bite-sized and delicate - an addictive accompaniment to the ultra-thin noodles and umami-rich broth, made with dried shrimp, flounder and pork bones. The springy texture of Mak's noodles can be attributed to the use of duck eggs and the way the dough is flattened and worked repeatedly. Try them served dry and tossed with an intensely flavoured prawn roe. Plates are snack-sized here, so solo diners can embark on a multi-course noodle feast.
Mak's Noodle, 77 Wellington St, Central
Wonton mein and beef brisket with noodles at Mak's Noodle.
Opened in Sheung Wan in 2013, this 24-seat eatery made an impact way out of proportion to its diminutive size when it was placed 45 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list this year. Canadian-born chef-owner Matt Abergel, who also owns Yardbird, divides the menu into three - raw, smaller and bigger - featuring the likes of Daniel Sorlut oysters from France served with red shiso vinegar, snack-sized grilled baby squid with shishito pepper, and a more substantial tomato miso udon with chorizo and wild shrimp. It has a wall of Japanese whisky and a dark, timber-clad interior that evokes the mood of a Murakami novel. Arrive early to claim one of only 10 walk-in bar seats.
Ronin, 8 On Wo La, Sheung Wan, roninhk.com
Sushi Mori Tomoaki
This sparsely furnished sushi den with no signage has only 15 seats lining an omakase counter. Choose nine, 12 or 15 pieces of sushi fashioned by chef Mori Tomoaki using fish delivered daily from Kyushu and Hokkaido. The mixed clientele - couples, travellers, businessmen - pay hushed attention to the chef's knifework, which skilfully produces nigiri using the likes of sea bream with shiso leaves and plum sauce, sea bass with yuzu pepper, and a mix of two breeds of sea urchin.
Sushi Mori Tomoaki, Seabright Plaza, 9-23 Shell St, North Point
Yat Lok Restaurant
The crisp-skinned, delicately flavoured roast goose is so popular at this cramped, perpetually packed one-starred eatery it's no surprise its waitstaff are eager to keep tables churning. Order your favourite portion with rice and a side of tangy plum sauce, or leave it to the chef and enjoy the surprise. For a different carb component, try a goose-flavoured noodle soup with spring onions called lai fun, or boost the protein intake by adding a side of barbecue pork, or soy and rose-wine chicken. The fast turnaround means solo customers are often summoned from the long queue to fill a seat.
Yak Lok, 34-38 Stanley St, Central
Daniel Sorlut oyster with red
shiso vinegar at Ronin.
Australia Dairy Company
The name of this cha chaan teng may come as a surprise given its quintessentially Hong Kong fare - it's a homage to the time spent by the founder working on an Australian dairy farm in the 1940s. Locals love this no-frills, daap toi-only café for its steamed milk puddings and buttery scrambled eggs. To create an extra-creamy texture, a splash of thick Hokkaido milk is added to the curds during cooking. Order the all-day breakfast set with scrambled eggs and buttered white toast, which comes with a savoury macaroni and ham soup. Portions aren't huge, which means solo diners can try several dishes. Finish with a velvety steamed milk dessert, reminiscent of a sweet chawanmushi.
Australia Dairy Company, 47 Parkes St, Jordan
Ichiran Hong Kong
Dubbed "the introvert's paradise" for its solo booths, Ichiran became a social-media sensation when the Japanese ramen shop opened a branch in Brooklyn late last year. When its sister shop opened in Causeway Bay in 2013, the reception was so enthusiastic diners queued for three hours. The booths are separated by partitions, ostensibly so diners can concentrate on what's in their bowls. Guests indicate their preferred toppings, richness of the tonkotsu broth, and firmness of ramen on a form, then slip it through to the kitchen via a slot in the booth. The entire meal - from seating to payment via a vending machine - can theoretically be conducted without any human contact.
Ichiran Hong Kong, Shop F-G, Lockhart House, Block A, 440-446 Jaffe Rd, Causeway Bay
VEA Restaurant & Lounge
Vicky Cheng, who cut his teeth at Daniel in New York, runs an action-packed open kitchen. At a curved marble counter surrounded by polished brass fittings, Cheng plates an eight-course seasonal menu he describes as French-Chinese. Snacks to start include quail eggs that have been pickled, then smoked with applewood. Combinations that seem curious on paper - tuna belly with burnt cucumber jelly, say - work on the plate. Cheng takes seasonality seriously, too. Meat from locally sourced hairy crabs is rolled in shiso and served in a stock made from crab shells and dashi, and a breast of pigeon and smoked eel might be dressed in a jus of the bird's blood.
VEA Restaurant & Lounge, 30/F, 198 Wellington St, Central, vea.hk
Chef Mori Tomoaki puts the finishing touches to a 12-piece sushi dish.
A LOCAL'S TIPS: JOWETT YU
Born in Taiwan, raised in Canada and trained in Sydney (Mr Wong, Ms G's), Jowett Yu moved to Hong Kong in 2014. His Soho restaurant Ho Lee Fook ("good fortune for your mouth") is one of the city's most popular modern Chinese restaurants. Here are his suggestions for solo dining in his adopted city.
Yum cha at Sun Hing
"If you're alone and jet-lagged, there's a dim sum joint called
Sun Hing in Kennedy Town that opens every day at 3am and closes in
the evenings. This place is buzzy, affordable and has zero service
- meaning you help yourself with tea and baskets of dim
Sun Hing, 8 Smithfield Rd, Kennedy Town, Western District
Noodles at On Lee Noodle
"This place in Shau Kei Wan makes a great fish ball and brisket noodle soup, but be prepared for a long queue."
On Lee Noodle, 22 Shau Kei Wan Main St E, Shau Kei Wan
Soup at Shui Kee
"Shui Kee, a dai pai dong in Central, serves the best 'miscellaneous offal noodle soup' in the city. All the seating is outdoors in a tight alleyway, with a mostly local clientele."
Shui Kee, 2 Gutzlaff St, Central
Bar dining at Belon
"Dining solo at the bar in Belon is one of the restaurant industry's best-kept secrets. It's not uncommon to find chefs from around the world dining late at the bar. The vibe is cool-Parisian but the food is refined, and a comprehensive natural wine list makes this place great for solo dining."
Belon, 41 Elgin St, Central
Kushikatsu at Hidden
"This is a small place with bar seating that opens only at night, hidden in an office building in Causeway Bay. They serve Osaka-style kushikatsu - miscellaneous items deep-fried on a stick - with an extensive shochu menu."
Hidden, Room D, 3/F, Prosperous Commercial Building, 54 Jardine's Bazaar, Causeway Bay