Hong Kong Cocktail Heroics

Fred Ferretti, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo - November 2005

A kaleidoscopic drinks scene keeps happy hoisters hopping.

During the day Hong Kong works. Hard. After dark it plays. Harder. And it does so at a dizzying rate in an ever growing, ever changing collection of bars and clubs.

Once, bars in this former Crown Colony were the exclusive haunts of Western expatriates, of foreign sailors on shore leave and soldiers from the various British outposts scattered about Hong Kong. They crowded into such dimly lit Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood basements as Bahama Mama's and Bottom Up, lured by drink and advertised bar girls, or into the boisterous bars of Wanchai ablaze with blinking neon—places such as Tango Martini or Dusk Till Dawn. Later, they drank up the Central District's slope in the web of narrow alleys that is Lan Kwai Fong, where late night imbibing in places like California and Club 97 never failed to spill out into the cobbled streets.

Most of these and others like them remain, but they've been joined lately by newer playgrounds. The bars and clubs of today's Hong Kong, now designated a Special Administrative Region (SAR), are trendy, hip, concept-driven star stops. Deejays and live bands flock here regularly to entertain, to engulf in sound Hong Kong's Westerners, along with a countless number of upscale Chinese for whom nightlife begins only after midnight in such places as The Cavern in Lan Kwai Fong, with its share of shag pile walls and hip-hop beat, and Dragon-I, with its very own starry night ceiling and chartreuse Dragon cocktails on Wyndham Street.

Traditional bars survive, to be sure. The classic, clubby Chinnery in the Mandarin Oriental hotel touts a serious collection of Scottish single malts. A matchless view of Victoria Harbor's water traffic can be had virtually tableside from the Lobby Lounge of the InterContinental Hong Kong. Felix, at the top of The Peninsula Hong Kong, is a Philippe Starck extravaganza (his focal point is The Long Table, which serves double duty for communal dining and as a fashion show catwalk) that more than a decade ago pioneered the new waves of clubs and bars that cater to Hong Kong's international diversity.

The SAR is now home to private clubs like The China Club, a replication of 1920s Shanghai; Cipriani, also a reproduction, down to its chairs and wall prints of Arrigo's Venice haunt; and Kee Club, atop one of Hong Kong's oldest, classical Cantonese restaurants, Yung Kee. Private, most definitely, but accessible through a friend or a friendly concierge.

But they have been joined, often superseded, by ever newer public bars, wildly popular, cavernous places like Aqua, a bar-restaurant complex at the 50 story pinnacle of One Peking Road, a new Kowloon skyscraper. The bar, Aqua Spirit, with its ceaseless pulsing sound, is the creation of its owner, David Yeo, and it towers over two restaurants, Aqua Roma and Hutong. Its signature Aquatini is a mix of Ketel One Vodka, lychee liqueur, and Chambord, speckled with gold leaf.

On the opposite side of the harbor soars the equally popular Isobar in a sprawling aerie above its sister, Isola Bar & Grill, in the new International Finance Center Mall. The IFC is a huge complex of malls and offices linked to the just-opened Four Seasons Hotel. Isobar, which features a deejay podium as impressive as one might see on Oscar night, pulsates to a constant hip-hop beat and is filled from early evening to early morning. The house drink is called "The Cocktail You Gave Me Last Time," a concoction of pureed fresh peaches, peach schnapps, pulverized lychees, lychee liqueur, lychee juice, Cachaça 51, and syrup. It flows.

Virtually next door to Isola Bar & Grill is Lumiere, by day a restaurant, by night an elegant and noise-filled amber-colored bar, with black lacquer chairs so high that patrons can peer beyond its bar through 20-foot windows that overlook the harbor. Along with rock music it serves Sichuan-Latino snacks to accompany Caipirinhas.

Any space is fit for a bar, apparently. Above Isola Bar & Grill, on the IFC rooftop, is Red Bar, a bar attached to, of all things, a fitness center and gym, where the American Beauty (orange liqueur, crème of ginger, Hennessy Cognac, Taylor's Port, and Veuve Clicquot) is as popular as the treadmill.

For unswervingly single-minded drinkers, Lan Kwai Fong and its environs remain bar central. Bars abound along D'Aguilar Street and neighboring Wo On Lane. Standing room only is the drill at Bar George, a take on a traditional British pub, the velvet-lined C-Club holds a weekly metrosexual night, D'Apartment is decorated to look like one, and Agave offers more than 150 Tequilas. Curving into Lan Kwai Fong is Hollywood Road, by day an antiques shopper's alley but at night a hot bar venue highlighted by such boîtes as Gecko, energized by live jazz, and Drop, populated by serial deejays du jour.

At Lan Kwai Fong's other end is steeply sloping Wyndham Street, home to The Cavern; to Goccia, Italian restaurant by day, wine bar by night, with the sounds of Jagger and Springsteen; and to Dragon-I, with its huge bird cage, the residents of which seem to have more room than the bar's customers.

Drink deprivation was never an affliction of Hong Kong. Nowadays, nor is sticker shock. As one happy, nonstop weekend pubcrawler put it, here "the wallet-crippling drinks are worth the pain."