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Mar 3, 2011 11:32 AM

Dining Solo in Hong Kong

I'm going to be in Hong Kong at the end of this month for a week, traveling by myself. I've searched this board for some buzz places and got some really good suggestions. But I'm wondering about the whole experience being a solo diner and what that'll be like as well as what the typical dress code will be.

I'm not really concerned about when I go to the Dai Pai Dong places or smaller restaurants, I'm more interested on people's views about visiting restaurants at hotels. For example, I'm thinking of going to Nanhai No. 1 and Hoi King Heen, and maybe checking out the new Ritz Carlton which opens two days before I arrive (and checking out Tin Lung Heen).

My questions are:

1) For these type of places, can I walk in or do I need to make reservations for one?

2) When are the peak times of dining for dinner, and what time would you suggest I go when it won't be super crowded but I'd still get good options and not have things run out on the menu?

3) Most of these places describe their dress as "smart casual." What does that mean in Hong Kong? Do I need a coat, or even a tie? Can I wear nice jeans? Can I just come in with a long-sleeve business shirt? Because I know Hong Kong might be hot, I don't really like to pack a lot of super nice clothing or coats, so hoping smart casual is really smart casual. (FYI, I live in California where you can go to nice restaurants in jeans.)

Also, this is unrelated to solo dining, but if you have any Hong Kong delicacies you feel I should definitely try, please let me know. I speak Cantonese but don't read Chinese, so I'm going to have to ask for things. But if I don't know to ask for something, I may miss out on a specialty that I can only get in Hong Kong.

Thanks in advance for your help!

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  1. 1) It's best you call ahead to make reservations to avoid disappointment - HK is one of the densest cities (if not THE one) in the world, and for that reason, seats at good restaurants can be very difficult to obtain;

    2) Peak dining periods for the local Chinese in HK are from 6pm-8pm, and for Continental restaurants (popular with Western/expat crowds) from 7.30pm-9pm. You may want to consider arriving as close to the restaurant's opening time as possible if you want to avoid the crowds;

    3) Smart casual in HK is roughly the same as for Los Angeles & San Francisco. People do dress up for nice restaurants. Some hotels like the Peninsula or Shangri-La do have a jacket-and-tie requirement for their formal restaurants during dinner times, but a good pair of jeans & collared shirt will suffice for lunch. I'll usually pack a jacket for any HK trip as I don't want to miss out on any good dining possibilties due to some sartorial restriction.

    How familiar are you with HK Cantonese cuisine? At the risk of sounding politically-incorrect, I thought sharksfin (soup or braised) in HK is unparalleled anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of top Taechew (Chiuchow) sharksfin restaurants in Bangkok.
    My own (quirky) fave when dining in HK is the braised pomelo skin, with shrimp roe. To-die for. Impossible to come across in Singapore's Chinese restaurants.

    5 Replies
    1. re: klyeoh

      Thanks KLYEOH for the tips. So if the website says "smart casual" then I don't have to worry about a jacket and tie, right?

      I've had sharks fin before, but not sure if I want to spend the $$ for a bowl, I'm guessing it's pretty pricey. To be honest, I'm actually more a fan of bird nest soup, so hoping that's not as pricey as shark's fin. I haven't heard of braised pomelo skin. Where do you find that? Is it at restaurants but more street food vendors? What's the Cantonese pronounciation for that?

      1. re: singleguychef

        Bird's nest soup can be even more expensive than sharks fin. At least bird's nest supposedly has medicinal functions. Shark's fin is just for the texture. Both are actually pretty tasteless by themselves.

        Pomelo skin is 柚皮, and is pronounced "yau pei". The first character is pomelo, the second is skin. I have no idea where you can find it.

        1. re: PeterL

          I don't think shark fin is just its texture. It has a unique fishy smell which cannot be found in other ingradient. The braised pomelo skin with shrimp roe can be found in many Cantonese restaurant, Fu Sing and Tim's Kitchen both have it, usually not found at street food vendors. But it may be too big and rich for solo dining.

          As klyeoh said, Hong Kong's Chinese restaurant are pretty causal, even the high-end ones. Definitely no tie and jacket required, even for 5-star hotel Chinese restaurant.

          1. re: skylineR33

            skylineR33 is spot on as always. Many detractors of sharksfin insisted that it has no taste or smell on its own, but I can ALWAYS discern the familiar sharksfin smell the moment a bowl is placed in front of me.
            That said, I'm also very concerned about the depletion of sharks worldwide due to the tremendous demand for sharksfin, especially with China's massive population & growing prosperity fuelling greater demand for this once-exclusive commodity. I practically grew up with sharksfin soup and dread the day when this dish becomes extinct.

            1. re: klyeoh

              Right, I think people in HK start to have this concern too as some restaurant starts to substitute shark fin in their banquet menu with other ingradients. I was at Cuisine Cuisine at the Mira one night and shark fin is not in the main menu, I have to ask for the shark-fin specific sub-menu ! The server told me some patrons are not comfortable to see them on the menu. That being said, shark fin soup listed in the menu are not made from shark which are in threatened status.

    2. Back from my week in Hong Kong. It sure went by fast! Turns out I couldn't try as many places as I wished because my mom ratted me out to my relatives that I was going to be in town so ended up going out with them a few times and they made the choices.

      Anywho, I thought I'd report back on some of my dining experience. Here are just some of the early ones:

      Tao Heung for dim sum: Went to the location in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon on my first day as I waited for my hotel to be ready. It was bustling for a weekday but I got there early at around 11:30 a.m. so didn't have a problem getting a table for one. I ate five dishes, including siu mai, steamed custard buns, baked spring onion dumplings, and pig trotters.

      The baked dumplings were the most interesting and something I don't see in San Francisco. So that was nice to try. Everything else was pretty good but not extraordinary. It was fresh and flavorful, so I couldn't ask for anything more. What's nice about Tao Heung is that the prices are really reasonable, I feel. I came back at the end of my trip with my uncle, aunt and cousin and ate a lot for a reasonable price, partly because it was a late afternoon tea thing when Tao Heung has "happy hour" prices from about 3 to 5 p.m.? Again, really good value and fresh dim sum.


      Tsui Wah: As some of you know, this is a common cha chaang teng or tea cafe in HK with several locations, but they opened a new one in The Peak Galleria, which is nice for the toursist. That location is actually really clean and comfortable with the air-conditioning. I tried their famous yu dan fun (fish ball noodles) and it was really great. The fish cake was light and easy to eat, while the broth was light and subtle. And the noodles were amazinly flat and light. The whole thing was refreshing.


      The Chairman: Some of you've mentioned this restaurant in Central and it got me interested. I went for the weekday lunch special and was the only walk-in allowed that day. (I was dining alone and there was only one small table in the corner. All the other tables seemed reserved.) Like others mentioned, the server is amazingly helpful, giving recommendations and even allowing me to order the yau pei or braised pomelo skins at a half order so I could try other things from the menu. I started with the pork cakes that were pan fried. I have to say the taste was really subtle, not salty like I would have thought, and slightly oily from the pan frying. But I liked how they were paired with a really aromatic balsamic vinegar.

      Then came the pomelo peels, which is something I'd never heard of until someone recommended it here. When the waiter took the top off the caserole dish, I could get a distinctive whiff of the lovely toasted shrimp roe sprinkled on top of the braised pomelo skins. The skins themselves were tender like cooked winter melon, and again the taste was subtle, with the tartness of the fruit only noticeable near the end, like a background flavor. I thought the dish was interesting, but not sure how people make this a meal. There were goose feet underneath, but I don't really enjoy eating any kind of feet (goose, duck, chicken -- NO!), so didn't try that much of it.

      Then I had the layered beancurd with Morel and Chinese mushrooms. It was an OK dish. I liked the beancurd, which made me think of layered yuba skins, and it had an intense soy flavor, but everything else was just ok.

      Instead of soup, I ordered dessert and got two scoops of ice cream. The flavors were Wolfberry with ginger and lemon custard. They were both fantastic, although they had a bit of iciness to them, almost like they were kept in the freezer too long or something.

      The Chairman was a nice experience and service is fantastic. But I wonder if the food is just too subtle in flavor for me. It's a very sophisticated experience and I like their commitment to sourcing quality materials.


      Nanhai No. 1 and Eyebar: Went here to dinner on my own and this place I did make reservations via email three weeks in advance and got a window seat to enjoy the view. For window seats, you have to order a minimum of HK$500, which isn't an issue when you get a couple of drinks and at least one of the expensive entrees.

      I have mixed feelings about Nanhai. I had fantastic service from my server (maybe it helped that I speak Cantonese?) but I felt the food was mixed. Sometimes the food, especially really common Chinese household dishes, looked like it was heavy on the cornstarch, almost like the kitchen was cooking for a western audience like some Chinese chains do here in the states. But then you'll get a surprise like their specialty geoduck with seafood consomme that was amazing savory with a strong mussel flavor in the consomme, served with fresh geoducked lightly cooked in the broth. In the serving there are bits of crunchy yau ja gwai, which is typically served with jook, but Nanhai's version is a miniature version cut into bits and added to the consomme. What I loved about it was it was sooo crunchy even after sitting in the consomme.

      I also had corn and crab soup (thick with cornstarch but OK in flavor) and vegetables with shiitake mushrooms (again, glazed in cornstarch). Also had a quarter of roasted goose and they were tasty and good, but not all the skin was crispy. But they were easy to eat.

      I've heard mixed things about Nanhai, so I'm afraid to recommend it because I think it depends on what you order. Seems like the really common typical Cantonese dishes you would make at home would seem overpriced. But if you go for the specialty dishes, then you may be surprised, but then they are also the most expensive. (I paid about HK$360 for the geoduck.) I did get some really nice complimentary desserts, a walnut soup and Malaysian cake that was light and fluffy.


      I have a few more other eating adventures, but I'm going to post them later this month as I go through my photos.

      7 Replies
      1. re: singleguychef

        You should try some of the famous dishes at Chairman, many of them are strong in flavor such as the 'Chinese wine chicken fat flower crab'.

        You had the geoduck consommé at Nanhai no1 all by yourself ?! Wow, it is a pretty big dish to be shared. It is good though. The laksa jumbo super-sized shrimp is one of their best dishes ! That is one shrimp per order.

        1. re: skylineR33

          I don't think I saw the Chinese wine chicken crab on the lunch menu at the Chairman. Maybe it's just dinner? I do know that my server told me the menu changes often because they do emphasize seasonal ingredients.

          Yes, the geoduck was a lot. My server was nice enough to split the order into two so that the geoduck wouldn't be sitting in the consomme. But I ate all of it! I like geoduck, not too heavy. That's the thing about dining alone at a Chinese restaurant, can only order so many dishes!

          1. re: singleguychef

            It was on the lunch menu when I was there a few weeks ago but prices start at around HK$380 for a small crab. That was a little outside of my lunch budget, that day!

        2. re: singleguychef

          I have got to ask. Isn't one of the qualities of good Cantonese food is that it doesn't slap you around the head with strong flavours? It is a subtle, refined cuisine unlike some of the bigger flavours of other regional food. Thus a restaurant that gets the balance right is a good thing isn't it?

          1. re: PhilD

            Yes, Phil you're right, and I agree that that would be the sign of good Cantonese food. I guess in my remarks about certain HK restaurants with "subtle" flavors, I was writing more for my friends back in the U.S. I didn't want them to go, eat what I ate, and think the food would be tasty but deciding it was bland. I'm not saying the food I had was bland, but it was definitely "subtle" in flavor. I liked most of it, although I felt some could have more "mei do." :)

            1. re: PhilD

              Not all the Cantonese cuisine is subtle in flavor. Have you tried Hakka cuisine ? It features "salty" and "oily" in its dishes. It belongs to Cantonese cuisine. Give it a try when you have a chance. Just FYI, I am not talking about the Hakka cuisine which you can find in many Chinese-Indian restaurant.

              1. re: PhilD

                It really depends on the dishes and which other cuisine you compared to. For example, it is definitely much more subtle than American food but yet less so to Japanese food.
                And in terms of dishes, I would think most pork dishes in Cantonese food tend to have strong flavor. Even the above mentioned "Chinese wine chicken fat flower crab" has strong flavor as well. So I would not say your statement applies to every dish.

            2. The rest of my roundup of where I dined during my HK trip:

              Din Tai Fung: I visited the Causeway Bay location, and got there just as they opened so was seated right away. But then the crowds came just a few minutes later and by the time I left there were a big crowd hovering around the glass windows showing the kitchen.

              I really like eating xiao lung bao so that's why I went, and their version is very nice and the skin is the best feature, I think. But I have to say, I've had some pretty good xiao lung bao in San Francisco that's similar. I think what made the difference in San Francisco's version was the aroma of the soup at this one particular restaurant. Otherwise, Din Tai Fung's version would be pretty much the same. Other than the dumplings, I ordered the shredded pork and pickled vegetable noodles and I loved it! It was the favorite part of my meal because the noodles were so uniform and tasty with good pull, and the pork and vegetables were just of the highest quality and freshness. I regret I didn't go back for another bowl of noodles. Overall, the restaurant is a nice, relaxing dining space with great service. Photos:

              Australia Dairy Company: Every post on foodies in HK seem to recommend going here for the cha chaan teng experience, and I have to say it was a lot of fun with the bustling vibe but the food was just OK. I went before 9 a.m. to avoid the lines, and sat at a table I shared with three other strangers who didn't say a word to me. The food came fast. I ordered the breakfast set of macaroni soup, scrambled eggs sandwich and lai cha. The macaroni soup was what you would expect. The scrambled eggs were nicely cooked, not super runny so easy to pick up as a sandwich. But everyone described the eggs so dreamlike I thought they'd be fluffier, but they were good. It was my first time having lai cha, or HK milk tea, and Australia Dairy Co's version is not sweet at all so I'm guessing they used evaporated milk instead of sweetened condensed milk? But I liked it. Not sure what tea leaves they used, but it had a nice fragrance. And definitely a cheap spot for a quick breakfast if you avoid the lines. Photos:

              Tbls: This is an interesting restaurant that's like a private kitchen. It's in the Soho area on the 7th floor of a building. I was able to get a reservations at the bar counter and you get to watch the chef and team cook the meals. The chef is from New York and is Vietnamese-American, and changes the menu every month. So happened the month I visited he was doing a Vietnamese menu dedicated to his mom. It had a lot of the classic dishes like pho, banh mi, grilled pork and spring rolls, but presented in a very beautiful and elegant way. The chef has worked at some fancy restaurants and it shows in the plating. I felt the flavors were also very good too. He does a 6-course set menu and charges HK$620. It's a fun, engaging way to enjoy a meal in Hong Kong, I felt. One of my more interesting dining experiences during my trip. And like I mentioned, there's two bar seats so it's good for a solo diner. The other person was also traveling by himself from Australia. The place is small so you definitely need reservations, especially since you also need the building code to get through the front gate downstairs. Photos:

              Liu Yuan Pavilion: I got some more Shanghainese cuisine at this place in Wanchai and it wasn't what I expected. Most Shanghai places in the states are noodle houses, but this is like a fancy restaurant with table cloths, etc. My favorite dish was the shen jiao baos, which were nicely crisp at the bottom. (I ate with my cousin's family so not a solo dining experience.) We also ate a special smoked chicken that had very tender meat, and the Yunnan ham, which was nicely done, sliced thin and sandwiched in a steamed bun with a crispy dried tofu layer. I also really liked a pickled vegetable starter that looked like minced greens, but with a light vinaigrette. Photos:

              Hoi King Heen: Went here for dim sum by myself on my last day in Hong Kong. It's a very palatial environment and lots of locals, but the high-end locals like the tai tais and the businessmen. I didn't see too many tourists even though it's in the Intercontinental. I like the char siu puff pastry, which was baked really golden brown, and also enjoyed a shrimp and asparagus dumpling. Also ordered the premium siu mai, which was good but not amazing, and the cheong fun with pumpkin which was unusual. The least successful dish was a dessert dish of layered cake. It was on the dry side. But service was very attentive, and everything is hot and fresh out of the kitchen after you order it. Or course, it's pretty pricey. For the five items I ordered I spent HK$264. So more like a special treat. I did feel the menu seemed a bit limited for dim sum. I wished they had more offerings. But I like some of the creative touches and twists here and there. Photos:

              3 Replies
              1. re: singleguychef

                Apart from the 'private clubs' like Shanghai Fraternity Association and So-Jit, Liu Yuan Pavilion and Old Hong Kong Restaurant inside the MIRA are two of my favourite Shanghainese go-to places!!

                1. re: Charles Yu

                  Second Old Hong Kong. Had a meal there a few months ago. Great Shanghainese food. Intend to go back some time soon.

                  1. re: Charles Yu

                    I never realized private clubs could be so popular, I thought they were more like the Lions club back in the states. So I wished I had a chance to check one out, but only my cousin belongs to a private club but she didn't offer to take me there. I have to hint harder the next time!