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Inside 'private kitchens', Hong Kong's upmarket underground dining scene

The elevator doors clatter open and reveal a low-lit room buzzing with flickering computer screens and pimply teenagers playing fast paced games.

“Wrong floor,” my friend Ian says, and blindly presses another button.

It’s easy to get lost when you’re looking for one of Hong Kong’s private kitchens, the semi-legal eateries surging in popularity thanks to some creative legal loopholes and top notch cooking.

Private kitchens – known as sue fon tsoi in Cantonese – are unlicensed restaurants that simmered into Hong Kong’s often upscale dining scene back in the 1990s, offering a cheaper, more creative and oftentimes grittier dining experience. Over the years they have become more well known yet the excitement doesn’t fade as you seek out a hidden dining location.

The gastronomic speakeasy we’re after is Le Marron, one of the Fragrant Harbour’s better-established twilight venues that specialises in French cuisine. But finding it not as simple as its advertised street address suggests.

I’m with my wife Carmen, our mate Ian who lives in Hong Kong and works as an investment banking advisor, and a couple from Sydney who are en route to a holiday in Italy, having caught the fast train from Hong Kong’s airport to have a decent meal during their layover. As long as we can find the place…

Le Marron is somewhere inside the Ying Kong Mansion building, a typical Hong Kong office and apartment complex with battered elevators and a confusing layout. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, tumbling down the rabbit hole, searching for something that says “eat me”.

The doors open again to a bare brick wall with a Members Only sign lit by a hanging bulb. Hong Kong’s rules for private clubs are much easier to comply with than restaurant regulations; so private kitchens pose as clubs that cater for their “members”. And so from the moment the waiters of Le Marron greet us at the door, to when we pay our bill and leave, we are newly minted associates.

Down in the streets below, the bustling commerce and slick modernity of Hong Kong buzzes past, but inside Le Marron we are in the south of France of the early 1900s. Mahogany antiques, windows adorned in peeled paint and gilded frames with black and white photographs decorate the crumbling walls. Each candle lit table is set apart from the rest by old French doors hanging on rails, creating booths and corridors and private rooms throughout the bustling space. It’s romantic and edgy, rough and smooth.

We’re shown to our table where we order sparkling water and rifle through the menu. Old favourites like Confit de Canard and Foie Gras sit alongside ‘Provencal style’ surf and turf and live oysters. There’s also an extensive wine list, though thanks to the legal loopholes you can bring your own booze for a small corkage charge.

The service is amateur and the atmosphere is riotous – we’re seated next to a big group of Hong Kong locals getting stuck into their BYO case of champagne. It’s almost as though the ever-present threat of the authorities busting down the doors for a surprise inspection has given us all a jolt of adrenalin.

Ian clues us in to the big appeal though. “Taking someone to a private kitchen can be a bit more impressive than a regular restaurant,” he says, reflecting his business life where wining and dining clients is part of the daily grind. “Locals love them because they are just different, expats like the excitement and tourists are starting to know about them.”

There are scores of private kitchens throughout Hong Kong and intrepid diners can find almost anything they want being served up in someone’s front room or an old office, from Chinese Dim Sum to Japanese sushi and Lebanese kebabs. But this semi-secret scene is becoming very popular, so bookings are a must these days.

Our courses arrive and we tuck in, using the delicately arrayed silverware laid out on the frilly tablecloth. I begin with the French onion soup, which has a baked top of pastry to crumble into the piping hot broth. That’s followed by a main of medium rare rib eye steak with pommes frites and grilled vegetables. I finish with a dessert platter of crème brulee, chocolate pudding and napoleon biscuits.

The food is delectable, and so is the bill. The cost of entrée, main, dessert and drinks (no alcohol though) for our table of five came to $HKD 2721 ($AU 475), which is significantly lower than what you’d pay at a proper French restaurant in Hong Kong’s regular dining scene, where it seems a Black Amex is the only acceptable form of ID.

We hop back into the battered old elevator and descend back down to street level where the brilliant neon day of Hong Kong’s night instantly washes away the old world charm we’ve just stewed in for the last couple of hours. To top off the night we head to a local foot massage joint called The Big Bucket where we have a steaming hot footbath and shoulder and back massage to help digest our meal.

Hong Kong is a top destination for food of any kind, from the finest of fine dining to the greasiest of street food. But a foray into the hush-hush world of private kitchens offers a slice of adventure alongside its gastronomic delights. The next time we jet into Hong Kong, we’ll be entering this wonderland again and seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes.

David Allan-Petale is a writer and digital nomad who has been travelling the world full time since mid-2013. You can follow the adventures he has with his wife around the globe on their travel blog, Double-Barrelled Travel.

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