Hong Kong’s bar and restaurant scene excites with head-turning artworks, quirky concepts and creative plates worth the wait lists.

A couple of pendant lights, a mix of ostensibly eclectic wood-backed chairs and a communal table or two were enough to add character to a restaurant in Hong Kong six years ago. Bars were similarly pared-back affairs – comfortable, yes, but with a focus firmly locked on menu items, rather than aesthetics.

The city’s drinking and dining evolution has nurtured a craft-beer and cocktail movement, the rise of celebrity chefs, and a sustainable food initiative. In addition to all of these, restaurant and bar design has undergone a renaissance of its own, with interiors of ever-increasing creativity. For designers, the era has lifted the ceiling on artistic possibility. For punters, it’s a multi-sensory feast, a culinary theatre where the lines between food, drink and design are hedonistically blurred.

Cosmopolitan tastes

When Yardbird entered the picture in 2011, it was the first of its kind in the then quiet residential pocket of Sheung Wan. The two-storey bar and eatery almost single-handedly turned the culinary scene on it head with its Japanese-influenced, izakaya-style dining. It not only served crowd favourites such as KFC (Korean Fried Cauliflower), but also tapped into a well-travelled and international crowd that was ready for something different. Egged on by a DJ spinning tunes, mixologists added vodka, fresh tomato and kimchi (pickled cabbage) puree to cheekily named cocktails, and the crowd ate with casual ease amid graffiti art. The no-reservations and no-service-charge policy, which was pioneering in Hong Kong at the time, ratcheted up the buzz. Sheung Wan, as a food haven and home to all things design, was born.

Soon, restaurant interiors excited diners as much as the food, as they queued for tables at other innovative new venues away from the high-rent hub of Central. In Sheung Wan, Duecento Otto (above) and Blue Butcher heralded a look inspired by New York’s Meatpacking District, where industrial steel meets woodcraft. Duecento Otto added local flair with a blue and white willow-pattern wall depicting scenes from ancient China.

Similar creative murmurings were afoot in Admiralty, where designer Joyce Wang put the finishing touches on Ammo (above), a bar housed in a former British army explosives compound. Wang ran with this theme while evoking film noir, combining high ceilings and military motifs with extravagant chandeliers and copper embellishments. It wowed the clientele of legal professionals, setting the bar high.

To understand the excitement surrounding some of these openings, it helps to know what came before. Sandeep Sekhri, founder and managing director of the Dining Concepts restaurant group, opened his first restaurant, Bombay Dreams, in 2002 on Wyndham Street near Soho. After recognising the area’s potential as a dining district, the group followed with five more eateries. But when speculators and property investors arrived, rents doubled and tripled in the years following 2007.

“In Hong Kong, we were at the mercy of our landlords. Leases were short, so nobody really invested in design,” says Sekhri.

“There was a lot of monotony in the look and feel of most of the restaurants.”

Max Dautresme, co-founder of design agency Substance, agrees. “Something was definitely lacking in Hong Kong. It was all pretty focused on high-end offerings.”

Then things started to change. Armed with backgrounds in hotels and bigger restaurant groups, more players in the food and beverage industry went solo with new creative ventures.

These included some big firsts for the city. Urban-cool Mexican joint Brickhouse opened in 2012 with graffiti-covered walls, and staff who seemed to come straight out of a skateboard advertisement. People now cram into the space to sip jalapeno-laden vodka-based concoctions and eat cobs of corn covered in chilli mayonnaise, grated cheese and coriander.

London celebrity chef Jason Atherton had a similarly international vision for 22 Ships when it opened in Wan Chai the same year. Here, sherry-sipping customers perch on bar stools surrounding an open kitchen, polishing off Spanish-style tapas such as braised chorizo and foie gras burgers.

The enhanced appetite for global cuisine became the catalyst for more widespread, almost mainstream, creative interiors. Take for instance, Chachawan, which serves Isaan cuisine from northeastern Thailand in a mosaic-tiled space with wooden stools and vintage Chinese posters.

But more elaborate design projects, backed by bigger budgets, were to come. Bibo (above), with its discreet gold door, is Substance’s 2014 brainchild. Here, contemporary French fine dining meets an enviable street-art collection, with a fictitious back-story revolving around historical tramways. Bold works by the likes of Banksy, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons pop against a backdrop of blue furnishings, brass pipes and French oak floors.

The same year, Mott 32another Joyce Wang design project, led the charge in the wave of contemporary Chinese eateries. In a former bank vault, Wang successfully melded industrial New York aesthetics with classic Chinese paintings, calligraphy and lampshades. At the time, the restaurant’s farm-to-table philosophy hit the sweet spot for a demographic increasingly interested in sustainable dining.

Haute bars

Mott 32’s interior was also a precursor to the current popularity of hidden bars. Unlike the grungy speakeasies of old, today’s versions find homes in B-grade rental spaces – but their extravagant designs attract an A-list crowd.

Ming Fat House restaurant group’s two examples pay homage to their surrounding neighbourhoods and throw in the added quirk of concealed entries. Guests at Mrs Pound (above) in Sheung Wan pull on a rubber stamp in a display case to enter the retro neon-lit bar. It’s a nod to the area’s many antique and stamp stores. Over at Foxglovea boutique umbrella shop has a parasol lever that opens the door to a restaurant and bar.

“Foxglove is in an affluent area, so we upped the ante by creating a real handmade umbrella store,” says Ming Fat House’s co-founder Shakib Pasha. “We’re strong believers in creating unique and memorable customer experiences. Having a fun secret that you can share with your friends does exactly that.”

Mott 32 took home Inside Festival’s World Interior of the Year award in 2014. But the zenith in this design boom might well be marked with designer Ashley Sutton’s arrival on the scene.

The Bangkok-based Australian is arguably the most in-demand designer in Asia. In collaboration with Dining Concepts, Sutton’s award-winning bar Ophelia (above) – his first Hong Kong project – is a fantastical ode to peacocks. Plush velvet furniture, ornate metal work and feathers bring it all to life.

Sutton’s two other venues also offer patrons a chance to step into a magical world. At Iron Fairies, discover a ceiling of dangling preserved butterflies and a cauldron of tiny fairies made from iron. J.Boroski is an invite-only cocktail concierge service, with beautifully curved walls and a bar adorned with scarab beetles.

“I see a space, and imagine guests walking in and allowing their minds to go to another world,” says Sutton. “I love to bring a little magic to people.”

Written by Penny Watson for Silverkris