Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is an urgent reminder of what Hong Kong stands to lose

by: Nik Addams
26 Mar 2020

It might seem incongruous given our current global climate, but the announcement of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 gives Hong Kong’s F&B scene cause to celebrate.

Or to put it another way, the results – which saw eight Hong Kong restaurants claim a coveted place on the list – starkly illustrate what the city, and indeed, the region, stands to lose if the SAR government follows through with a proposed crackdown on more than 8,600 alcohol licenses citywide.

Our hometown heroes at Asia’s 50 Best were honoured during an appropriately low-key Facebook and YouTube live stream alongside 42 other restaurants throughout the region on the afternoon of Tuesday, 24 March.

Not 24 hours earlier, Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam effectively lobbed an unforeseeable, unprecedented, and unexplained grenade into the heart of the hospitality sector, and – as has been the theme of her administration – turned and ran the other way. Effectively the government is proposing an alcohol ban at bars and restaurants citywide that hold liquor licences, with no word on financial assistance to help these venues cover losses. At the time of publication, there has been no clarification around her statement, leaving thousands of business, and workers, in limbo.

There are a few layers to this whole story, of course, so let’s break it down a little, starting with the good news. Hong Kong’s eight listed restaurants means our city was second to only Japan in terms of ranked restaurants by country. There are some really great stories within those eight, too – The Chairman soaring to number 2 overall to claim the title of The Best Restaurant in China; and Richard Ekkebus’ Amber (no. 31) being rewarded with the Sustainable Restaurant Award following the Dutch chef’s ambitious, eco-conscious revamp last year. 

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2020 – Richard Ekkebus Amber Hong Kong
Richard Ekkebus' iconic Amber took home the Sustainability Award for 2020.

Elsewhere, Black Sheep Restaurants’ sleek Soho bistro Belon showed why it’s been one to watch since the talented Daniel Calvert took over the kitchen in 2016, rising nearly ten spots from last year to come in number 4; incidentally, this year’s list also marks the first time since 2017 that two Hong Kong restaurants have placed in the top 5. Slightly lower down the ranks but no less impressive, Vicky Cheng’s stellar VEA continued its momentum after debuting on the World’s 50 Best longlist last year to become one of the highest climbers on the 2020 regional list, rising 22 places to number 12. David Lai’s seasonally driven Neighbourhood (no. 19) and Cantonese stalwart Seventh Son (no. 25) also shot up this year’s list, while other old reliables in 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana (no. 32) and the Four Seasons’ Lung King Heen (no. 33) also put in very respectable showings.

That’s the good news. We can – and should – celebrate (while keeping an appropriate distance from others, of course) these successes, especially given how little we have to celebrate right now. The impressive showing of Hong Kong restaurants on the list this year is a timely reminder that our hospitality scene is not only surviving, but thriving. 

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2020 – The Chairman, Danny Yip
Danny Yip's The Chairman shot up this year's rankings.

Hong Kong has long been one of the world’s best cities in which to dine – that’s why it’s such a privilege to be able to write about our dynamic and diverse restaurant scene for a living. Our success and standing have come about in spite of, rather than because of, factors that make it particularly difficult to make a successful play in our F&B industry: high rent prices, lack of space, a climate that means the great majority of what we consume needs to be imported, and delays, and often confusion, around licensing. 

And yes, while many other global cities present their own hurdles for F&B operators, none of these cities have the unique combination of issues that Hong Kong does. Restaurants of any size that succeed in our town should be celebrated – the path to success here is by no means guaranteed. The perverse flipside of course is that these are the factors that make our scene seem as dynamic as it is, with a turnover rate that means foodies are (usually) never short of hot new openings to check out, but that’s another story for another day. 

See also: Hong Kong's leading food experts join forces for #UnitedWeDine

Another issue, perhaps less spoken about outside the F&B bubble, is that, for restaurants, booze is the primary moneymaker. Given that money made on food usually goes towards overheads like staffing, rent, and importing produce, alcohol is where restaurants are able to get a bit of breathing room. Revoking alcohol licences, or clamping down on them – or whatever it is that Lam and her administration are planning on doing – will further hurt an industry that has been in decline since the pro-democracy protests started last year. Several high-profile restaurants announced temporary closures in the wake of Lam’s Monday press conference (Yardbird, Mott 32, and Samsen, to name a few), with more expected over the following days.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 will be the biggest challenge faced by global leaders in their, and our, lifetimes. And, absolutely, measures need to be taken to ensure that loss of life is minimal – the history books will judge administrations on the numbers. However, as borders around the world close, it’s a good time to take stock of what, as a city, we do have, and what we stand to lose.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Hong Kong – Julian Royer, Odette, Singapore
Julian Royer's Singapore dining room Odette claimed top spot for the second year running.

Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2020

1. Odette, Singapore

2. The Chairman, Hong Kong

3. Den, Tokyo

4. Belon, Hong Kong

5. Burnt Ends, Singapore

6. Sühring, Bangkok

7. Florilège, Tokyo

8. Le Du, Bangkok

9. Narisawa, Tokyo

10. La Cime, Osaka

11. Les Amis, Singapore

12. Vea, Hong Kong

13. Indian Accent, New Delhi

14. Mingles, Seoul

15. Gaa, Bangkok

16. Sorn, Bangkok

17. Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, Toyo

18. Mume, Taipei

19. Neighborhood, Hong Kong

20. Fu He Hui, Shanghai

21. Jaan by Kirk Westaway, Singapore

22. Wing Lei Palace, Macau

23. Sichuan Moon, Macau

24. Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo

25. Seventh Son, Hong Kong

26. JL Studio, Taichung

27. TocToc, Seoul

28. Zén, Singapore

29. Sazenka, Tokyo

30. Ministry of Crab, Colombo

31. Amber, Hong Kong

32. 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong

33. Lung King Heen, Hong Kong

34. Hansikgonggan, Seoul

35. Ode, Tokyo

36. Raw, Taipei

37. Locavore, Bali

38. Paste, Bangkok

39. Bo.Lan, Bangkok

40. La Maison de la Nature Goh, Fukuoka

41. Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, Shanghai

42. Corner House, Singapore

43. Shoun RyuGin, Taipei

44. Toyo Eatery, Manila

45. Bukhara, New Delhi

46. Sushi Saito, Tokyo

47. 80/20, Bangkok

48. L'Effervescence, Tokyo

49. Inua, Tokyo

50. Nouri, Singapore