Saturday, December 15, 2012

The good, the bad, and the local

I hadn't expected to be doing much drinking when I was down in Hong Kong last month, but...

Well, it was my first time back there in 16-and-a-half years, so I had some catching up to do.

As on previous visits, though, I was severely unimpressed with most of the places around Central - wanky, overpriced bar-cum-restaurant joints catering to well-to-do CBD types on their way home from work. The place my journo buddy suggested for a Friday evening rendezvous was so spectacularly awful, I have expunged its name from my mind (and, curiously, I can find no trace of it online either: it hides in amongst the dozens of other similarly pricey and charmless venues in that area). The locally produced craft brew wasn't bad, and was one of the more reasonably priced things on the menu - but, even so, it produced convulsions in the wallet. (OK, part of the pain is psychological. When I visited in the '90s, the Hong Kong dollar was more or less at parity with the Renminbi, if not slightly more valuable; now it's slumped to barely 80% of the Renminbi, so price comparisons look even more startling until you remember to adjust for this.) They'd pissed me off within seconds of arrival, with their ineptly pushy staff and a cluttered menu that made it difficult to differentiate the prices for various items (some beers available on draught and in bottles, in different measures, and at regular and 'happy hour' tariffs; this degree of complexity wouldn't be a problem if you had all the information more clearly laid out!). I then got even more pissed off when I discovered that the 'happy hour' discount on most items was negligible - and immediately wiped out by an inconspicuously advertised 'service charge'. If the drinks were wince-makingly expensive, the food was just ridiculous: something like 80 or 100 HKD for a plate of nachos?! When my friends eventually showed up, they paid a similarly exorbitant amount for a small and really rather nasty-looking pizza. I must get them to remind me of the name of this place, so that I can castigate it more fully - and avoid ever going back there (I now recall, with a shudder of loathing, that it was The Hop House).

Alas, I don't hold out much hope of finding anywhere better. Hong Kong is just too frigging affluent to foster any bars of the sort that I would like.

The closest I'm likely to find is.... The Beer Bay! Yes, what a pleasant surprise this discovery was. A charming Anglophile called Annie (she did a Hospitality degree in England a few years back, and became an enthusiast for English ales) has set up a kiosk just opposite the exit of the Star Ferry Terminal in Central selling a wide variety of beers, bottles and draught (though only in plastic glasses, of course), from England and elsewhere, for barely half the price you'd pay in a lot of the proper bars nearby. Even more exciting to me, though, than the availabilty of affordable draught Boddington's down by the waterfront was the fact that Annie has also become a connoisseur of English pub snacks, and has gone to some trouble to source a range of munchies that you can't readily find even in Hong Kong, let alone around the rest of East Asia - Walker's Crisps, Poppadom Crisps, Pork Scratchings!! I'll definitely be going back there.

However, since the journo buddy who was kindly putting me up lives out in Shek O (a cosy little commuter community in what was once a sleepy fishing village down in the south-east corner of the island), I was hanging out there most of the time. The village's Back Beach Bar, only a couple of minutes from my friend's house, has become a magnet for the island's less well-off expats. It's very barebones: a long hut acts as the serving area; there's nowhere to sit inside, but Ben the owner gets away with colonising a section of the adjacent seawall promenade to use as his terrace. There's no draught beer, and only two or three bottled options - but Brooklyn Lager at 20 HKD is quite a bargain for Hong Kong. There's no price list either, that I was able to discover; but a standard range of spirits and mixed drinks (and some decent wines) seem to be available from the little backroom, and again at very reasonable prices (I think a large gin & tonic was 25 or 30 HKD). Ben also has Walker's Crisps, too (that alone would make me think seriously about possibly relocating to Hong Kong). I wasn't impressed by the music selection (a few of the regulars forced their way behind the bar to adjust the playlist - but didn't seem to be able to improve things much), yet for once I think I can forgive that. It is a rare joy to be able to drink relatively cheaply, in the open air, with the sound of the surf breaking on the beach just a few yards away. And the place has a nice vibe of being a bit of a 'secret' for the locals. The tiny 'back beach' is somewhat obscure, compared to the main swimming beach a few hundred yards away on the other side of the peninsula. The bar is in fact barely sixty seconds from the main bus stop on the edge of the village, but those not in the know would struggle to find it among Shek O's claustrophobic and labyrinthine back-alleys.

I was also pleased to find that the open-air Thai/Chinese restaurant in the middle of the village is still there - remarkably unchanged, it would seem, in nearly 20 years (it was the first place I ever drank in Hong Kong, in March 1994). I didn't find the Thai items on the menu particularly impressive, and the prices are a bit steep (28 HKD for a local beer, albeit in a big bottle, is pretty outrageous!); but it is a very mellow place to hang out and watch the world go by - and to wallow in nostalgic reminiscences of drinking there when I was still young....


Froog said...

I was just back in HK again, and severely discombobulated to find that the wonderful Beer Bay is not where I remembered it to be: it's not opposite Pier 7, but just inside the entrance to Pier 4.

I couldn't quite get to the bottom of whether there'd been a short-lived expansion outlet at Pier 7, or a shanzhai rival... or I'd just imagined it!

I worry about my brain sometimes. Well, no, I maintain a stubborn loyalty to my brain; I worry that the universe is reconfiguring itself occasionally when my back is turned.

Froog said...

On my next visit, I discovered that the Pier 7 outlet had been closed for a couple of months due to a problem of some kind with the utilities. During this hiatus, though, all trace of its existence had disappeared - which wasn't great for marketing purposes!

It's now up and running again, better than ever - having expanded into the adjacent kiosk to offer a range of hot snacks as well.

And I learn that the Pier 4 outlet is part of the same small franchise, not a copy/rival. Pier 7 offers a pleasant open air drinking experience (on those rare Hong Kong days when the weather is pleasant enough to accommodate that) and has the advantage of offering a few beers on draft. But Pier 4 is rather cosier, and puts more emphasis on the huge selection of imported British ales in bottle.

I am particularly seduced by the weekly 'specials'. Anything that's getting into the last few weeks of its use-by day is prominently displayed on the counter - usually 3 or 4 beers at any one time - and offered for only 25 HKD. Bargain!