Traditional Hong Kong restaurants felled by Covid controls

On a corner in Hong Kong’s bustling Yau Ma Tei stood the two-storey Mido Cafe, its blue and yellow window panes, mosaic tiles and ceiling fans creating a moody vibe typical of the city’s old-school local diners.

The 72-year-old establishment, which served authentic Hong Kong dishes from baked pork chop rice to pineapple buns, was a magnet for tourists and film directors. But it closed its doors in July after suffering from Hong Kong’s tough Covid-19 policies, including a three-month ban on evening dine-in services imposed this year.

The Mido Cafe is just one of a series of celebrated traditional eateries to have vanished from Hong Kong’s world-famous culinary scene over the past year, losses that restaurateurs blame mainly on Covid controls.

The closures highlight the wider woes of the Chinese territory’s pandemic-hit economy, which slipped into its second recession in three years in the second quarter. Sectors including retail, food and beverage are expected to suffer in the third quarter, despite Hong Kong announcing that it would scrap quarantine rules for incoming travellers on Friday.

At least 12 historic Hong Kong eateries have shut since October last year, some of them once highly popular among tourists and even Hollywood celebrities.

Hong Kong’s 74-year-old Mido Cafe retained a 1950s vibe until it closed last month © Jonathan Wong/SCMP/Getty Images

Recent landmark casualties include the century-old Lin Heung Tea House, one of the city’s oldest and most high-profile dim sum restaurants, and the 55-year-old Tai Wing Wah Village Cuisine, which served traditional local dishes such as lard rice to loyal customers.

Restaurant owners say Hong Kong’s stringent coronavirus restrictions, the result of alignment with mainland China’s zero-Covid approach, have badly damaged domestic demand, while border controls slashed tourist numbers.

Lin Heung’s owners said they were “regretful that we could not overcome the pandemic’s impact”.

Simon Wong, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said businesses had been further hit by high rents, the soaring cost of ingredients caused by supply chain disruptions and a labour shortage.

Tung Po Kitchen, a lively venue in a municipal food market that served beer in bowls, was visited by film stars including Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton and endorsed by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. It closed this month.

Tung Po, which had lost customers during the dine-in ban that was imposed during a surge of Covid cases early this year, shut down after officials terminated its licence over alleged violations of its leasing agreement.

“We have worked so hard to gain international prominence. There are just so many old memories here,” said manager Robby Cheung as patrons packed into the restaurant for a last meal before its closure.

Tung Po sea food Restaurant in Hong Kong
Tung Po Kitchen shut down after officials terminated its licence © Robert Ng/SCMP/Getty Images

Vicky Lau, owner and chef of the two Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room, said it was “really sad” to see the closure of traditional eateries that represented the culture of Hong Kong.

“Once it is gone, it is very hard to rebuild it . . . [Their taste] and flavour is hard to replicate,” Lau said.

Wong, of the trade federation, said some old restaurants relied on visitors for up to 80 per cent of their business. “A poor domestic economy also means residents are now spending less overall, further affecting the traditional restaurants,” he said.

Total Hong Kong restaurant revenues fell to HK$93bn (US$12bn) last year from a peak of HK$120bn in 2018, according to government data.

Still, the number of licensed restaurants in Hong Kong rose by almost 8 per cent between 2018 and 2021, official data showed, with more than 16,000 eateries across the city.

While new coffee shops are popping up and the high-end dining sector has largely enjoyed continued domestic demand — with some restaurants fully booked months in advance — many mid-market and low-cost restaurants are being badly hit.

One senior executive at a Hong Kong-based restaurant chain described the ban on dine-in services as “disastrous”. “The industry is having a really tough time,” the executive said.

Sidney Cheung, an anthropology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has researched the territory’s food and culture, said the closure of famous traditional restaurants was a loss for both locals and visitors.

“If Hong Kong is left with only the skyscrapers, luxury hotels and fine-dining restaurants, it will be way too homogeneous,” said Cheung.

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