Our family pre-Chinese New Year dinner was recently held at the same mid-range Cantonese chain restaurant in Kennedy Town that we always go to without fail (por por is a creature of habit, after all).
Before the meal began, I looked at the set menu — even though it’s the very same as the one we always have. It’s a 10-course family-style meal for 12 people, priced at just under HK$1,600 on weeknights (total, not per head).
At these mid-range Cantonese chain restaurants, which I’ve been going to my whole life, the food is never really the star of the show.
It’s usually average at best, and you’re much more likely to dislike something than to like something (and I’m no picky eater).
Service is never very good, either: I vividly remember a pre-Chinese New Year dinner at the very same restaurant where a waitress informed us between courses three and four that “the kitchen has collapsed” and that there will be no food for the next hour. That’s it — no apologies.
I think maybe everyone secretly accepts that these places just aren’t very good, just like how most people know deep down that Chanel’s classic No.5 perfume actually smells kind of bad, or that newborns are often not that cute.
Yet the restaurant was completely packed, filled with families mostly doing the same thing as us. Yes, it’s really more about families coming together than anything else (more on that later).
We marveled at how these super-average restaurants can continue to thrive in a place as cutthroat as Hong Kong — and are able to keep costs so low. “It might even work out cheaper to eat here every single day than to cook at home,” remarked my food snob friend N, who was invited to the family dinner.
So why are these places so popular? There are several reasons.
Traditional Cantonese restaurants tend to offer festive menus for holiday celebrations: think winter solstice and Chinese New Year, just to name a few — something that’s important to families, and deeply rooted in southern Chinese culture.
Meanwhile, Hongkongers need a convenient spot to do family dinners — and that’s why you’ll see one of these chain restaurants in almost every neighborhood. They’re usually inside malls, decorated with a lot of gaudy gold, and have TV monitors mounted on walls. Although — side note — I’ve been informed that these restaurants have now started turning off the TV during dinner service because the 7pm news is triggering too many almighty family arguments during a politically sensitive time in the city.
Then there’s the fact that for a lot of elderly Hongkongers, a meal out at one of these restaurants really does constitute going “out out.” It’s easy for young, cosmopolitan Hongkongers to drop $1,600 and up per head on a night out — but that’s something probably unimaginable for por por, auntie and uncle.
That’s not to say mid-range Cantonese restaurants haven’t succumbed to the current atmosphere in Hong Kong: Our troubled times have resulted in numerous restaurant closures over the past few months. Still, judging from the crowd at family dinner digging into an abundance of okay food for unbeatable prices, I truly believe lots of these Cantonese chains will outlive us all.
All Tea No Shade with Andrea Lo.
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