In choosing a restaurant for a date, I find it useful to pick a place where you can at least have a good meal or drink as a silver lining in case the date itself is a dud. With that in mind, here are five of my top restaurant suggestions for a first date, in order of affordability.
Panevino: Your neighbourhood Italian restaurant
Panevino is the perfectly understated, romantic, Italian neighbourhood restaurant. Owned by a family of Italian-Americans, Panevino has been around since 1997. The candlelit tables are covered with white tablecloths and graced with complimentary bruschetta, grissini and parmesan cheese.
The food is a reflection of traditional Southern Italian cooking. It’s hearty, rich and generously portioned, and the staff go out of their way to create a homey atmosphere. I’ve tried almost every dish on the menu and have never been disappointed.
One of my all time favourites is the Lemon-Infused Tagliolini (a long cylindrical noodle) with Light Cream Sauce and Calamari (HKD238). The tangy cream sauce is a perfect counterpoint to the crispy fried calamari as it blends together into a deliciously rich topping for the pasta.
At the end of your meal, if you don’t have room for one of Panevino’s delicious desserts, you can at least enjoy the complimentary limoncello that is usually offered. And, if the date leads to something more, it’s the kind of place you could come back to time and time again.
Panevino: 30-32 Robinson Road, Mid-levels (Google Maps).
The Night Market: Affordable, convenient and delicious
The Bitter Melon with Salty Egg Crust. Photo: Marc Rubinstein
The Night Market is in the Goldilocks just-right zone of first-date restaurants, with its easily accessible locations in Central and West Kowloon, reasonable pricing, and consistently good dishes.
Here you’ll be able to sample typical Taiwanese fare, except in a cool, minimalist setting rather than an actual hot, sweaty and crowded night market. But, don’t expect greasy, MSG-laden (though usually delicious) food. Here, the emphasis is on fresh ingredients in dishes inspired by Taiwanese markets and home cooking.
You can get the go-to Oyster Pancake (HKD78), but I recommend the Wok-Fried Spicy Diced Fish (HKD80) or, my favourite, the Bitter Melon with Salty Egg Crust (HKD78).
The fish is chopped and quickly stir-fried with fresh red chillies. The fast preparation gives the fish a firm texture and a light, healthy taste that holds up well to the spice. The bitter melon is coated in salty egg yolk batter, which, when fried and served steaming hot, perfectly balances the residual bitterness of the melon.
With the Hong Kong restaurant scene becoming increasingly expensive, the Night Market is a refreshingly affordable option at easily less than HKD200 per person, but not so cheap that your date will think you’re skint. For food that is excellent and approachable in a convenient location with a contemporary atmosphere at a reasonable price, it’s hard to beat the Night Market.
The Envoy: Cocktail conversation starters
Down the Rabbit Hole. Photo: Marc Rubinstein
The Envoy is a great space on the third floor of Central’s Pottinger Hotel, featuring a sizeable outdoor deck with a modern tropical theme.
However, don’t come to the Envoy for the food; it’s decent, French-influenced cuisine but nothing special. Rather, this is the place to come for fun, creative cocktails in a sophisticated but still relaxed atmosphere, which may or may not lead to dinner.
The cocktail menu is a tome, with each drink creative, fancifully named, accompanied by a backstory and often served in a whimsical style. For example, “Down the Rabbit Hole” (HKD128) is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, consists of a mix of abelha cachaça, maraschino cherry and banana liqueurs, thyme syrup, honeydew and lime juices and is served topped with a piece of white rabbit candy. Other cocktails are served in bird-shaped glasses or inspired by kaya toast. So enjoy the mood, discuss the cocktails and let that lead to whatever may follow.
The Envoy: 3/F, Pottinger Hotel, 74 Queen’s Road Central, Central (Google Maps).
Ronin: For the fancy but hip
If cost is less of a concern, and you’d like to impress your date with the casually-cool-but-also-super-successful vibe as might be emanated by a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Ronin is the perfect choice. There is no signage at this NoHo establishment: only a grey, unmarked sliding door.
The food is Japanese-inspired with a raw seafood menu, small plates and larger mains. The raw dishes are overpriced and come in small portions, but the cooked food is really quite good.
A highlight is the Flower crab, Uni, Mitsuba (HKD430 – see header photo), which comes as a mound of crab meat served in the shell of a blue swimmer crab, topped with sea urchin and garnished with mitsuba, a parsley-like herb. It’s delicious. The Sea Bream Karaage (HKD260), a lightly fried fish dish flavoured with pickled jalapeño, is another highlight with a subtle use of the Mexican pepper enhancing the crispy texture of fried fish on the bone.
The alcohol at Ronin is what stands out even more than the food (or the handsome staff). Ronin has an amazing selection of more than 90 kinds of Japanese whisky, as well as a variety of sake, shochu and umeshu. A lot of time has been spent assembling some rare liquors, which you and your date can enjoy straight or as part of a creative cocktail. For hipster sophistication and pleasant intoxication, Ronin is the place to go.
Ronin: 8 On Wo Lane, Central (Google Maps)
Seafood Room: Pulling out all the stops
Langoustine Tartare. Photo: Marc Rubinstein
Last and not least, Seafood Room is the place to go if you want your date to have a grand and memorable experience. The restaurant is on the top floor of a new building in Causeway Bay with high ceilings and 360-degree views, including a panorama of Victoria Harbour.
The quality of the food matches the grandeur of the room. The menu is extensive and includes raw offerings, seafood salads and market-price dishes, as well as international and Cantonese preparations.
The Langoustine Tartare (HKD290) is amazing. The roughly minced crayfish is stacked on top of a bed of chopped avocado and topped with truffles, caviar and edible gold leaf for a mix of refreshing flavours that is as delicious as it is beautiful.
I also recommend in particular the Carabineros (HKD240 for 100 grams), a red prawn found off the coast of Spain and Portugal, simply grilled with just salt. These fresh, brilliantly red, perfectly tender prawns are among the best seafood dishes I have ever had.
The Seafood Room has a large balcony with a stairwell to a roof, which is sometimes quiet. If the moon is out or the lights of the city are twinkling, a stroll up the steps together could be the recipe you need for many more meals together.
Seafood Room: 26/F, Tower 535, 535 Jaffe Road, Causeway Bay (Google Maps)
About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.
Other columns from the Hungry Lawyer:
Hungry Lawyer: Sushi Imamura for sushi that can truly claim to be Japanese
Hungry Lawyer: My favourite French bistro, Les Fils à Maman
Hungry Lawyer: Chicken on a Pole at Kowloon’s Tai Chung Wah
Hungry Lawyer: Man Wah, an elegant alternative for dim sum at the Mandarin Oriental
Hungry Lawyer: Beefbar, a Monte Carlo meatery that does beef right
Hungry Lawyer: La Cantoche, a hipster bistro in Sheung Wan that needs to up its game
Hungry Lawyer: Indian Village, a hole-in-the-wall in the heart of Mid-Levels
Hungry Lawyer: Bashu Garden, a Sichuan gem in a quiet part of Sai Ying Pun
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