“A bar is not a good bar unless it serves good food,” proclaims John Nugent. It’s a bold statement, given that many terrific bars focus on drinks, but one that speakeasy-style The Diplomat – where the American mixologist plies his trade in Hong Kong’s Central business and entertainment district – lives up to.
Ranked 20th in the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list for 2021 and voted best new bar on the list, not only has it won plaudits for its excellent cocktails, but fans declare its wagyu beef burger the best in Hong Kong. Such is its appeal that customers come for the burger alone.
“While we are proud of our cocktails and would like you to try one, we want to make sure if you just want our food, you feel incredibly welcome and don’t feel pressured to have a drink,” says Nugent, happy that people will come for either, or both.
It helps that The Diplomat sources top-quality ingredients. Being under the umbrella of hospitality group Leading Nation, the meat for the burgers comes from the same beef supplier in Japan as at Wagyumafia, the meat-focused restaurant in Wan Chai, where a meal will cost upwards of HK$2,000 (US$260) per person for the food alone. Ferran Tadeo, executive chef at Catalan restaurant La Rambla in the IFC tower in Central, oversees the bar’s menu.
The Diplomat Burger served at The Diplomat. Photo: Jonathan Wong
The food is “brasserie-style, easy to share and easy to eat with your hands”, says Nugent. “Our burger is simplicity itself, but everything is ingredient-driven. We take the best wagyu beef possible, trim and grind it, then add salt, pepper and egg.”
Served between a house-made sesame seed bun with aioli and American cheddar cheese, the quarter-pound patty is ground just right to deliver heft and chew, before being cooked so it’s charred on the outside, blushing pink in the middle. Paired with a dry martini or Gibson, it’s a culinary match made in heaven.
Just as simple, and superb, is the cubano, a suckling pig sandwich, and it’s worth staying late for the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies handed out free every night before closing. “You should see the way people react when we bring out the cookies, they turn into kids,” says Nugent, who suggests having one with a whiskey-fuelled Irish coffee.
A sign outside the Last Resort in Central advertises “cold beer, hot chicken”, but that’s only half the story (there’s always a story behind a Black Sheep Restaurants venue). Inspired by the anything-goes den of iniquity that featured in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall, this is a stylised North American dive bar that’s less about attracting undesirables and more about making everyone, including food and beverage industry staff, feel welcome, general manager Jose Quintero explains.
“We are trying to be the ultimate neighbourhood bar,” says Quintero, “the sort of place where, when you walk in, everyone greets you by name and is excited to see you.”
The Diplomat’s bar manager, Sachin Gurung, makes a Blinker highball cocktail. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Nugent’s nuggets served at The Diplomat. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Unlike the dive bars he frequented while studying and working in Miami and New York, he promises that The Last Resort’s food and drinks will be affordable, yet high-quality. Don’t expect fine china, though, and “if you eat a sandwich with a fork and knife, maybe this is not the place for you”, he quips.
Like The Diplomat, The Last Resort benefits from being part of a hospitality group, with Jowett Yu, head chef at Ho Lee Fook, in charge of the menu.
Quintero estimates half the patrons come for the deep-fried three yellow chicken, the same one favoured by fine-dining Hong Kong restaurants such as Belon and Louise but at a fraction of the price. Order a whole or a half chicken and choose original (non-spicy) or hot (spicy).
Deep-fried three yellow chicken at The Last Resort in Central. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
The chicken is juicy, with skin so crisp and thick it shatters like pork crackling. Quintero says the secret to the hot chicken is to double-fry it. A small selection of sides is available, including fried scamorza cheese, potato wedges, and a kale and cabbage slaw for those in need of greens.
Every dish is drink-friendly, and Quintero recommends a whiskey apple cocktail to have with the hot chicken sandwich.
Jose Quintero is general manager of The Last Resort in Central. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Kale and cabbage salad with fried pickles, and a whiskey apple cocktail at The Last Resort. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Nearby is Honky Tonks Tavern, sibling to the popular Shady Acres and inspired by one of the partners’ love of country and western music. “There’s no dress code, no service charge, no judgement and no crowd we’re after,” says general manager Matt Richardson, who worked with restaurateur Antonio Carluccio in London before moving to Hong Kong.
Well-priced, well-made cocktails and comfort food are the draw at Honky Tonks Tavern, he says.
The bar team is headed by Adam Schmidt, formerly of PDT in New York and The Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central, and Edgarito Santillan, formerly of Terrible Baby at the Eaton HK hotel in Jordan.
Head barman Adam Schmidt makes a mucho danger cocktail at Honky Tonks Tavern in Central. Photo: Edmond So
Half the bar operates as a walk-in restaurant, where fried chicken is the mainstay. There is pizza too, though Richardson stresses that it is not artisanal, but “a bar pizza that’s crispy, salty, flavoursome and fun to share with friends”.
That’s a description that could be applied to many of the dishes on the menu developed by Canadian chef Andrew Mast.
Richardson suggests a mucho danger, a layered take on the margarita made with jalapeño tequila and mescal, to go with the fried chicken. “It’s an amazing pairing because you’ve got this fancy, smoky, sour drink that cuts through this spicy, crispy chicken,” he says.
Matt Richardson is general manager of Honky Tonks Tavern in Central. Photo: Edmond So
The mucho danger cocktail goes well with the fried chicken at Honky Tonks Tavern, Richardson says. Photo: Edmond So
While many of the newer gastropubs in Hong Kong are American-influenced, Second Draft in Tai Hang models itself on the classic British pub, but with Asian flavours. Part of the Young Master craft beer group, Second Draft opened in 2016 as a bar, but has evolved into a local hangout that’s as popular for a drink as it is a bite.
May Chow, chef-owner of Little Bao and Happy Paradise, consulted on the menu, and although she is no longer involved, Man Chu-yeung, the group’s executive chef, and James Ling, general manager and group beverage director, have been there since the beginning and continue its East-meets-West approach. Think mapo burrata, which marries the creamy Italian cheese with a Sichuan-style pork ragu, and flower crab pasta, a Chinese twist on carbonara.
“We ask ourselves ‘What would pub food be like if it originated in Hong Kong?’” says Ling. The beer-friendliness of a dish is their primary consideration. “You need strong flavours, but you can get very creative with what you can pair with beer, and it goes with almost every kind of cuisine,” he says.
James Ling (left), general manager of Second Draft, and Man Chu-yeung, executive chef. Photo: Edmond So
Asked to nominate their top dishes, Man goes for the jer jer Buffalo wings, a mash-up of an American bar staple and a classic dai pai dong dish. “Jer jer can be anything, it doesn’t have to be a specific flavour or ingredient, as long as it’s sizzling,” explains Man, who makes the wings using Yu Kwen Yick chilli sauce, Chinkiang vinegar and Chinese celery.
Ling recommends their Tai Hang fries, dusted with cumin and chilli and topped with pickled mustard.
Jer Jer Buffalo wings at Second Draft in Tai Hang. Photo: Edmond So
Fatty edamame – fresh soybeans stir-fried in chicken oil and sprinkled with soy salt crystals at Second Draft. Photo: Edmond So
He also suggests the fatty edamame – fresh soybeans stir-fried in chicken oil then sprinkled with soy salt crystals from Kowloon Soy Company. Easy to eat, familiar and very moreish, it’s the epitome of a good bar snack.
The Diplomat, LG/F, H Code, 45 Pottinger Street, Central, tel: 3619 0302
The Last Resort, 52B Peel Street, Central, tel: 2442 2440
Honky Tonks Tavern, Man Hing Lane, Central, tel: 5428 5627
Second Draft, 98 Tung Lo Wan Road, Tai Hang, tel: 2656 0232