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International Nightlife: Hong Kong Bars: The Sky Is the Limit

Brad A. Johnson

It is 5 pm, and like precision clockwork the porte cochere at the Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, in Kowloon hums with a dozen Ferraris: The serious business of happy hour has begun. Elevators brim to capacity, shooting upward like jewel-encrusted rockets to the 103rd-floor lobby, ears popping in the 52-second ascent. Another lift completes the relay to the 118th floor and the ultimate cocktail destination: Ozone, the world’s highest bar, but even more dizzying, the world’s highest outdoor patio.

The prime corner sofas are already occupied—a group of semiretired thirtysomethings has been camped there all afternoon. A row of stools against the glass railing fills up next, perches against the edge of infinity. Hearts pound a little faster than normal. A gentle breeze rustles the hair. The frenetic city looks deceptively calm from 1,600 feet above Victoria Harbour. When a cloud floats past, first-timers think the building is swaying. A deejay cranks up the volume on a spirited mix of American pop and dubtronica. A bartender muddles a fresh blackberry mojito in a quart-size goblet and slides it down the bar.

As the sun sinks toward the horizon, another martini-fueled night is officially under way—Monday, Saturday . . . it is all the same. Cocktail hour in Hong Kong has long been a point of honor, a glamorous pastime pursued with equal abandon by natives and expats alike. The drinks are big and potent. The hours run late. And nobody—not even the most urbane socialite or top executive—is too high-powered or self-important to partake in a few tequila shots or kamikazes. Even here at the posh Ritz-Carlton, the 20-page drink menu includes an intriguing roster of shooters—B-52s, lemon drops, absinthe boxers, tequila booms—that are best consumed in multiples, and in rapid-fire succession.

Nightlife here has been thrust further into overdrive lately as the city’s bars race to one-up each other with rooftop terraces and sky decks. The trend began after an indoor-smoking ban took effect in 2007. Merely having a view was no longer enough; there had to be an alfresco extension. Thus the city’s nightlife scene began shifting outdoors, making innovative use of the vertigo-inducing nooks and crannies—skyscraper rooftops, penthouse terraces, and balconies—that were formerly reserved for CEO office patios, presidential suites, and helicopter pads.

While Hong Kong Island has always served as the epicenter of luxe nightlife, the recent opening of the International Commerce Centre, which is crowned by the new Ritz-Carlton, has shifted the city’s happy hour power structure to Kowloon. The ICC lured Morgan Stanley from across the harbor to fill 16 of its floors, and Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse now populate another 26 floors as well. That is a lot of bankers suddenly in need of a drink come 5 o’clock in Kowloon.

The ICC was originally designed to be 1,900 feet high, but those plans were scaled back because of a statute that bans any building that rises higher than the island’s tallest mountain, Victoria Peak. A few hundred extra feet would not have made much difference in the view. A more spectacular skyline does not exist anywhere in the world. Hong Kong’s tightly packed skyscrapers nuzzle against one another like teeth on a futuristic comb, dramatically squeezed between lushly forested mountains on the backdrop and a manic waterfront in the foreground. When the clock finally strikes 8—cocktail hour in wild swing—neon tubes the length of each skyscraper start to blink. Lasers shoot from rooftops. Lights, from one end of the panorama to the other, flutter like lightning bugs. Life is good. 

CENTRAL CHIC 
Kowloon might have stolen some of the island’s happy-hour thunder, but it has barely made a dent in the city’s unquenchable fondness for rooftop hopping. In Central, the region’s original finance and banking hub, the afterwork crowd kicks off the night on the alfresco terrace at Sevva. Owned by socialite and local fashion icon Bonnie Gokson, the Paris Hilton of Hong Kong, Sevva occupies the entire top floor and rooftop of the Prince’s Building, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the region. The 25-story structure is home to a new Cartier flagship and the Asian headquarters of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and is neighbored by HSBC, the Bank of China, Standard Chartered, and the original Mandarin Oriental hotel. Come 5 o’clock, the glamorous ladies who have been lunching since noon will cede their coveted couches to incoming waves of models, bankers, and movers and shakers who order drinks with names like I Know I’m Beautiful (a wine-cooler-like mixture of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvi­gnon, fresh mango, peach liqueur, and cognac) or Straight to the Head (a sour-sweet jolt of vodka, sugarcane juice, and crushed fresh lemon).

The scene is far more low-key at the elegant Café Gray Deluxe at the Upper House hotel in the nearby Admiralty neighborhood. Well, low-key insofar as zombies—a lethal mix of five rums, grapefruit juice, grenadine, absinthe, falernum syrup, lime, and a maraschino cherry—are strictly limited to one per person per night, no matter who you happen to be. The 117-room boutique hotel occupies the top 11 floors of a 49-story tower in the chic high-rise complex known as Pacific Place. And while the 49th floor does not have an outdoor lounge or rooftop deck, the Upper House has carved out a wee alfresco cocktail bar called The Lawn on its sixth floor—formerly an unused nook on top of the roof of the parking garage. They both have the same excellent mixology, just a different perspective. Grassy lawns are extremely rare in Hong Kong, so it is no wonder this inconceivable sanctuary has become so popular. The lawn is not much bigger than a handball court, with designer beanbag chairs scattered across the perfectly manicured St. Augustine turf, sparsely shaded by white lacquered Chinese-style umbrellas. Men in bespoke suits and women with royal-wedding-worthy hats drink Pimms Cups and Elderflower Collinses by the pitcher, picnic-style. The air is fresh but the view is limited, boxed in on all sides by towering luxury hotels—the Conrad, the Island Shangri-La, and the JW Marriott—as well as some of the city’s most exclusive serviced apartments.

The Swire Group, the British conglomerate that owns the Upper House, recently opened a younger, more casual sibling, the East hotel in Quarry Bay (which is east of Central, hence the name). East is a decidedly less exclusive but far hipper and younger boutique hotel geared toward the creative, high-tech, and media-industry types from the neighborhood. Sugar, the hotel’s 32nd-floor rooftop bar and lounge, was created by Australian chef David Laris and features two of Hong Kong’s coolest deejays: P. Grant, from Saint-Tropez (who spun the turntables at Madonna’s American Life launch party in Paris), and Eric Byron, from Nice. Naturally, the party channels a sort of summertime-in-the-Côte-d’-Azur energy. 

THE STILETTO QUARTER
There is hardly a major neighborhood now that does not have at least one destination rooftop. In Lan Kwai Fong, the fashion industry flocks to Azure, atop the 30-story Hotel LKF by Rhombus, whose sprawling, split-level teakwood deck is outfitted with chaise lounges and cocktail tables pushed to the very ledge. The restaurant and bar does not actually sell drinks on the roof, so you have to buy your caipirinha or highly flammable Hong Kong mule inside. Play a quick game of pool while you wait for your drink, and then make your way up the interior fire escape to the rooftop—along with the teetering hordes of stiletto-heeled, miniskirt-clad models—cocktails in hand.

In the Wan Chai area, the sky opens up atop The Pawn, a three-story colonial shophouse that has been turned into a modern, British-style gastropub. Here, the rooftop view is up, not down, looking toward vintage high-rise apartments and the Trust Tower. You can always tell the first-timers at the Pawn because they are the ones climbing the old, rickety stairs from the building’s historic entrance on Johnston Street, the establishment’s official address. There is also an elevator in the alley (technically called Tai Wong Street East), which most people only discover on their way out.

The elevator is less tricky to find and even more essential at Wooloomooloo, a steak house, with one of the deepest wine cellars in the city, that occupies the top floor and roof of the 31-story Hennessy building. The rooftop deck is laid with beautiful wood floors and outfitted with wicker sofas and a horseshoe-shaped bar overlooking Wan Chai, Happy Valley, and the harbor. The drinks tend toward classic martinis and beefy red wines from Australia. The crowd is rather businessy, with a lot of handshaking and dealmaking going down. But the blender does whirl from time to time, and a row of stools is pushed right to the border—little more than a waist-high glass partition with a small interior railing on which you can balance a wine glass.

Over in Causeway Bay at Club@28, a disco-floored catwalk bisects the 28th floor’s poolside lounge. The walkway looks innocent enough, just a normal path through the middle of the bar. But whenever an unwitting patron steps on the surface, a bartender punches a button on a remote control and the floor goes haywire in spectrovision. Some customers play along, striking a pose and strutting their stuff. Others freeze or run.

The pool officially closes at 9 pm, but wherever there are strawberry margaritas, rules are made to be broken. And just one level down, the entire 27th floor has been transformed into a Zen sky lounge with a 360-?degree view. The music slows to a down-tempo beat, and the romance factor surges. Bring your own drinks from the 28th floor (there is no bar on the 27th) and cuddle up in a private cabana that would feel more like Bali than Hong Kong were it not for that view: Happy Valley racetrack, the iconic cupola of the legendary Lee Theatre, and the full swath of skyline from the mountains to Victoria Har­bor. And if your drink starts blinking (which it will), do not be surprised: Some of the “ice cubes” are wired with blinking LED lights, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the airplane warning lights lining the perimeter of the roof.

The Flip Side: Hong Kong Underground
Not every luxury hotel, skyscraper, or street-side bar can be blessed with a rooftop. So what happens then? The Peninsula hotel’s 28th-floor Felix, designed by Philippe Starck and opened in 1994, dominated Hong Kong’s nightlife scene for more than a decade. But lacking an outdoor terrace (the rooftop is still reserved for helicoptering VIPs), the legendary restaurant and bar has struggled to maintain its cachet in recent years. The solution? Just go the opposite direction. A few months back, the hotel debuted Salon de Ning, an underground speakeasy inspired by a fictional, well-traveled madam. Take an elevator down to a windowless bolt-hole in the basement and ring the doorbell. A set of very large eyes will peer out and decide whether you will be admitted into one of the most exclusive, most bewitching bars in all of Hong Kong.

Lily & Bloom also lacks a rooftop, yet this industrial, two-story oyster bar and grill has become one of the hottest, hardest-to-get-into nightspots in town. It is located on the ground and basement levels of the same Lan Kwai Fong tower as Azure, and if you know which wall to lean against, you can gain access to a hush-hush cigar society and library-style cubbyhole where cocktails are delivered by a dumbwaiter from the bustling restaurant below. Ninety-nine percent of the restaurant’s customers are utterly oblivious as to what goes on behind the wall.

Downstairs from Lily & Bloom, at the Tazmania Ballroom (which is actually rather petite and exclusive), the attraction is a very Cirque du Soleil maneuver in which the pool tables are hoisted up to the ceiling to make room for rum-fueled, high-stakes Ping-Pong matches favored by tie-clad CFOs and tightly wound hedge-fund managers.
And at the lavish Landmark Mandarin Oriental (the newer, hipper, and more expensive sibling to the original Mandarin Oriental around the corner), the street-level MO Bar has a view of nothing but parked cars and office workers scurrying along the sidewalk. Problem? Hardly. The menu proudly boasts of serving “the most generous standard pours in Hong Kong.” Every drink is essentially a double shot, like it or not. The ties are loosened. The models are gorgeous. And the deejays are phenomenal artists, especially DJ Ivan, who spins regularly on Thursdays and is frequently joined by saxophonist Michael Saunders for a hybrid jam of new soul and acid jazz mixed with ’70s underground funk and vintage bossa nova. View? Who needs a view?

THE TOP SPOTS
Azure Restaurant Slash Bar, Hotel LKF by Rhombus, +852.3518.9330, www.hotel-lkf.com.hk

Café Gray Deluxe and The Lawn, the Upper House, +852.3968.1106, www.upperhouse.com

Club@28, Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Causeway Bay, +852.3980.3980, www.cphongkong.com

Lily & Bloom, Hotel LKF by Rhombus, +852.2810.6166, www.lily-bloom.com

MO Bar, the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, +852.2132.0077, www.mandarinoriental.com/landmark

Ozone, The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, +852.2263.2263, www.ritzcarlton.com/hongkong

The Pawn, +852.2866.3444, www.thepawn.com.hk

Salon de Ning, the Peninsula Hong Kong, +852.2315.3355, www.peninsula.com/hongkong

Sevva, Prince’s Building, +852.2537.1388, www.sevva.hk

Sugar, East, +852.3968.3968, www.east-hongkong.com

Tazmania Ballroom, Hotel LKF by Rhombus, +852.2801.5009, www.tazmaniaballroom.com

Wooloomooloo, The Hennessy, +852.2893.6960, www.wooloo-mooloo.com

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