Cover Aqua's iconic view of the Hong Kong skyline (Source: Aqua)

CEO and founder David Yeo speaks at length on what to expect from the move, and reveals what will replace Aqua and Hutong moving forward

Having commanded postcard-perfect views of Victoria Harbour for the past 18 years, Aqua and Hutong, two of Hong Kong's most iconic food destinations, are finally closing the chapter on their time at the top of One Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.

In a span of time that has seen the nature of the city change drastically, and many hundreds of restaurants blink in and out of existence, the next transformation in store for the pair of restaurants is all the more remarkable—from mid-November onwards, their new home will be on the 17th and 18th floors of the newly-built H Zentre, just a few hundred metres away on the Tsim Sha Tsui harbourfront. 

Responsible for the design of the new Aqua and Hutong are Aqua Restaurant Group founder and CEO David Yeo and award-winning London-based designer Robert Angell. At the former, a centrepiece design element will be a mirrored catwalk that guests will pass through before entering the main dining room. "I've been told it's a Squid Game bridge!" says Yeo. "The interesting thing is when you see the corridor, we had each of those glass fixtures designed differently—they've got bubbles to represent water because we're Aqua. So we play funny little in-house jokes. It's very much about detail."

Meanwhile, the vacated spaces at One Peking will not stay empty for long—Yeo is planning to bring The Chinese Library across to the "dark side" with its second branch in Hong Kong, while a yet-to-be-named Italian restaurant, initially slated to debut in London, will instead open its first worldwide location in Aqua's old home. 

Although China's ongoing energy crisis has shut the factories responsible for producing Aqua and Hutong's furniture, thus delaying their opening, Yeo is optimistic that the venues will open within the month of November. Ahead of the major move, the restaurateur met with Tatler Dining to speak about the rationale behind the move, reminisce on the past 18 years, and fill in readers on what we can anticipate at H Zentre.

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On moving house

Since 2019, we've opened in New York, Miami and Dubai, and somehow the original flagship is looking a little bit tarnished compared to the newer jewels. So this seemed like a good opportunity to move the brands over to a new place to create a little bit of excitement. But also more importantly, I think our guests have always wanted an outside space. We were always thinking about where to get a rooftop, and with Covid, it's a little more important, so [H Zentre] was ideal for us. It's got three rooftop bars taking up about four to five thousand square feet—Aqua will have two terraces and Hutong's got one. So that's a real blessing to have.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, you really just want to be left or right of the Avenue of Stars, so there's really not that many places around for a start. And secondly, it's always better to look at the Hong Kong skyline from Kowloon side. So we were very happy that the Henderson Group wanted to have an operator who would do the place justice. We can use the front and back—I think that the north-facing side looking up Nathan Road is really underrated. It's much more like Tokyo—if you've been into one of the high rises in Ginza, that's exactly what it's like. You see all these little dots of lights and everything.

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On his new restaurants

In H Zentre, we'll have Aqua Roma and Aqua Tokyo, and the bar is still Aqua Spirit. Our new executive chef for Aqua in H Zentre, Andrea Mura, is from Sardinia, so we will hopefully have some Sardinian touches.

[Where Aqua used to be] we are launching an Italian concept—we are still tossing about the name—but it'll be a different concept from Aqua. It's going to a second-tier concept capable of all-day dining at a slightly lower price point [than Aqua], but without compromising quality.

When you go to Italy, you start your day at a caffè where you just stand at the bar. You just pay one euro, you get your croissant, you have your espresso and off you go. And then it just merges towards the lunch where that place might start serving focaccia with cheese; or you could go to a trattoria for pasta or pizza. 

That is very much an Italian structure that we don't have. In Hong Kong, you just have these all-in restaurants—there's no caffè-type concepts. So we want to sort of bring that in to to be closer to the Italian way. We will have the caffè with a great emphasis on coffee, because people in Hong Kong generally don't waltz in at 3pm or 4pm unless it's for coffee, whereas in Italy, people just do [for food]. We would try to merge the food that we're offering with the time of day that people want it, but in a way that they don't have to feel like, OK, it's dinnertime now, I should have three courses.

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Being very Catholic, I was crossing myself and saying, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ah, Aqua Spirit!
David Yeo

We have the head chef who's from a very well-known Italian restaurant in London. He's Sicilian, so we will start off with a lot of Sicilian dishes. The whole menu is really about small plates, or cicchetti. We'll have a stronger emphasis on pasta paired with a very simple sauce, very classic dishes like cacio e pepe or arrabbiata, or spaghetti alla norma, for example, where it's just about the aubergine. There will be smaller portions which you can just double up—the idea is to eat like an Italian table where you share stuff, which goes well with how we eat in Hong Kong.

Where Hutong is at the moment, we're going to open the second branch of The Chinese Library, except that we'll tweak the menu a little bit because Kowloon has always been very, very strong for Asian cuisines. We'll bring a good dim sum selection, because it's hard to find along the Kowloon waterfront. It's normal for us not to do the same menu because we've never had a Starbucks-type mentality. We always make it worth your while to try two different restaurants, so around 30 percent of the menu will be new.

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On his favourite memories

Twenty one years ago, the very first restaurant was Aqua at 49 Hollywood Road, [which opened on] the 8th of August, 2000. That was 1,800 square feet, and we were moving from that to 9,000 square feet at One Peking. That's why the venue was split into three because I thought, this place is too big to do one restaurant, and certainly at that time, it was beyond my expertise. So that's how we became Aqua Roma and Aqua Tokyo. And Aqua Spirit came about because, being very Catholic, I was crossing myself and saying, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ah, Aqua Spirit!"

But I had never designed a space in a glass building. Unlike other well-to-do restaurateurs, we were absolutely impoverished, which meant the designing came to me and whatever I could stick together with Sellotape. I heard some fashion brand was was having a show inside the space, so I somehow managed to get myself a ticket to be invited there. While everybody was watching the fashion show, I excused myself because I'd smuggled in this big torch, and I put it under my jacket and I was going around every corner of the building, shining the torch upwards and making a scary face. The idea was just to watch the reflective index of the glass, because if you make the restaurant really bright at night, you won't see the harbour as well. Fortunately, these days I can get someone to shine the torch and then I go and inspect!

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On Aqua turning 21

Obviously, it would have been great to celebrate our 20th anniversary. It happened at a really bad time for everybody, so it wasn't the right time when everybody was going through so much trouble. Hopefully we'll do our 22nd, where we'll get a chance to thank everybody who's really supported us and been part of the Aqua family growing up, because we wouldn't have survived 22 years without everybody liking what we did. There are not many restaurant groups around that are that old—other than Maxim's, there really aren't that many of us around. I think it would be quite a nice Hong Kong story. We certainly need the good stories now.

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