We speak to restaurateurs who revamped the interiors of their establishments in the pandemic era

Frank’s Italian American

Last summer, Frank’s Italian American unveiled a new look. The restaurant and social club takes inspiration from the traditional Italian American eateries of New Jersey and New York, the sort of places that Todd Darling, the founder of Red Sauce Hospitality—which also operates Posto Pubblico, Fini’s, and record store-slash-cocktail and seafood bar Frank’s Records—had worked in.

The old decor of Frank’s, which opened in 2018 and takes up the ground floor and first floor of a low-rise building on Wyndham Street, paid homage to art deco design, with burgundy dominating the colour scheme. “I quickly outgrew that and realised it was a mistake,” says Darling. “Ultimately, it felt too much like a themed restaurant.”

The establishments that Darling drew inspiration from typically had a “mish-mash of design styles”, he says. Their proprietors were upgrading the spaces themselves through time, rather than carrying out complete overhauls. In tribute to this, the mid-century modern aesthetic often seen in them became the central idea behind the restaurant’s new look and feel.

Darling commissioned Natasha Usher Design Enterprise to revamp the space. Inspiration was “drawn from the peak of the popularity of vinyl records from the 1940s to 1980s”, says Usher. A mix of popular colours in the mid-century modern movement, such as mossy green and mustard yellow, as well as Frank’s signature red—which is seen in its neon signage—are used throughout, from the custom barstools to the soundproof curtains.

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We’re expanding the definition of what Italian American design might be
Todd Darling

As well as overhauling the aesthetic at Frank’s, Darling and his team also wanted to use the space better. The ground floor is known for its crowd-pleasing live DJ sets; the upstairs housed the dining room. On ground level, tables with retractable legs were installed, accommodating diners, as well as “mingling and dancing” after dark, says Darling. A vinyl turntable DJ booth originally stood by the end of the long bar: this was removed and a new one is positioned by the stairwell, coming into sight as guests enter the restaurant. “The bar takes up a lot of room, so it also had to be a visual focal point,” says Usher. Functional changes were made, including additional bathrooms.“We wanted to improve the flow of the space and the overall quality of the design through materials, to attract a broader clientele that would then also use this space down here [on the ground floor] to eat,” says Darling.

Upstairs, a space by the kitchen was transformed into a bar and is now a popular spot in the evenings, Darling says. “People go sit at the bar and hang out—that was something that never used to happen.

“I always say Frank’s is expanding the definition of Italian American cooking, and that’s what we also did with the design,” says Darling. “We’re expanding the definition of what Italian American design might be.”

Cassio

Last year, Cassio reopened with a snazzy new look that became the talk of the town.

The Wyndham Street establishment, which opened in 2016, is the brainchild of nightlife legend Gilbert Yeung, who is also behind Dragon-i and Tazmania Ballroom. The renovation was spearheaded by the Paris-based luxury furniture design house Hervet Manufacturier, run by cousins Cédric and Nicolas Hervet—the former served as electronic music duo Daft Punk’s creative director for 15 years.

Yeung, who says he is a big fan of Daft Punk, adds that the seeds were planted when Hervet redesigned Cassio’s DJ booth. One thing led to another; “We thought: why don’t we just do the whole thing together?”

A place works much better if you can circulate—you don’t go to a place where you wonder where you’re going
Gilbert Yeung

The nightlife hotspot, which originally had a mid-century modern aesthetic, now offers a retro-futuristic feel. The DJ booth is a sleek centrepiece made of brass and walnut wood. Turquoise velvet and brass are used on the walls, an art deco-inspired touch. There’s a lighting installation by Hervet on the ceiling, while a bronze chandelier with multi-coloured hanging lights takes inspiration from Lutrario Dance Hall, a venue in Turin designed by the late Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino. Throughout the lounge area, which surrounds the dance floor, octagonal tables and hexagonal stools have been added—the shapes are a signature of Hervet’s. At the push of a button, the table height can be adjusted; a higher table is preferable while guests are dancing, says Yeung, allowing drinks to be picked up with ease.

The venue was originally divided into three zones, but the new layout connects them, encouraging better use of space: “I always believe a place works much better if you can circulate—you don’t go to a place where you wonder where you’re going,” Yeung says. Three additional bars were also installed, which reduces waiting time and crowding.

The outdoor terrace, meanwhile, retains a mid-century modern look and feel, with wicker furniture and planters that belong to Yeung. Other elements from previous times that remain at Cassio include cherished pieces Yeung acquired on his travels around the world, including drawings by Japanese artist Naijel Graph, who also designed Cassio’s logo.

In a move that has become the new normal, the designers were overseas for the duration of the project, communicating with Yeung virtually.

“We were quite lucky that [the process] was quite smooth,” Yeung says. “I was very surprised that the Hervet guys can work at the same pace as the Hong Kong pace—that was memorable.”

Part of the satisfaction also comes from the opportunity to “work with creatives who we have admired for a long time”, he adds. “It is such an honour, and such a high.”

Yung Kee

A facelift had been a long time coming at Yung Kee, the 86-year-old Hong Kong institution. The Cantonese restaurant’s kitchen hadn’t been updated in four decades, says Yvonne Kam, who belongs to the third generation of her family to helm Yung Kee. Her late grandfather Kam Shui-fai founded it as a dai pai dong in 1936, and the establishment has stood in its current location on Wellington Street since 1964.

“People think that we took advantage of Covid to close, but we’d been thinking about it for a long time,” she says of the timing. “In the old days, my grandfather and my father [Kam Kwan-lai] were very reluctant to close for a big renovation—they were afraid that customers would go elsewhere and not come back.”

Kam, who took over the reins of Yung Kee in 2013, began conceptualising a redesign in 2019. Aside from the kitchen, three of Yung Kee’s five floors needed an upgrade because their interiors were badly outdated.

She commissioned William Lim, managing director of architectural and interior design firm CL3, to carry out the revamp. Lim remembers being treated to lunch at Yung Kee by the elder Kam at the outset of the project. The meal showcased a variety of intricate Cantonese dishes, including ones that diners would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. These then became the springboard for the redesign, says Lim—“bringing back the celebratory [aspect] of dining out, and the culinary culture”.

Renovations began in May 2020 and were completed in autumn last year. Coral pink and emerald green dominate the colour palette, inspired by a dress once worn by the late, great Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, who dined at the restaurant. These bright colours are seen in floral paintings that decorate the walls, as well as in the lights, which were custom-designed to offer different ambiences for daytime and evening. A surprising discovery was made on the first floor when the carpets were stripped back: they had concealed handcrafted Italian tiles, which were sourced and installed by Kam’s father in the 1970s. A decision was made to restore these—a time-consuming process, though one that was worth it, says Lim. A “dragon and phoenix stage” is another relic from the past: a focal point at Chinese banquets, it is something that’s now rarely seen in restaurants.

We want to tell people the culture and the history behind the design. It would make them understand the emotions attached to everything we did
Yvonne Kam

On the second floor, a collection of porcelain figures depicting the luohan—also known as the Eighteen Arhats, who, according to Buddhist beliefs, are a group of faithful disciples who achieved enlightenment—are showcased in a bright orange custom display shelf. The collection, which has long been on display at the restaurant, is owned by the Kam family.

The most important part of the revamp, she adds, is storytelling. “Apart from showcasing [the new design], we want to tell people the culture and the history behind it. It would make them understand the emotions attached to everything we did.”

Woo Cheong Tea House

The grade II listed building at 60-66 Johnston Road in Wan Chai is familiar to many in Hong Kong. Estimated to have been completed between 1888 and the early 1900s, the four-storey structure originally consisted of four tong lau, one of which housed Woo Cheong Pawn Shop. Revival efforts meant the building escaped demolition, a fate faced by many pre-war walk-ups in the city, and in 2009, the first and second floors became home to British gastropub The Pawn. Last autumn, after 13 years in business, the restaurant closed its doors; by the end of the year, it had reopened as contemporary Cantonese restaurant Woo Cheong Tea House.

The change was out of a desire to “revive this magnificent building—to honour its history and culture, and to go towards a more authentic concept”, says Alix Ligier de Laprade, the head of creative at Classified Group, which is behind both restaurants. The new concept is “a meeting point between the past and the present, and between the east and west”, adds Maël Vastine, the group’s COO.

While the façade of the building has been preserved, blueprints of the new interiors were submitted to the Antiquities and Monuments Office for approval. The whimsical new look features custom wallpapers with beautiful floral patterns, and ornate chandeliers across the space, which is divided into zones with distinct identities. This new layout is in tribute to the original function of the tong lau, where the merchant family who ran the pawn business at ground level lived upstairs. “We wanted each room to be designed and imagined differently—like in a house—to give richness, character, depth and surprise,” says Ligier de Laprade.

The first floor is an art deco-inspired space; it has a casual dining area, a bar and a tearoom, which offers guests the opportunity to sample about 20 types of premium brew. The second floor houses four private dining rooms with adjoining terraces, which Ligier de Laprade considers one of the most significant changes made. Each room is differently coloured with matching wall art and tableware.

“We didn’t want to follow the minimalist trend with neutral colours, which is [often seen] in Hong Kong cafés and restaurants,” she says. “We wanted to stand out, be a bit against the current and to give a breath of fresh air to the food and beverage landscape.”

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