Inside Amigo, Hong Kong's most resilient restaurant
When I was a kid, our Happy Valley-bound tram would pass by a gigantic sculpture of a gilded sun hanging above a tar black gate in front of a Spanish-style mansion.
"This is the gate to a very fancy and expensive restaurant," my dad told me as I stared open-mouthed at the huge, gleaming sun.
The "restaurant with the golden sun" would stay in my head throughout my childhood. It was a mysterious place to me. Adding to my curiosity, I had never seen anyone walking out from the black gate.
My first visit to Amigo was three years ago, as a working journalist. I kept snapping away with my camera and didn’t even notice the person sitting on a red sofa nearby. Bearing a slight resemblance to Warren Buffet, the man was none other than Yeung Wing Chung, founder and owner of Amigo Restaurant.
"Our boss is a true legend," an employee named Cheung raved about Amigo owner Yeung Wing Chung. "When guests come here they all say hello to him. There have even been times when some foreigners would travel all the way to Hong Kong just to visit him. He has been very kind to us."
Three years after that visit, Chung has kept Amigo unchanged, a rare constant on Hong Kong's dining scene.
The restaurant's old-age romance and French and Western cuisine -- scallop chowder, bisque d' escargot, lamb chops, Mongolian beef filet and warmed salted ox-tongue with mesclun salad are typical offerings -- have kept generations coming back for anniversaries, proposals and other special occasions.
Yeung, affectionately known as "Uncle Five," comes from a family that accumulated a fortune selling rice and manufacturing toys -- the Cabbage Patch Kids doll line of the 1980s and the more recent Beyblade action figures are among some of its most popular merchandises.
While Uncle Five regularly gives away toys taken from his factory to kids dining at Amigo, his own toy is without any doubt the restaurant itself.
"I decided to open an up-market restaurant because I wanted to do something fun where I can use fancy decoration," says Yeung.
When it comes to decor at Amigo, "old" is the selling point. The ceiling is made with hand-carved wood, four watercolor paintings by Sir William Russell Flint are valued at more than a million dollars each, the owner’s European antique collection is on display, chairs have carvings on both sides, nearly every piece in the place carries its weight in history.
All these are testament to Yeung’s attention to detail. But he's not against moving with the times.
"It’s been 30 years since I started here, but we’re still trying to improve and learn," says waiter Mr. Yip. "For myself, I have taken several sommelier courses as I feel I must know more about wine."
Yip is in charge of maintaining the restaurant’s recently refurbished wine cellar, where some 2,000 bottles are kept, the oldest vintage from 1911.
Since 1967 there has been only one Amigo Restaurant location because Yeung is the kind of man who wants to keep a good thing going without too many distractions. Loyalty defines Uncle Five’s personality and often serves to inspire the people around him: a domestic helper from the Philippines has worked for him for 20 years, a staffer at the toy factory has been employed for 30 years, his driver has been with him for more than 20 years.
"One time when one of my drivers had a stroke, another one who used to work for me quit his job right away to come back and help me again. He was working for Richard Li back then," says Yeung.
That driver even invited his boss home for Chinese New Year dinner -- something unimaginable in a typical boss-staff relationship. Uncle Five accepted the invitation and has made it an annual routine ever since.
"My wife came up with the name Amigo when the business began because it was easy to pronounce and memorize. It also means 'friend' in Spanish," says Uncle Five.
It is an especially fiting name for someone who makes his customers his friends. Some guests have been regulars for the past 40 years now and see Uncle Five as part of their family. Among regular patrons are celebrities, movie stars and politicians.
79A Wong Nai Chung Road, Happy Valley, tel +852 2577 2202, www.amigo.com.hk; open daily, noon-2:30 p.m., 6 p.m.-midnight.