Spare that Hong Kong icon Grappa's

May 15, 2019 17:34
Nowhere else in Central is there a restaurant like Grappa's Cellar which hosts live music, visiting musicians, dancing – in a word, "entertainment". Photo: Grappa's/Facebook

"If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it." So said Duke Orsino in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. But as it prepares to ring down the curtain on Grappa's, Hong Kong Land appears to be saying, "If food be the music of profit, let's have the excess, why bother with the entertainment?"

Though I am far from being a conspiracy theorist, the systematic destruction of what so many Hongkongers regard as the city's iconic landmarks does bear the hallmarks of a design, though by whom I am reluctant to suggest.

Our ever-sensitive property tycoons are hell-bent on replacing traditional shops with yet more retail outlets for big brands like Gucci and their ilk.

It looks as though Chow Tai Fook is aiming to locate one retail outlet every 100 meters on the arterial shopping roads, expanding their gold emporia rather like a branch line of the MTR.

One by one, the places that, collectively, gave Hong Kong its unique character are being driven out by the suffocating greed of people for whom the city is nothing more than a milch-cow.

I well recall the widespread dismay when Pedder Building caused the China Tee Club to close its glorious louver doors, robbing us of an iconic venue with its 1920s interior decor, characterful waiters and some of the best food in town.

At the same time, Shanghai Tang had to leave the ground floor and basement, and what replaced it? A short-lived American clothing store that had to close part way through its lease and pay the landlord a massive sum in compensation. This left Pedder Building with a huge hollow space haunted by the memories of the Tee Club.

Then Grappa's in Pacific Place closed and the branded stores proliferate.

What is the disease that drives these property people constantly to seek higher and higher profits? Do they lie in bed at night in connubial connection with their calculators? Is there no cure for their chronic venality?

Apparently, Hong Kong Land intends to develop the space currently occupied by Grappa's Cellar in the basement of Jardine House as a food court.

Question: do we need a food court in the heart of Central?

Apart from Grappa's, the building already boasts Miso, a Japanese restaurant, Chiuchow Garden Restaurant, Morty's delicatessen, Jasmine Place dim sum restaurant and Deli and Wine.

But without disparaging any of these fine eating venues, none of them can compare to Grappa's Cellar. Nowhere else in Central is there a restaurant that hosts live music, visiting musicians, dancing – in a word, "entertainment".

Grappa's record for sponsoring charitable events is second to none and their generosity in this regard is probably not sufficiently acknowledged.

Ever since The Godown closed, the Victoria Jazz Band has played there every month, and the Stray Katz swing band in various iterations has also been a regular attraction. It is home to the Hong Kong Swingers, dancers who are as enjoyable to watch as the fun they obviously get out of their terpsichorean gymnastics.

There is nowhere that rivals it for a host of functions, especially where live music is concerned.

In short, over the years, Grappa's Cellar has given an incalculable amount of pleasure to countless Hongkongers, of all ages.

You cannot live in Hong Kong and be unaware of the financial difficulties faced by restaurateurs here. Demonstrate your success and the landlord will increase your rent by a multiple that even Ebenezer Scrooge would have balked at.

But Grappa's Cellar is not just a restaurant, it's a Hong Kong icon and there are precious few of those still around.

I believe that every major property developer has a model for the range of retail outlets in a large building. The wider the choice, the more people will visit.

Hong Kong Land could take credit for having Grappa's in Jardine House, giving it an incomparable ambit.

Nor am I persuaded that the current board of directors is so insensitive to opinion that it will ignore the immense goodwill that attaches to providing a venue that purveys food, drink, service and entertainment, all in an ambiance that generates happiness.

If, contrary to my best guess, Hong Kong Land is short of a rupee or two to keep the wolf from the door, then I can see the compelling argument for squeezing more rental out of the space.

But building a regular clientèle as Grappa's has, a following that is even now demonstrating its loyalty by the petition that gathers momentum every day, is surely not something to dismiss with cavalier disregard.

Instead of treating Grappa's as though it was a piece on a Monopoly board, the directors should reflect on its capacity to spread happiness, even put on their dancing shoes and live a little. Surely, closing the Mandarin Oriental is enough trauma?

Grappa's cannot claim to have the distinguished Hong Kong lineage of Ben Keswick but he, as will all the Keswick family board members, be conscious of the critical need to preserve as much as possible of the Fragrant Harbour's history.

Hong Kong's property developers, as a class, do not enjoy a choice reputation. Hong Kong Land could so easily demonstrate genuine class by changing this recondite and unwelcome decision and allowing Grappa's Cellar to continue to serve up joy for the foreseeable future.

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King's Counsel