Wedding Card Street: The Next Food Destination

If you’ve had a juicy burger at Harbour City, a bowl of beef noodles in Tsim Sha Tsui, a crispy fish and chips, a suckling pig, a chicken curry or an Argentinian steak at SoHo, chances are you’ve visited one of Sandeep Sekhri’s restaurants in town.

The founder and managing director of Dining Concepts is one of the major architects behind the SoHo we are familiar with today.

Owning no fewer than 20 hip dining outlets in Hong Kong, most significantly BLT Burger, Al Molo, Bombay Dreams, Mama San and Nahm, the Dining Concepts empire encompasses a dynamic mixture of cuisines spanning Indian, Spanish, Asian fusion, American and British, just to name a few. These did not come overnight.

The boss of Dining Concepts started in Hong Kong as a humble restaurant manager in 1990. Then 12 years later in 2002 he set up his own Indian restaurant, Bombay Dreams. But as an entrepreneur, he was content.
“I had no vision or idea to grow into a bigger group or anything rather than monitoring a restaurant,” he recounts.

“Four months after I started the restaurant SARS came. It was a very difficult time indeed; but because of that I saw opportunities outside, and I thought I can turn SoHo into a dinning district.”

Henceforth, the entrepreneur decided to expand, opening seven restaurants from 2003 to 2006, with a footprint spanning SoHo, Elements, ICC and Harbour City.

The sweet taste of success only made him hungrier.

Since Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen & Bar cut the ribbon at SoHo last year, the group has been on an expansion spree with the addition of four ventures on the island this year alone, including stylish bars Alto and J. Boroski at Causeway Bay and Central, as well as Belgium chain café Le Pain Quotidien and conceptual bar Ophelia on Lee Tung Avenue, aka Wedding Card Street.

“Lee Tung Avenue is going to be a destination,” Sekhri says. “I knew that we could create an amazing dining and drinking destination where people would come if they are not at home.

“People in Central tend to have one drink and hop onto the next one (venue). We like to make Lee Tung Avenue a destination for people to spend at least two hours.”

And there’s no other place like Ophelia that can better reflect this vision, a space that claimed this year’s Hong Kong Restaurant Interior Design Awards.

In stark contrast to its artificial European exterior on Lee Tung Avenue, Ophelia’s shadowy yet showy interior, done by Australian designer Ashley Sutton, exudes a rambling charm of elusiveness with lavish peacock motifs set against some 600,000 hand-painted tiles.

“We are fascinated by the colours of the bird and colour is at the heart of this restaurant,” he says.

But this peculiar beauty isn’t inherited. The obscure tone of Ophelia is a brilliant pitch to capitalise on the misshapen original floor plan.

“You simply can’t build a restaurant in the original space here because it is full of blind spots and large columns, which would make the user experience very poor,” he says.

“Due to the bizarre floor plan we can only create something that is mysterious and intriguing, and something that does not require symmetry.”

Indeed, walking into the bar is an immersive experience – like getting lost in a forest with all its peacock feathers decorating the interior; or like a maze, where you can expect surprises around every corner.

First, the entrance cannot be more low-key, looking like a modified fire door at the backstairs, but behind the door is a bewildering scene reimagining an ancient bird shop hanging with bird chirps adding to its mystique.

"Ambience matters, particularly for lounges and bars,

where customers look for experiences.”

Then you will pass through velvet curtains to enter the stage area, where it spotlights an avant-garde peacock-themed rattan armchair with two alluring iron swings on both sides. Dancing performances are on every night. Walking further in is a semi-outdoor area centred with a human-sized birdcage for another performance.

“People keep coming back to restaurants mainly for food as well as for ambience. Ambience matters, particularly for lounges and bars, where customers look for experiences.”

Six months after opening its door, he says the bar is half full every night.

“When you are happy you want a drink; when you are sad you want a drink. Drinking is always better than food. People spend more on drinks than food,” he says, adding the group will focus on cocktail bars down the road.

While the expansion is in full swing, Sekhri underlines the importance of keeping all brands under the Dining Concepts umbrella coherent, but with a different style.

“The main reason people come and go is that they get bored. Customers want something new and different. The trick, to me, is consistency, and offering value for money.”