Walk up the stairs of an old, unassuming building on Lyndhurst Terrace, through the heavy black doors on your left and into the buzzing, eclectic space that is Nikkei spot TokyoLima. Inside, you may find a familiar face behind the kitchen pass: chef Arturo Melendez, previously head chef of the now-defunct Chicha, who’s had his hands full with the orders pouring in from a packed house since TokyoLima officially opened a few weeks ago.
You may also notice two debonair gentlemen manning the front of the house, folding napkins, greeting guests, and meticulously checking that every table is set properly. They ensure the music plays at an exact volume, dropped silverware is replaced, and the doors are greased properly so as not to make a noise as the staff shuffles between the kitchen and the dining room.
These two are Manuel Palacio and Christian Talpo, the genial restaurateur duo behind Pirata, The Optimist, and new openings TokyoLima and Pici — in our opinion, some of the most consistently performing spots in the city for good food and drinks at an affordable price.
Talpo’s background includes everything from Grand Hyatt to Zuma to, most recently, Chief Operations Officer of Aqua Restaurant Group. Palacio, on the other hand, is an ex-musician and jet-setter-turned-exemplary-food-snob, and to hear them talk about their partnership and witness them working in tandem makes one thing clear: theirs is a match made in Hong Kong culinary heaven.
We recently sat down with the rising restaurant industry stars to discuss the three tenets of every great restaurant, the inspiration for TokyoLima, and the turning point in their careers when owning a restaurant went from being a pipe dream to a reality.
How did you both get involved in hospitality, and where did you meet?
Manuel Palacio: I’m from Madrid. I started in F&B when I was 15, and it was just because I didn’t want to study. At the beginning it was just a way of making money to focus on music. I had my own record label at 18 — it was a complete disaster. It was called Quatro and we made records from 2004–2006, without making much money. In 2007, I closed the label and moved to the UK, where I lived on and off for almost seven years with a break in-between in New York. I worked at Floridita in London for five years as a runner, captain, manager, you name it. During that time, I also studied everything about bartending; I went to a lot of courses and spent a couple of seasons in Ibiza. In 2012, I moved to Hong Kong to work for Aqua Restaurant Group.
Christian Talpo: I also left school very early on and started waitering and dishwashing at the age of 15 in Italy. I came to Hong Kong in 1993 completely by chance, with an offer from Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, with the plan to spend six months learning the trade, learning English, and then going back to Italy. At the end of six months, the GM of the hotel convinced me to stay. Since then, I’ve had my own import/export business, spent a year sailing around the world, worked at Va Bene (the original), worked as GM of Zuma for five years — which was fantastic — and then most recently, as Chief Operations Officer at Aqua, which is where I met Manuel.
Tell us about how you forged a relationship.
CT: As COO at Aqua, I was suddenly in charge of 16 restaurants and it was quite a handful, to say the least. The ray of light in my day was basically Manuel; out of all the managers, he was the one who understood exactly what I was talking about, and a lot of times we found ourselves at the end of a meeting looking at each other and that’s when we connected. I saw in Manuel very strong values and a clean, clear intelligence that is quite rare to find. When he decided to leave Aqua, and I realised I couldn’t convince him to stay, I said “Okay, how about we work on something together.” It’s always been a dream in my back pocket to have my own restaurant.
What was the process like of opening your first venue, Pirata?
CT: It was a tough process. The day we were about to sign the venue, it fell through. I was on my way to Italy for a funeral and Manuel had a check in his pocket to go and sign the venue. When I arrived in Italy and opened my phone, there were dozens of messages basically saying we had lost the deal because someone else had turned up a half hour earlier with the same offer. So yes, it was heartbreaking. And it wasn’t the first time either, we had lost other sites in a similar fashion. But we were determined to get it done no matter what. We had a discussion and agreed that we would not give up.
MP: Actually, we didn’t agree…
CT: Well, Manuel wanted to pull out but not for the reason you think. It was because I was financing the project and Manuel felt that I had spent too much money on this project. He said these exact words, “Look, I’ve been very heavy on your pockets.” And I said to him “No, absolutely not, if we stop now then it’s for nothing, I really truly believe that we can get this done.” And sure enough, one week later he called me up and said he’d found exactly what we were looking for. When I came back and saw the space I loved it.
Was it what you originally had in mind?
CT: Actually we were trying to find a 2,500-sq.-ft. restaurant on the ground floor in Central. We ended up with a 4,500-sq.ft. on the top floor in the middle of Wan Chai in a building that has nothing nearby. So it was a huge gamble from the start, because we knew we’d have to fight tooth and nail for every single person that would come in. We built Pirata on a shoestring, doing everything ourselves, including travelling to China to buy the furniture, lighting and kitchen equipment. We know every nook and cranny of the place; it’s absolutely a labour of love.
What were the first few months like operating your own venue?
CT: Those first few months were really a struggle to get people to know us, to know what we stand for. Our V Day photo shoot was what finally got us noticed. We were really, really busy for Valentine’s day and people started realising, “Hey wait a second the food is great, the service is great, and it’s value for money and why not?” We got busier and busier and since those days we’ve been pretty much running a full house.
You opened your second venue, The Optimist, in the same building. How did that come about?
CT: We noticed the first three floors were empty at the time, so Manuel and I would often sneak in through the fire exit in the middle of the night and fantasise about having another restaurant and we would literally draw the kitchen on the floor in the sand with a bottle of water. We designed it like that and finally got up the courage to make an offer to the landlord.
Fortunately, this time we had a bit more budget so we could hire a very good designer. We also saw a niche in the market — a lot of restaurants were specialising in steaks, or seafood, but few were doing both grilled steaks and seafood well. We thought, where is one of the best places in the world where you can get both, and well, we landed on Northern Spain.
You both come from very different backgrounds. Where did your love of food stem from?
CT: Food for me has always been a part of my life. Obviously being Italian, we’re constantly around food and wine. I was looking after myself and my sister from a very young age, so around 8 or 9 I was already cooking. I love everything about food, and I’ve pretty much tried every cuisine out there.
MP: In my case, I did not always love food. In fact, I was a very bad eater until the age of 20 or 21. When I was in London, I would just eat pasta with tomato sauce, or a sandwich, or chicken or whatever it was. I was just eating because I had to. I started to date a Hong Kong–American, and she brought me, funnily enough, to Zuma in London, and that was the fist time that my perception of food changed. I was eating — and enjoying — raw fish and other things, and I couldn’t believe it. From then on, my passion changed completely. I started leaving the drinks behind, and reading up on everything I could about food. In New York at the age of 23, I was basically making a few dollars a month, saving up, and then blowing it all on one Michelin meal and having to take the bus home. I’ve since travelled the world doing this. Out of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, I must have eaten at half of them.
CT: Manuel’s trips are legendary. I’ve been on a trip with him and he’s capable of having two lunches and three dinners and drinks at a bar every day for up to 10 days. Is that your record?
MP: Until I get sick. But I try to watch a lot what I’m eating on the other days. I remember in New York in one day, I ate at eight Michelin restaurants in total, three for lunch, two for first dinner, and three for second dinner. My bill came out to around HKD$20,000 that day.
But why not space it out?
MP: Because you get tables whenever you get tables. I always just call and say get me a table whenever, wherever, however.
CT: Obviously having done those dinners with Manuel, the only way to make it is to not eat everything. You basically order a lot of dishes, you try a lot of dishes, pay the bill and walk away, thats how it works. And this is our money, we don’t charge the company for this.
So it’s really for research purposes?
MP: Absolutely. When we do this, we don’t allow ourselves to drink, only at the very last meal. Because you cannot get very drunk when the next day at 11am you need to start eating again. It’s enjoyable for the first two days, and then it’s like “Now I need to do Per Se, followed by Eleven Madison Park, after having lunch at Del Posto, and then I’m going to have dinner at Momofuku and then I have to have lunch in that street-corner place the next day.”
The way I see it is, we need to create memories, because you never know when one year later something’s going to click and you’re going to say “Oh, do you remember when we had this, or when we went to that bar, that was really cool.” A person is nothing but a collection of memories — it’s a lot of things that represent what you are and what you’ve seen, and this is what we’re doing at the moment when we’re travelling.
CT: For me, it was a bit new, a new way to do it, but I have to say I truly, truly enjoy it and I’ve learned a lot. Although I’m a lot older than Manuel, he’s the kind of person who still can teach me quite a few tricks.
So where have you done these epic culinary trips and which cities are still on your list?
MP: Well I’ve done quite a few. I think Christian is a master in Japan and Italy. For me, I know everything about London — I spent seven years there — and everything about New York. I’ve done LA, Rome, Melbourne, Bali. When I went to Japan I only did street food, and in Melbourne I went to a lot of cool wine bars. I’m planning to head to Mexico and Lima next — that’s always been a dream of mine.
Where’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
MP: Service-wise, the most incredible experience I’ve ever had was at Eleven Madison Park. It wasn’t the food necessarily, I’ve had better meals that were a lot cheaper, but it made me feel special like no other place. For food, this three-Michelin-star restaurant called DiverXO in Spain. It’s this punk guy with tattoos, David Muñoz that runs it and he just brings you to every single country and every single continent during the meal. You’re fully entertained for four to five hours.
CT: I’m usually a lot more humble when it comes to meals, so my best meal is probably in some little trattoria in Italy. I remember one time when I was 22 and it was truffle season, my dad and I were about an hour out of Alba, and we had some porcini with some white truffle and it blew my socks off. The owner’s husband had just found the truffle that morning. Things like that are incredible. I’ve also had some very memorable meals in Japan, including one outrageous one that was just blowfish (fugu) from start to finish — sashimi, tempura, hotpot, you name it. I said if this doesn’t kill me, nothing will.
What is the ethos you live by in your restaurants?
CT: We actually wrote it down on a piece of paper that we have stuck to the whiteboard in our office still. It’s the rules that we live by, how we’re going to run the business. And that’s three components: good food, good service, and value-for-money. That will always be the same in every restaurant that we manage. And we really believe if you have all three of them, there’s no way you can fail, whether you’re in flip-flops serving burgers or aiming for three Michelin stars.
A lot of restaurant groups in Hong Kong have become all about the business, and they’ve lost the heart, the essential elements which make a restaurant successful. We hear a lot of our friends in the industry and we read news and interviews with other operators, and it baffles me when I hear about them complaining about the economy, complaining about the diners, complaining about whatever Trump is doing — there is always someone else to blame. Manuel and I are so much in agreement on this — you’re a master of your own success and failure. If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, end of story. If we’re quiet tonight, it’s my fault, it’s Manuel’s fault. It’s nobody else’s fault.
MP: And we never go and watch on the street, like how some people do when they are slow. The day that we are slow, we grab all the staff, and do training, tasting, training, tasting. We never leave our outlets. We’re always focusing on what we can control. If you have good food, good service, and good value you are meant to be busy.
And you can survive in Hong Kong?
MP: Absolutely. And I’m not saying cheap. I’m saying good value. Our outlets for me are good value.
CT: That’s a good point — it’s very important to understand the difference between cheap and good value. I can go to Per Se and spend US$2,000 and find good value in that, or I can have a burger for US$10 and find it terrible value. Value for money is at the end of the day when you’re looking at the bill and saying yes, actually, it makes sense.
Tell us a bit about TokyoLima and how the concept came about.
CT: We were in London for one of these culinary tours, actually looking at ideas for Pirata and The Optimist, and we ended up at some izakaya and we had a really great time. We also went to a Peruvian restaurant and we loved the food. But in a lot of these places the ideas were really, really good, but the execution was not that good. Somehow, somewhere it got lost in translation, so then we started to think about what we could do with Nikkei (Japanese–Peruvian) food. We were having a meal one day and I literally turned around to Manuel and said how about we do a Nikkei izakaya. And I think maybe we had a couple glasses of wine, high-fived about it and said done, this is what we’re going to do.
It just so happened that when we came back to Hong Kong, we received a message from chef Arturo saying he was looking for something in Hong Kong, so it was really a case of planets aligning.
What is special about the restaurant?
MP: It’s the atmosphere. The food is good, but we take that as a non-negotiable. The place is just vibrant: if you happen to come here you feel good, and the moment that you’re having such a great time, with great food, service is great with people that truly care about you in here, and then you’re surprised by how little it costs. Because you come to a place like this in Hong Kong and you pay easily twice the money.
CT: It’s the fun factor. We really try and specialise in making sure you have a good time. You have a good meal, good drinks, no fuss, and you walk away and you’re like, “Wow I feel quite content”.
Is that what you love about the business?
MP: Absolutely. We have a superpower, and that’s making people happy. You can either be serving people or taking care of people, and we decided long ago on taking care of people.
What’s next on the horizon?
CT: We’re probably going to spend the next few months consolidating because we’ve opened two restaurants at the same time, so we want to make sure that all our venues are maintained at the same level, and then we’ll see. There will be other restaurants I can tell you that for sure. We have at least four different concepts at various stages, and a huge stack of ideas that we’ve yet to explore.
MP: It has to be the right moment, the right space, the right people — that’s when the magic happens.