You’d be forgiven if you missed Hato. Walk just four paces and you’ve passed it. The nondescript street-level bar is tightly sandwiched between another nondescript street-level bar and a pumping Taco Tuesday joint.
But, in the hustle and bustle of Hart Avenue, which competes with Knutsford Terrace for some of the most popular watering holes in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hato sparkles like a diamond in the rough.
It is the lovechild of local Hongkongers, including veteran bartender Rain Kwong, who wanted a place in Kowloon where you could get a decent Highball. Indeed, since its opening last year, the Hato Highball has set a high bar for what Kowloon cocktail dreams are made of.
Despite being located on street level, Hato isn’t trying to pull crowds with the usual Tsim Sha Tsui bar tactics. It does not have a TV hanging above the bar with the latest Premiership game on; you don’t throw peanut shells on the floor; it doesn’t offer shisha; and the drinks aren’t hosed out for mindless inebriation.
Instead, Hato says: get smashed mindfully, friends, with good tipple.
The interior has all the tell-tale signs of a classic Japanese cocktail bar. There is a warm, dim light emanating from the industrial Edison bulbs that hang over a long statement bar. The bar runs almost the length of the room and a third of its width. The shiplap cladding and exposed concrete walls, leather-covered stools and highchairs, hanging knotted ropes that casually divide intimate booths like shoji screens, all add to Hato’s clandestine cosiness.
Also, unlike many of the bars on Hart Avenue that’ll have you shouting into your friend’s ear, chill lo-fi beats and slow jazz riff in the background so you can audibly remark to your pals how long it’s been since you’ve been to a bar where you can actually hear yourself.
At Hato, co-founder and long-time Hong Kong bartender Rain Kwong oversees the drinks menu. The Hong Kong native has over a decade of bartending experience at Island-side haunts. Rain was passionate about taking the craft of cocktails over to Kowloon where he saw a thirsty gap in the market.
Instead of a beer on tap, the classic Highball is the go-to buffer beverage, made with the Suntory Kakubin whiskey like the original Japanese cocktail calls for. This was Rain’s first priority for a Kowloon cocktail bar; to elevate the Tsim Sha Tsui drinking space by moving on from the brash beer towers.
And then there are familiar Hong Kong flavours and seasonal ingredients sourced from all over Asia, imbued in Hato’s signature elixirs. Things like butterfly pea flowers dye liqueurs, popping candy waits patiently on egg white foams, chili and lemongrass start a full moon party in spiced rum, Pu-erh tea steeps in whiskey, and yuzu peel tarts up sake. Classic cocktails Dark and Stormy and Moscow Mule also use homemade ginger beer to pump up the freshness of the spice.
For the Hong Kong kid-at-heart, the Lai Tseung Dor is a love letter to the indulgent Hong Kong cha chaan teng breakfast toast, with butter-infused vodka, Jack Daniels honey, vanilla syrup, condensed milk and peanut butter (Skippy’s creamy, of course).
The tea-infused cocktails are also dangerously drinkable. The Roselle Thorn, with dry Hawthorn gin, Italicus, lemon juice, roselle bitters and soda, is a light, fragrant elixir. Your drinking partner will perhaps be recommended Black Elegance, its masculine counterpart, with Pu-erh whiskey, chrysanthemum vermouth bianco, and peach bitters. A classic Negroni is also amplified with a Tieguanyin (Iron Buddha) infused gin.
Admittedly, good cocktails in Kowloon are hard to come by. And if all Kowloon gets to enjoy good drinks and great service in a sliver of real estate, it’s safe to say they’ll be packing in.
Playful, seasonal ingredients punctuate classic cocktails and inspire the bar’s signatures, noise pollution is purified upon entry, and bar staff know exactly how to make you a happy drinker. Just tell the friendly servers what makes your taste buds bloom.