We knew from the get-go that the establishment of a ladies-only speakeasy could easily turn into a controversial affair. When Rosewood Hong Kong announced plans to open such a venue, the response was a decidedly mixed bag of opinions. There was excitement all around, but then came the rumours: “Oh, we heard that they only staff male bartenders there.” “Is it like, a gentlemen’s club, but for chicks?” (yes and no) — then, there were the jealous males asking where their speakeasy was (cue strained silence). This inevitably led to general contemplations on what purpose a bar serves and for whom, and how it lives up to an assortment of expectations.
With the opening of Hong Kong’s first speakeasy for women, the ladies-only train carriages in our neighbours Korea and Japan instantly come to mind — devised to combat lewd conduct and gender inequality. So the concept of a ladies-only cocktail bar seems to cater to a need to create a safe haven away from bothersome advances of the opposite sex. Not that it was ever impossible for girls to have fun out in Hong Kong without being harassed by guys, though, for it to create a demand for this type of venue.
Nevertheless, a bar made for ladies to be ladies, or simply for women to vent after a long day (probably about men) — surely sounds appealing enough for its target audience. Without thinking too deeply, the concept can be freeing and empowering. But when the ‘ladies only’ descriptor confines its offerings to a very specific category of palate, that’s when it can get problematic.
In contrast to Rosewood’s existing bar DarkSide, XX is the yin to its yang — named after the double X sex chromosomes that all females share. It’s made to be a sophisticated spot for cocktails and bites with your well-heeled sistren. Located on the fifth floor, the bar is disguised behind a black wall just before the corridor turns into The Legacy House, the hotel’s Chinese restaurant. Open the panel and you’ll be able to tap in the password, which changes daily — that’s why phone reservations are essential if you want to get in. The door swings open and you’re likely met with a smile and a wave from bar manager Karlton.
Indeed, XX is mainly staffed by men, and the reason for this is apparently because experiments showed women are more willing to open up to male bar staff, whether it’s enquiring about a drink or spilling their sorrows. That might be more to do with sexual orientation than anything, but you can be the judge of that.
The candlelit space is spectacularly soothing at night, with glints of brass running along the bar and chandeliered lighting fixtures tying in with the mirrored sheen of decorative surfaces throughout. The curved velvet banquettes, round armchairs and circular coffee tables blend with the curvature of the bar — the fluidity of the lines soften what would otherwise be a traditionally masculine bar layout — replete with hardwood, cornered bartops, and sturdy leather edges. The hummingbird wallpaper adds a light romantic accent. Exuding such an elegant atmosphere, it’s a place where you’d also feel inclined to dress up a little — you might feel a tad out of place in jeans and sneakers.
The fancy little lifestyle touches also match the profile: Marble tic tac toe boards and Chanel and Dior coffee table books adorn the tables, making it feel like you’re drinking at your super-rich friend’s house, and making for excellent Instagrammable backdrops for your drink. Next to the bar, doors open out to a cosy terrace, with a long sofa gazing out directly onto the glorious skyline views, particularly lovely during this time of year.
Women who wear heels all day will be glad to slip off their shoes and help themselves to the incredibly plush pink slippers by the door, which are free to take home at the end of the night. On each table, ‘XX’-embroidered towelettes come in handy, while complimentary snacks come in the form of healthy freeze-dried strawberries, okra and pumpkin chips, and handmade marshmallow sticks for those with a sweet tooth.
A soft strain of Bossa Nova-style tunes is the backdrop to your girl talk. We wished the playlist could have more upbeat rhythms to keep it interesting though — at times it felt too much like elevator music, which felt a tad dull for the stylish lounge atmosphere.
As a cocktail bar first and foremost, the drinks here are decidedly delicate, elegant and easy-drinking, priced between HK$130-160 — slightly higher than the menu at sister bar DarkSide. They’re botanical-forward rather than allowing the spirits to speak for themselves, which may disappoint classic mixology purists or those who prefer their drinks strong.
The drink names also try just hard enough to elicit giggles without causing an eyeroll. The Mr. Right (HK$130), for instance, is a sake-based drink with the soft fruitiness and aroma of sakura, Amarena cherry and Tonka bean — ironically, it’s sweet, but pretty forgettable. The Macho (HK$130) was very aptly named, a smoky concoction that arrived with the thick cloud of palo santo incense — made with matcha, lemongrass and lillet blanc, it tasted like a spiked green juice with just enough tartness in the aftertaste to keep it balanced, and the lingering smoke in the background hinting almost at a mezcal flavour on the tongue.
For someone whose go-to cocktail is a hefty martini or a negroni, I was recommended to order The Sexy — She Says That A Lot (HK$160), a gin-centric champagne cocktail made with London No.3 Gin, jasmine, bergamot and topped off with fizz. Floral and refreshing, it hit the spot particularly after a long sweaty walk to the Rosewood itself, but it’s barely a drink that makes you forget the stress of the day. That said, it felt like it had the highest ABV compared to other tall cocktails.
Our group also ordered a dirty martini — proving that the bartenders are happy to go off-menu to shake up your preferred beverage — but a watered down gulp of a drink arrived in a slightly pinkish hue, proving to be more floral than briny the way we liked it. After two rounds, it was disappointing to find that most of the cocktails tasted rather muted.
Those preferring to imbibe on strong or straight liquors can delve into the list of blended whiskies, single malts, bourbons, cognac, and other artisanal spirits. There are also beers exclusively brewed by Kingdom Brewery in Phnom Penh.
I would also highly recommend perusing the excellently curated list of wines, which is dedicated to wines by women winemakers and vineyard owners. This was the highlight of the bar, in our opinion. Whether you want to experiment with a minerally, aromatic wine like the Swiss grape Fendant or go with an Aussie Sauv Blanc; sip an uncommon Cornaline or indulge in a scrummy Burgundy Pinot Noir, there’s plenty for different comfort zones to choose from — by-the-glass prices range from HK$115 to HK$398 (and HK$88 for dessert wine), which is typical of a ritzy hotel bar, but it might mean XX wouldn’t exactly be the first spot you’d pick to educate your palate.
Aside from the healthy complimentary nibbles, you’ll be hard pressed to find something not gilded or topped with caviar here on the snacks menu. Funnily enough, the food menu is separated by ‘Caviar’ and ‘No Caviar’. Aside from straight up ordering a tin of 30- or 50-gram Kristal caviar, try the Tuna Nikkei Ceviche — deliciously seasoned with a dash of leche de tigre, and topped on a wafer-thin puffed rice cracker that stayed crisp even after we took our time snapping pics first. HK$120 gets you just four small morsels, and indeed your dollars don’t go far in terms of portion size here. The red prawn tartare (HK$120), also served on chips, were unctuous chunks of fresh, sweet meat complemented nicely with the herbaceous aroma of makrut lime and topped with a few dots of caviar.
The Mini Lobster Rolls (HK$120 for three pieces) were made the L.A. way, with chunks of lobster enveloped in a creamy Marie Rose sauce, topped off with sheets of gold leaf for mesmerising effect. It was a bit too saucy for my liking though. I preferred the Golden Brioche (HK$80), which were like a rich take on pani puri crossed with freshly baked madeleines: each a crispy, bready orb filled with crème fraiche and a salty punch of oscietra caviar — best eaten hot.
The menu was rounded out by relatively ‘good-for-you’ yet opulent creations like organic crudité or housemade chips, as well as sweet treats such as chocolate with strawberries and s’mores.
Whether plainly billed as a female-only gathering space or an empowering sanctuary from men, it’s impossible to define XX without looking at what sets it apart from a regular co-ed bar. XX prides itself on its femininity and just begins to open the conversation for female solidarity in the drinking world with a woman-led wine programme, though falls short in the rest of its menu by boxing itself in with its stereotypically feminine offerings.
There’s nothing wrong with liking a light cocktail, of course. But the menu design seems to suggest a one dimensionality of the feminine palate. Perhaps in an effort to diversify and distance itself with the relatively robust cocktails at DarkSide, XX’s drinks are too focused on a delicate profile with light floral flavours, sweetness and benign funny names. It could have been worse — a pink on pink caricature of a girl’s cocktail bar, for instance — and thankfully, it’s not. It’s undoubtedly a gorgeous space to wine and dine with your fellow sistren, but why can’t a girl knock back an extra dirty martini or two without it getting watered down with pink juice? For a swish place for successful ladies to relax, chat, gossip and joke, where are the crushable drinks that make you let loose and vent about… I don’t know, the patriarchy?
All that said, there’s a lot to like here, and we have no doubt XX will find its footing as a cult speakeasy if it can focus more on things like championing female talent behind the bar, encouraging like-minded ladies to meet and network, and hosting events and initiatives that foster the empowerment of women — anything that builds upon simply being a ladylike space to sit pretty and drink dainty cocktails at steep prices.