Restaurants Wine & Dine

Restaurants design: We profile expat Anita Lopez of Dining Concepts

By: Claire Locking

We meet Anita Lopez, the creative brains behind the restaurant design of many of Hong Kong’s most popular and impressive-looking restaurants.

Hong Kong is a city of food lovers. Residents eat out a minimum of three times a week on average, and every few days sees a new restaurant launch or a new eating trend taking over our wallets and waistlines. But Hong Kongers don’t just have an appetite for what tastes good; they also like what’s cool, what’s new and what looks good on their Facebook tags. They really want the kind of restaurant design where the meal isn’t the center of attention.

 

As restaurants design director of Dining Concepts, the name behind many of the city’s top eateries, including Mayta, Lupa, Tango and The Bellbrook, Anita Lopez knows how important ambience is to a restaurant’s success. “It’s often as important as the food; how people feel can have a huge influence on success or failure. We don’t try to follow trends too much; they can make people feel uncomfortable in a space. Instead, we try to make every one of our restaurants a place where people feel at home and where they will want to come back.”

Anita arrived in Hong Kong from her native Chile in 2007. She flew the day after graduating with a Masters in Urban Planning – a brave move for a 27-year-old who’d never been to Asia and didn’t speak English, let alone Cantonese. Thankfully her first job was for a fellow Chilean and it was her restaurants design talent that did the talking.

Six years on, Anita speaks fluent English and is happily settled in the city with her architect husband and a close group of friends of all nationalities that she calls her “Hong Kong family”. She also has what could possibly be the best job of its kind in the world. “There’s no city like this one for restaurant design; things happen so fast and the vibe is so unique; maybe New York, but where we take weeks to complete a project, they take maybe nine months just for the design stage. There is a real ‘can do’ attitude here and people work to ‘Hong Kong time’. I love my job: every day there’s something new or exciting to work on, whether it’s discussing ideas with a new chef or designing decorations for events.”

Anita’s energy and enthusiasm are essential in a role that can see her creating up to four or five new restaurants design in one year. Currently, she’s working on three new sites, all to be completed in as many months. So how does she come up with new ideas when things move at such a pace? “I work closely with our founder and managing director, Sandeep Sekhri. We discuss the restaurants design concepts suitable for a particular location and the clientele that we’re looking to target. I also travel a lot looking for materials and products and I constantly get restaurants design ideas from magazines and blogs.”

One of Anita’s most recent projects has been the re-launch of Laris on Wyndham Street, now Australian bistro, The Bellbrook. “The original Laris was too upscale for the location so we had just three weeks to turn it from a very chic and sensual fine-dining restaurant into a more casual space. We took away a lot of the marble, replacing it with subway tiles on the bar and the columns. We injected some Australian colours with the yellow and blue. I sourced some vintage Australian travel posters and some vintage lamps. The biggest change was opening up the terrace.”

Anita works very closely with the company’s partner chefs on most of her projects. Lupa was a partnership with renowned New York chef Mario Batali who wanted the Hong Kong outpost to be almost a replica of the American flagship. “I went and looked at the original Lupa in New York but it became obvious it was too simple and rustic for the much bigger space in Hong Kong. We would have to be different.” Thankfully, one of Mario’s other New York restaurants (Tarry Lodge in Port Chester) was to prove a source of inspiration with elements of Lupa’s restaurant design in lighting, furniture and flooring all coming directly from there.

One of Lupa’s biggest successes has been the outside terrace. “Mario wanted to create an American/British ‘park’ in the middle of the city. He wanted the space to be less urban and more green, so we created the central bar and worked with a Japanese company to create the green wall.” It’s since been named by several international magazines as among the city’s best bars.

At Mayta, the group’s Peruvian restaurant, Anita was able to look to her South American routes. “In Chile, we’re surrounded by raw materials. I love working with the richness and texture of wood and I always think it makes a space more cosy. Mayta has Peruvian patterns carved into the wood and I sourced ceramics direct from Peru. A feature of the bar is the infused bottles of Pisco which came direct from chef Jamie Pesaque’s original restaurant in Lima.”

Most of Dining Concepts’ partner chefs aim for a stylish take on their native cuisines and Anita seems to do the same with the interiors design. “We always try to add touches of the culture, though nothing too obvious or overly ethnic.” Tango, the group’s Argentinian restaurant, is a prime example. The space has a typically Argentinian exposed fire grill, a butcher’s table at the entrance and vintage Argentinian movie posters but the result is still simple and rustic.

With a career in restaurants design, you would expect Anita to be eating out every night. In fact, she prefers to eat at home. “I don’t find it very relaxing eating in our restaurants as I’m always sitting there spotting problems and things that I could have done better! However, when a restaurant is full and I can see people enjoying it and I can feel the vibe, I do sit back and say ‘Wow’, we did a great job!”

 

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