Who said fashion cafes were a dying breed? Boutique eateries are actually popping up all over the city.

A sure sign that Hong Kong’s economy is booming is the growing trend for boutique cafes. A few years ago shops such as Joyce and DKNY had in-store cafes with a fashionable following – then they disappeared without trace.

The opening of a new agnes b. cafe, Le Pain Grille, in Causeway Bay on October 1 follows the re-opening of the Armani/Bar in Chater House. Adding these two European-style in-store eateries to those already established at Harvey Nichols on Queen’s Road and Lane Crawford at Two IFC, it seems that the fashion cafe is making a comeback.

These cosmopolitan up-market cafes, with their Parisian and Milanese roots, are styled to attract the fashion-conscious and those who relish European culture. The agnes b. cafe, for example, is designed for Francophiles. Part of a two-storey complex in Causeway Bay, Le Pain Grille aims to extend the lifestyle-oriented concept of the flower shop and a travel accessory shop.

The interior of the cafe is different from the typical agnes b. decor, which is characterised by a white colour scheme. Le Pain Grille has a cosy French feel with its white lace curtains, hand-painted patterns on the walls and Provence floor tiles.

The menu boasts more than 40 French dishes, ranging from escargots to traditional croque monsieur (that’s a ham and cheese toasted sandwich). It also claims to be the first restaurant to serve absinthe – the emerald-green spirit favoured by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde.

“Everything in the restaurant is authentic French,” says spokeswoman Joan Chui. ‘We don’t even have a 10 per cent service charge policy because restaurants in France don’t have that.

“The idea came from [designer and namesake] Agnes Bourgeois. She sees the restaurant as a way to promote French lifestyle through authentic French food and she wants to share with Hong Kong people the chic and tasteful style of the French.”

Also delivering a French ambience is Harvey Nichols’ Fourth Floor Restaurant, which features Mondrian geometry and colours, and serves predominantly French cuisine such as breaded frog’s legs with garlic butter escargots and pot-roasted pig’s head with honey and cloves. Yet it also instils some British elements that you’d expect of a restaurant connected to an English department store, by offering simpler dishes, such as fish and chips, eggs benedict and bangers and mash with onion gravy on the weekend brunch menu. At night, it becomes a wine bar with more than 200 varieties from which to choose, with prices ranging from HK$240 to almost HK$20,000 a bottle. “It’s a place for fashion followers, high-profile locals and food connoisseurs,” says hospitality manager Gary Ho.

The restaurants at agnes b. and Harvey Nichols cater to changing clientele as the day progresses. At lunch, they attract a business crowd, who are often followed by tai-tais having afternoon tea after a shopping spree. In the evening, it’s a cosmopolitan drinking crowd.

The Fourth Floor Restaurant at Harvey Nichols even changes its lighting scheme at different times of the day to create a suitable ambience. “At opening and during the day it’s ivory white, while at 6pm it changes to blue and then orange and red during the evening,” Ho says.

Le Pain Grille is the first agnes b. cafe in the world, but the restaurant at Harvey Nichols is an adaptation of the original. As Ho says of the Fourth Floor: “Our style is more contemporary compared to Britain. It’s in a modern French style. In Hong Kong, a restaurant in French style is often associated with sophistication and good taste, and so is French cuisine.”

For those who prefer Italian style, there is the Armani/Bar that offers la dolce vita lifestyle recreated by Giorgio Armani. The renowned designer has styled the 700-square metre premises in Central as an all-day venue that would bring a little of Milan to Hong Kong and be “the ultimate in relaxed, contemporary sophistication”.

Combining food, music and fashion under one roof, the Armani/Bar caters to “people who enjoy life and appreciate quality foods and services”. It features an Italian-style coffee bar, a restaurant serving modern Italian cuisine, a wine bar and a lounge. After 11pm, it transforms into an exclusive club with DJs spinning house music and guest international DJs visiting a couple of times a month. The setting’s an improvement from its previous incarnation as Emporio Armani Caffe, which closed in 2004.

Judging by the grandeur of the new bar, it’s safe to say that in-store restaurants are benefiting from an improved economy and the design of such eateries is a reflection of people’s swelling bank balances.

Published in the South China Morning Post on 12 October 2006