A talented trio comes together to create this new restaurant in Sai Ying Pun. Joyce Wang and Yenn Wong speak to Tamsin Bradshaw about the ups and downs of designing the neighbourhood eatery, as well as the personality behind the space.
Having opened on 18 June 2016 in increasingly gentrified Sai Ying Pun, RHODA is about a fellowship between three Hong Kong figures, each of whom is a superstar in the hospitality industry.
There’s the chef, Nathan (‘Nate’) Green, who is probably best known to Hongkongers for his role as Executive Chef of 22 Ships and Ham & Sherry. He is the Executive Chef and Culinary Director of Rhoda, which is the embodiment of both his personality and food philosophy.
Then there’s the restaurateur, Yenn Wong. She’s the CEO and Founder of JIA Group, an F&B powerhouse that has made design as much a part of the restaurant experience in Hong Kong as the food. JIA Group has worked with some of the world’s most exciting design talents – Turkish duo Autoban designed the contemporary yet timeless space at 208 Duecento Otto; Studio Ilse did the interiors for Duddell’s; while Shanghai’s Neri & Hu created the airy spaces at Aberdeen Street Social.
With Rhoda, Yenn and her team have continued the same approach, turning yet another eatery into a destination. And this is where the third player takes centre stage: the designer, Joyce Wang, Principal of Joyce Wang Studio.
As with Nate and Yenn, Joyce needs little introduction. Most Hongkongers are familiar with her work on restaurants Ammo, Mott 32, Isono and Vasco, and the hotel rooms at Landmark Mandarin Oriental. She’s well familiar with designing for the hospitality industry, and, speaking with her and with Yenn, it’s clear that this partnership has long been in the works – and it’s one that is founded in friendship.
“Yenn and I have known each other personally since the beginning; there’s a lot of respect there and a lot of trust. We’ve talked for a while about doing something together,” says Joyce.
“I think what really bonded us was that our kids were born in the same week. She checked into my room at the hospital the day I checked out,” says Yenn.
Both also have a strong connection with Nate. “Nate was at 22 Ships and Ham & Sherry for nearly two years and he did a fantastic job – not only in terms of the food he put out, but also his character and his passion. It’s quite hard to find chefs who are easy to work with, but there’s something special about Nate. And with Joyce, her office is right opposite 22 Ships, so she’s always eating there!”
Perhaps this is why Nate became such a central part of the design narrative at Rhoda. “It’s a very personal restaurant for Nate. The name is Rhoda, his grandmother’s name. It means rose, so we’ve got this rose pattern on the tables,” says Joyce.
She alluded to several of Nate’s other loves with a dedicated Barber Room, a private space for dinner parties of six, or for secluded cocktails. “He used to have a big beard, and he’s into different styles of tattoos,” says Joyce. “We’ve incorporated [beard] brushes and tattoo art in the [overhead] lightbox. I wanted to make the room feel ‘hairy’, so we came up with this way of texturising concrete by pushing chicken wire through it.”
Another big influence “was Nate’s cooking, and the way he works with food,” says Joyce. “Here, he’s using barbecue and there’s a Japanese-influenced aesthetic to the way he plates the dishes.”
The main dining area references this, with clean yet striking design infused with Japanese elements. The chairs have “this Japanese-inspired silhouette,” says Joyce, who also points to the walls, which are clad in cedar that has been charred using an ancient Japanese technique. This ties in with the charcoal grill, which is a central theme of the cuisine at Rhoda.
Sharing and family-style eating are also key aspects of Nate’s concept for Rhoda, and this comes through in the restaurant’s main room, which is designed to invite everyone in for a drink or a bite to eat – whether you’ve come here intentionally or are just passing by. “We wanted to do a restaurant that was fitting with the Sai Ying Pun environment. Something that was approachable, that felt like a local, go-to kind of place,” explains Joyce.
The bar, which opens onto the street, was designed with this in mind. Huge, patterned copper doors slide open to reveal the front of the bar, which is covered with a large panel of aged copper, mottled with celadon and warm bronze hues.
“The frontal view of the whole restaurant is just beautiful – beautiful in a way that makes you want to walk in and hang out here,” says Yenn.
From the double doors to the Barber Room, Rhoda is a space that’s full of character and depth. Every element has its purpose and its meaning. Hats off to Joyce and her team here, because they were, Yenn admits, forced to work within a very tight budget.
“I love Joyce, I love design and I love Nate. At the same time, I have to make this financially viable,” says Yenn. “Construction is getting so expensive in Hong Kong, which is hard when you’re trying to build details into a space. Everything is per square foot here. When you have double-height ceilings like we do here, everything is double the price.”
Joyce clearly took the budgetary restrictions in her stride: “It pushed us to design in very creative ways. We knew we couldn’t go for very luxury finishes, so with things like the ‘hairy’ wall, we had to find another way.”
The end product may be richer for the obstacles they faced along the way, and certainly, the passions of each of the three players shines through. Says Yenn, “At the end of the day, we all put our hearts into making it work, and that’s what makes it very special.”
Rhoda is located at G/F, The Upton, 345 Des Voeux Road West, Sai Ying Pun.
Joyce Wang Studio