Tucked out of sight in a basement just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, Hakkasan is worlds apart from the red and gold eateries in nearby Chinatown. There are no silk tassels, paper lanterns or paintings of dragons but slate-lined walls, dark wooden screens, marble floors and low lighting. Traditional dishes such as Peking duck and dim sum are served alongside cod with champagne and sweet mandarin crumbles, offering a contemporary take on Chinese cuisine.
Hakkasan was the first Chinese restaurant in the UK to receive a Michelin star – and its design is talked about as much as its food. Writing in the Guardian just after it opened, critic Matthew Fort described it as London’s sexiest restaurant, “like something out of a James Bond movie”. With every detail carefully considered, from the luxury interiors to artfully arranged plates, it offered an immersive experience for those who could afford it.
“It was all about really challenging perceptions of Chinese food and Chinese culture, not adhering to the obvious Chinese motifs … but at the same time, being incredibly authentic,” says Lucy Wright, Director of Brand Creative at Hakkasan Group. “It was very challenging at the time, and we still work with those principles today … with design being very much at the forefront of what we do.”
There are now 13 Hakkasans worldwide, in Shanghai, Mumbai and Jakarta as well as the US and Middle East. Yau launched sister brand Yauatcha, a dim sum teahouse, in 2004, which has nine restaurants across London, India and the US and its own Michelin star. Yau sold the business in 2007 but the Hakkasan Group continues to grow: it now includes 14 restaurant brands as well as cocktail lounges and Las Vegas nightclubs, and will soon open its first hotel in Dubai.
Wright and her team oversee all creative produced for Hakkasan’s Asian Luxury collection. This includes Hakkasan, Yauatcha, Japanese restaurant Sake No Hana, tasting menu restaurant HKK and food, cocktail and music venue Ling Ling. Each brand has its own distinct identity, but all were conceived in London and inspired by either China or Japan.
Yau’s original vision for Hakkasan and Yauatcha was to create something progressive but authentic, combining traditional Chinese elements with contemporary touches. The interiors for Yauatcha take inspiration from Chinese teahouses, with low tables, brick walls and wooden display cases. These elements are combined with blue tinted glass, flashes of pink and purple on menus and packaging and black ceilings embedded with lights.
Design studio North worked with Yau to create the original identities for Hakkasan and Yauatcha. Both brands still use their original logos and North continues to work on creative projects with the Hakkasan Group. The studio recently created brand books for the Asian Luxury collection and developed the initial identity for Ling Ling.
Wright and her team – Senior Designer Damien Crowe and Graphic Design Assistant Thomas Enderby – are responsible for producing day to day creative for the Asian Luxury brands in London. They also oversee creative produced by teams in other markets.
She describes Hakkasan and Yauatcha’s approach to design as minimal but opulent: an ethos that runs throughout its communications. Printed materials feature luxurious details – gold foil, coated paper stock or debossing – but a restrained use of logos. Brand marks are also used sparingly in restaurants and on social media.
“We try not to push our message too loudly, but make [communications] striking and meaningful,” says Wright.
Photography is key to the team’s work: Yauatcha and Hakkasan’s Instagram and Facebook feeds feature a mouth-watering selection of images, and Yauatcha’s website features some beautiful photographs of delicate cakes, dim sum dishes and colourful cocktails.
“Because the communication and design is quite minimal, you rely on that image so much. Sometimes, you’re just using an image and a well placed logo and that’s it. We don’t really put frames around things, or embolden type … so we rely on that image to convey the brand,” says Wright.
The creative team has drawn up strict guidelines for photographers and works closely with them on shoots. Each brand has a slightly different style: Hakkasan’s photography is inspired by Chinese film In the Mood for Love and the work of photographer Saul Leiter, says Wright, and images often feature black or shades of dark red, purple and blue. Yauatcha’s, meanwhile, is much lighter and brighter.
“[With Yauatcha], we want to portray this food that’s very pretty, it’s very beautiful, but at the same time, Yauatcha’s not just about food, it’s about the entire experience. It’s the same with Hakkasan – how do you convey that experience without showing dim sum? The way we tend to do that, if we’re photographing restaurants, is to focus on things like the textures: the brickwork, the blue glass,” she explains.
“[With Hakkasan], we avoid literal depictions of the space, preferring instead to build a suggestion through textures, layers, light and movement…. With food, we always try to make it part of a scene, so it’s not just a portrait of a dish.”
The team works on a broad range of creative, designing everything from menus to uniforms, packaging and seasonal items. It recently worked with food writer and editor Miranda York to create Yauatcha Life, a magazine based on Yauatcha’s blog of the same name.
The annual magazine is available online and in Yauatcha restaurants. Inside, it contains poems, photo essays, illustrations and articles about Chinese cuisine. There’s a visual guide to folding dumplings, plus articles on pickling, afternoon tea and the history of the dumpling. Contributors include chef Gizzi Erskine, illustrator Manolya Isik and Instagrammer Clerkenwell Boy.
The attention to detail is impressive, with thick coated paper, original artwork and a gold charm on a red ribbon that doubles as a bookmark. It’s a lovely publication and one that wouldn’t look out of place in an indie magazine shop.
“We nearly went down a more newspaper-style route – we were thinking about the teahouse tradition, where you might go half way through your day to read the paper and catch up on the news, but at the same time, Yauatcha is a luxury brand, that [uses a lot of] textures and special materials,” says Wright. “We were playing with those two ideas for quite a long time, and I think what we’ve arrived at is something that feels quite luxurious … but also has Yauatcha’s typical understated design.”
“Most of our communications are very image-based whereas with this, we wanted to show off our text and editorial prowess,” she continues. “Our in-house editor Claire [Williams] was commissioning all of these writers and working closely with them to develop these pieces and she’s also written pieces herself, so we wanted to show off that authority we now have.” Future issues will explore Yauatcha in other cities around the world, with writing or artwork from local contributors.
As Hakkasan and Yauatcha expand, they face the challenge of creating a consistent experience for diners while making sure each restaurant is unique. The menus at Hakkasan and Yauatcha are largely the same around the world, but each Hakkasan restaurant now offers an exclusive selection of dishes and drinks devised by local chefs.
There are also subtle variations in décor. Yauatcha restaurants in the Middle East have terraces for outdoor dining while different Hakkasans feature different layouts and materials. Hakkasan in New York has bright pink chairs and white marble walls but the same dark wood and geometric patterns as branches in Mayfair and Soho.
“Both brands kind of cater to global travellers so you want to have that recognition each time you go, whether it’s the same kind of fragrance, the same textures – that’s really important but at the same time, each place has its own unique market,” says Wright. “With Hakkasan especially, the kitchens are doing a lot of work on developing dishes that are unique to each region.”
Newer additions to the Hakkasan Group also have their own distinct voice: Ling Ling is described as Hakkasan’s naughty little sister, and has a very different look and feel to its older sibling, with brightly coloured photography and a retro-looking logo inspired by New York nightclubs and Hong Kong dive bars. Sake No Hana echoes Hakkasan’s minimal opulence (its interior resembles a futuristic forest, with pillars of bamboo and cypress wood), while HKK uses a pattern inspired by China’s Silk Road and the silk moth on its menus, interiors and printed items.
“With HKK we are often more overtly Chinese. For Chinese New Year this year, we worked with artist/print-maker Wuon-Gean Ho to develop a set of illustrations and printed banners that hang in the restaurant, based on feasting emperors. They also appear on our website and social media,” says Wright.
The Las Vegas nightclub shares a brand name with Hakkasan, but inside, there is less of a focus on minimal opulence and more on large-scale logos and coloured lights: an approach that fits in well among the visual noise of Vegas, but feels very different to the restaurants in Hanway Place and Mayfair.
“Hakkasan as a nightclub is kind of its own thing really … but we did quite a lot of work with North on the branding,” says Wright. “Inevitably, [the restaurant and club] are linked but the demands of that market and that offering are completely unique.”
In the years since Hakkasan was launched, London’s food scene has changed dramatically. But Hakkasan and Yauatcha have remained reliable constants. The restaurants have undergone minor updates but no significant redesigns, and both serve dishes that have been on the menu since day one, as well as seasonal items.
Perhaps this is testament to the strength of Yau’s original vision: food trends come and go, but serving inventive food in beautiful surroundings is a concept that doesn’t date. The success of each restaurant is based on attention to detail – not just in the food but in every aspect of the customer experience.
“[Hakkasan and Yauatcha] aren’t trendy. They’ve become quite established, and are kind of old statesmen of the restaurant scene, but actually maintaining that level of popularity is quite an art,” says Wright.
“It involves a lot of small changes along the way as well as these quite big gestures such as [campaigns for] Chinese New Year,” says Wright. “We always try and make sure every piece of communication is relevant and meaningful, and that everything’s done for a reason. We’re not just following what other brands do, but offering [customers] something of value.”