The stiff drinks, generous yet balanced in their pours, included classics such as the Smoked Negroni and Blood & Sand – making an appearance when, anywhere else, they’d be seen as esoteric.
The underground bar, with its turquoise Chesterfield lounge chairs and plush velvet banquettes that could be closed off with heavy curtains, became famous for clandestine dates or discussing business matters over single malt whiskies and the city’s best grilled cheese sandwiches.
That was until March 2022, when it announced its closure and relocation. Suddenly, the prospect of losing a bar that felt like it would be there forever became a sobering reality.
It happened during the height of the fifth Covid wave in Hong Kong, a low point in the city’s history. With many businesses shutting down permanently or making weak promises to return after “renovation” (Hong Kong code for quiet quitting), there was much outpouring of grief upon the news.
“One of the concerns that people had, what they were saying, was ‘I don’t think they’re going to reopen. They’re saying they’re going to move, but they might not,’” says 001’s Jameson Ang.
Ang joined the bar six months into its opening back in 2010 as a bartender. He is now one of the bar’s partners, along with Ming Cheung, who also joined the bar staff not long after Ang did.
Ang, Cheung and bar director Sky Huo are three of the bar’s longest standing staff, and also the trio fronting its new iteration.
“We knew in our hearts that we were going to [re]open, but it [was] just going to be a matter of time,” Ang says.
They did not want to relocate, but their hand was strongly forced by an impending rent hike during what was arguably the toughest period for restaurants and bars – a sadly familiar story for many businesses in Hong Kong.
For Ang, it wasn’t a matter of whether they could afford the hike, but a matter of principle.
“We feel like, sometimes, you just have to put your foot down,” he says. “The place has a lot of sentimental emotions and memories for everybody, but we felt like we just had to take a stand.”
So they made the choice to end their tenancy and start looking for a new location.
“In Chinese, we call this ‘naked quitting’,” laughs Huo, who has been with the team since 2013. “You quit your job without another job [lined up].”
A few options came up, including a space that recently became cocktail hotspot Bar Leone, on Bridges Street in Sheung Wan, but each time they were pipped to the post. It didn’t deter the team though, Ang says.
“It’s like somehow, the universe is telling you that that’s not for you,” he says with a rueful smile. “If you look at the positive side of it, there is a better place waiting for you.”
And how intriguing this new location is. The new 001 is hidden in the belly of the Tai Kwun heritage and arts building in Central, and finding it can be infuriatingly convoluted if you don’t know your way. Even armed with an address, it can be a challenge to locate.
But given that elusiveness is part of the 001 DNA, finding the bar – and the subsequent satisfaction when that does happen – is part of the experience.
Before opening, Ang personally delivered thick, black embossed cards to old regulars and industry friends inviting them to the bar.
“You are the key,” he told each of us, crystallising the idea that bars like these rely on simple word of mouth and human connection – not a Google street address.
Still, in the age of the internet, the new 001 has become Hong Kong’s worst kept secret.
“We expected people to find us, but I think they found us too fast,” Ang laughs.
“There are already people doing walk-throughs,” says Huo, adding that they have also had international visitors who were told about 001 by fellow bartenders.
“That, I can say, is very heartwarming,” Ang says, explaining that when he thinks back to how the bar scene was a decade ago, there was not so strong a feeling of camaraderie.
“When we [reopened], the whole community was excited about us,” Huo says. “So instead of it being a competition, it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re raising this bar together.’”
Being the “OGs” of the bar scene can sometimes feel a bit daunting, since there is an expectation to deliver – even more so with 001, factoring in the strong pull of nostalgia.
Huo describes couples who had first dates here returning, some married and some with children (not in tow).
“001 was where my husband took us on our very first date,” lawyer Clarissa Watt says. “The concept of the speakeasy bar, the entrance hidden in between market stalls, the Earl Grey martini … we loved everything about it.
“When it closed down, we felt it was such a pity seeing another memorable landmark depart. Thankfully, it has come back strong.”
While the team is happy to welcome back regulars, they are careful not to let the old days limit their future when it comes to the drinks experience.
Ten cocktails currently feature on the menu, but only one from the original list – the Earl Grey Marteani – remains. It’s one of their most popular drinks: a straightforward mixture of Tanqueray gin infused with earl grey tea, with lemon, sugar and egg white.
“That martini is one of our identities, because we do simple, easy cocktails,” Huo says. “We’re never going to take it off. It’s the one we’re most proud of.”
But Huo also wants customers old and new to explore their other creations, which she describes as evolutions of the classics.
La Boum is one of her favourites, inspired by the French film of the same name starring Sophie Marceau. A combination of Plantation Rum’s pineapple-infused French rum, Cocchi Rosa (an aromatised red wine), oloroso sherry, maraschino cherry liqueur and Ferrand dry Curacao, it’s a tropical take on a Martinez, which is typically a blend of gin, sweet vermouth and maraschino cherry liqueur.
“It sounds a little bit too sweet, but somehow when the spirits kick in, when the pineapple kicks in, it’s very fruity,” Huo says. “I use the oloroso sherry to balance it out because it has a very woody, very tobacco note to it.”
Ang, being a whisky fanatic, has also continued the 001 tradition of offering an extensive catalogue of the liquor – with an emphasis on his preferred smoky, peaty whiskies.
In the future, Huo – who is also a spirits educator – will plan more events and educational experiences for novices and nerds alike, and there are also plans for integrating more fine and rare wines, thanks to Cheung’s expertise and connections.
Open seven days a week, 001 has been packed out with cocktail enthusiasts since reopening on September 8. While the team is still working out some kinks, there’s a hopeful energy that this is the start of something new and exciting, with the challenges of yesterday a distant memory.
Like it says on their menu, “May the best of the past be the worst of the future.”