A server sets a dining table in the private room where a Jean-Michel Basquiat rests on the wall.

Don’t Spill Your Beaujolais On The Banksy!

Hong Kong’s Bibo serves up haute cuisine and ‘underground’ art

It’s a steamy tropical night in Hong Kong, and I’m weaving along Hollywood Road dodging drunken British financiers as they spill out of expat bars, when my eye is caught by a golden doorway gleaming in the dusk. Closer inspection reveals gilt lettering proclaiming the presence of La Compagnie Générale Française de Tramways, and a button mounted at the end of an antique brass tube (very Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea). What can I do but push it?

From left, artwork from Jean-Michel Basquiat, Aurele (free standing black dog) and Frank Shepard Fairey (Obey).

The door glides open to reveal a narrow vestibule that immediately induces a double-take: instead of the usual discreetly bland decorations, the walls are hung with a large canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat and three “icons” by Shepard Fairey, of Obama “Hope” poster fame. The hipster art quotient only increases as I head downstairs into a buzzing cocktail lounge, where a Damian Hirst skull sits on a shelf; the bookcases are spray-painted with women’s faces; and a piece by graffitti artist Mr Brainwash shows a monkey with a spray can who has just tagged the message ‘Follow Your Dreams.’ Beyond lies a dining area, where a Prada and Gucci-clad crowd reclines beneath a ceiling of giant bronze pipes, and a tall wooden statue by the American artist Kaws suggests a hungover Mickey Mouse.

“Welcome to Bibo,” says the maitre d’ — who, with his finely oiled hair, retro vest, and bow tie, evokes a Chinese Gatsby. “The world’s first ‘street art restaurant!’”

Bibo may be the most hedonistic manifestation of the new energy driving the Asian art scene

In the last five years, Hong Kong has proclaimed itself the contemporary art capital of the East, with Sotheby’s and Christie’s doing a roaring trade and blue-chip galleries like Gagosian taking up residence. Bibo, which opened last spring in a former French tramways office (the sign outside is genuine), may be the most hedonistic manifestation of the new energy. Haute cuisine and “underground art” sit cheek by jowl in fashionable districts like Manhattan’s Chelsea or London’s Fitzrovia, but this is the first time they’ve been combined in a single, over-the-top designer space. (The eponymous expat owner maintains anonymity to give the restaurant an extra level of mystery — or, for the more cynically inclined, hype).

In the main dining room, artwork (from left to right) showcases Princess is Invader, Kate Moss by Mr Brainwash, and a sculpture by Yue Minjun.
Artwork by Blek Le Rat in the main dining room.

I plunge into the cosmopolitan foray, knocking back a cocktail in the lounge before sampling the delicacies of an African-French chef who trained under Alain Ducasse in Paris. (The food is appropriately international, inventive, and ostentatious: pan-seared foie gras with grenadine-poached rhubarb; hamachi carpaccio topped with chili and Japanese shiso; Hokkaido sea urchin with baeri caviar). In between courses, I wander the restaurant edifying myself with the “subversive” art.

Baeri caviar and sea urchin; A Bloody Mary cocktail
L’Exotique dessert

There are works by A-listers like Banksy — who has painted Abraham Lincoln looking like a drug-addled zombie — as well as lesser-known artists with street names such as D*Face, Blek le Rat and Invader, who contributed a site-specific piece on a Space Invader theme. One artist has carved a portrait directly into a bare concrete wall; elsewhere, diners sit beneath a series of screen-painted images of fashion goddess Kate Moss. Representing the local scene, the loopy Hong Kong street artist known as the King of Kowloon offers a motorcycle encrusted in elegant graffiti.

[Artwork fom left to right]: Nasty; JonOne; The ladies on the bookshelves by Pure Evil; Small sculptures by Yoshitomo Nara and Kaws; Jean-Michel Othoniel (Paris MTR station Palais Royal); Kaws

I had to wonder what Banksy, who famously declared that “Art Should Comfort the Disturbed and Disturb the Comfortable”, might make of this space: It was hard to imagine anyone’s digestion being unsettled by anything but the prices on the menu. The mysterious Bibo, who agreed to be interviewed only via email, told me that his aim was not to provoke, but simply to have street art taken more seriously: “Had Picasso painted in the street of Hong Kong, people would probably not have stopped and contemplated his works because of the setting they were in. In a restaurant it is a totally different experience… People have the time to immerse themselves and appreciate (their) true value…”

Artwork by JR Inside the women’s bathroom.

After forking over my $250 bill, I paid my last respects to a Basquiat by the bathroom whose true value (to my inexpert eye) had to be in the hundreds of thousands. A waiter confided that the insurance and security precautions for the publicly displayed works were at the highest level.

Probably a good idea, I thought, as I escaped past a table of ex-pat bankers who were deep into a round of boisterous, red wine-fueled toasts. Even Banksy might object to a splash of cabernet sauvignon, no matter how spontaneously it were applied.

163 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
T: (852) 2956 3188

JW Marriott is part of the Marriott International portfolio.

All photos by Graham Uden