Some of the best dai pai dong’s include your impatient server, a few roaches scuttling by and sweating it out on flimsy plastic stools, might not sound appealing but they also happen to be some of the best food you’ll find in town. Certainly not for the germaphobes, the charm and experience of it all will win you over and have you craving more. Dai pai dong’s serve up traditional Cantonese recipes, like meat stir-fries, seafood with mounds of garlic and good old macaroni in tomato soup.

A staple of Hong Kong culture, but according to the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department there are only 25 now in existence; 11 in Sham Shui Po, 10 in Central, 3 in Wan Chai and only 1 left in Tai O. The name dai pai dong translates to “restaurant with a big licence plate”, making reference to the size of the licences that were once displayed. Nowadays it is exclusively linked with open-air eateries.

Their hay days were in the 1950’s, after the second world war the government issued tons of these licenses to help relatives of wounded or deceased soldiers get on their feet. On top of being a quick and cheap meal, these spots were a hub for the working class – a place to let loose and socialise. They quickly earned the nickname ‘poor people’s club’. There was no dancing or music, but there was indeed a fair share of drinking.

Inevitably, noise complaints followed, and in 1956 the government put a hold on issuing new licenses and barred anyone from transferring existing ones. It was in the 70’s that the first cooked food centres appeared around the city, in an effort to push dai pai dong’s indoors.

Another decade later and the government really put the pressure on, buying back licenses and even offering a few million to those who’d agree to pick up shop and go. The few places left today face little protection, but some districts like Central have granted these shops license extensions as they see the potential to bring in tourism.

Now in 2018, Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs are filled with folks from every class and background, menus are bilingual, and tables are often still shared amongst strangers. Arguably the most famous one sits in Central next to the escalators, noisy as ever and still serving up classic dishes on a gas powered wok. Undoubtedly an important part of Hong Kong’s history that needs to be kept alive, the question many Hong Kong-ers are asking now is – is the government doing enough to protect them, or will their disappearance be a natural progression of health and safety concerns?

Find A Dai Pai Dong

Support your local dai pai dong, here are a few favourites that will have you eating and drinking well.

Chung Chung Food Shop

Shan Mei St, Food Market, Fo Tan East, Fo Tan, tel: 2691 2660

Chan Kun Kee

3-5 Wo Che Estate Market, Sha Tin, tel: 2606 1390

Chan Sze Kee

74 Stanley St, Central, tel: 2545 2834

Glorious Cuisine

31-33 Shek Kip Mei St, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2778 8103

Leaf Dessert

2 Elgin St, SoHo, Central, tel: 2544 3795

Lee Fung

Shop 1A, Cooked Food Stall, Ching Tak St, Wong Tai Sin, tel: 2320 8748

Oi Man Sang

215 Lai Chi Kok Rd, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2393 9315

Ping Kee

5 Ormsby St, Tai Hang, tel: 2577 3117

Sing Heung Yuen

2 Mei Lun St, Central, tel: 2544 8368

Sing Kee

82 Stanley St, Central, tel: 2541 5678

Siu Choi Wong

43 Fuk Wing St, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2776 8380