It’s the end of an era. The Stoep, a landmark at Cheung Sha beach, has closed its doors.
It will live on in another guise, but the old Stoep was a much-loved restaurant that became a destination.
In its golden years people from all over Hong Kong flocked to the beachside eatery, savouring its sandy floor and laidback vibe as much its breads and boerewors. You could count the yachts moored offshore.
Founder and co-owner Dolla Bruce, now preparing the new Stoep in Mui Wo, recalls that she fell into the restaurant trade by accident. She’d been a specialist in organisational development in South Africa, arriving here in 1994 with “a husband, a cat and three dogs.”
She quickly tired of being idle and found an outlet for her energies at the Gallery in Tong Fuk, in those days a weekend bar run by a Kiwi who was looking to retire. In those days there was no Lantau expressway or MTR. Just the slow ferry.
“Within three months, it was packed,” she says. “I brought my multibraai [barbecue] from South Africa and on the weekend I closed the kitchen and just cooked with the grill. You could smell the braai all across the village.”
It wasn’t just the villagers whose attention she caught. Governor Chris Patten so enjoyed his trek out to Tong Fuk that his chef called to ask for the seedloaf recipe.
Dolla said she didn’t have a recipe – it was all in her head. So she was invited to demonstrate how in the governor’s kitchen. She made her own trek, laden with ingredients, to Central. The governor’s bodyguard met her at the pier and whisked her to Government House, where she spent the afternoon baking in front of 11 chefs.
The Gallery days ended when out of the blue she received another phone call – did she want to take over a vacant space at Lower Cheung Sha?
So Dolla started up the Stoep – Afrikaans for verandah – and the legend began.
It was 1999. The owner had spied an opportunity and was buying up properties on the beach.
“There was nothing on the beach at the time – just one Chinese restaurant next door,” she said.
A slew of other restaurants and beachside businesses sprung up in the Stoep’s wake. On summer weekends the small space is clogged with cars and visitors.
“Because of Stoep, Cheung Sha became very, very popular,” Dolla says.
Perhaps too popular. In 2014, her landlord decided not to renew the Stoep’s lease. A new tenant moved in. The Stoep moved around the corner to another site near the beach.
But then the lease ran out for High Tide, the Thai restaurant run by business partner Mei Tai, and she had to exit Cheung Sha after more than a decade.
Mei and Dolla are friends – they met the day Dolla arrived in Hong Kong – and shared the workload across their businesses. That means anything from shopping to keeping an eye on the other restaurant. When Dolla took an eight-year sabbatical from Hong Kong, Mei managed both.
She reopened High Tide at the new Riverwalk building in Mui Wo, but at that distance it was difficult to work together. They discussed it earlier this year and agreed – one restaurant had to go.
“Yes, it was heartbreaking,” Dolla admits. But she also thinks business was getting harder at Cheung Sha.
“The transport situation is becoming very diabolical. Weekend after weekend, people were calling to cancel after waiting two hours for a ride.”
Now she has rejoined Mei at Riverwalk in a new venture called Stoep at High Tide.
The place is currently closed as they renovate and revamp the kitchen. It doesn’t have an opening date – “some time in July,” Dolla says.
She will still bake bread and “keep the things that worked at the Stoep.” It will have an Asian section and a bar at the front of the house.
Dolla is relishing some of the advantages of her new location. The landlord is a professional management team, so she’s not wrestling with maintenance tasks.
Plus the new site means a different flow of customers.
“We are expecting a more even trade. On the beach it’s feast and famine. When the sun comes out, everybody comes Here, if it’s cold they come in, if it’s hot they come in.”