It’s a notable accolade for any establishment, even more impressive when you consider Hop Sing has been around for a grand total of 3 years — and that naysayers were condemning it to fail before doors even opened.
There was the fact that it was located in Chinatown, a neighborhood known more for karaoke and post-bar munchies than refined cocktail sips. That it would have a gated entrance, marked by nothing but a glowing red bulb. That there would be a dress code — no shorts, no sneakers — and that snapping pics of your drinks would not be allowed.
And finally there was the mystery surrounding the bar’s proprietor: a man who went by the single name of Lê, of whose provenance no one in Philadelphia was certain.
Times have changed. Despite (or because of?) all of the above and additional idiosyncrasies that surfaced after the bar launched — nothing served but high-end liquor, over a thousand bottles of it, each patron’s ID scrutinized before entry, only a set number of customers allowed inside at once — Hop Sing became a runaway hit. Lines formed outside on day one and never let up. Critics raved over the simple fresh juice drinks. Visiting cocktail aficionados made sure to bring long pants and nice footwear (if they had enough forethought — otherwise they were simply turned away at the door).
Self-deprecating at every step, Lê inserted himself into Philadelphia restaurant culture. He befriended every chef and restaurateur he could charm. He gained followings on Twitter and Facebook, where he cracks constant acerbic jokes.
In time, he was — to his distress — the subject of lengthy profiles in City Paper and Philly Mag, and even though his full name has still never been released, those articles and interviews peeled back a bit of the shroud surrounding his backstory.
The condensed version:
Born in Saigon. Escaped Vietnam with his family after the war, but not without a stop in a Communist re-education camp. Made it to the United States. Worked in restaurants in California, where his family lived, and then in New York City, where he rose to the top of the hospitality scene but was dragged down by a serious drug and alcohol problem. Battled back from his habit and clawed his way up as a day trader. Decided he wanted to get back into the restaurant biz. Traveled the country doing research for his bar, driving through all 48 contiguous states to assess the lay of the cocktail-serving land. Chose Philadelphia. Chose Chinatown. Took nearly two years to do construction. Chose to pave his ante-room with thousands of hand-laid pennies — all tails up — and do the same thing with nickels along his bar.
And then we’re back to when he opened, won Philly drinkers’ hearts, and was named one of the best bars in the world.
Recently, Billy Penn had a chance to sit down with him, and dig just a little deeper into the world according to Lê.
You’re not from here — what made you choose to open in Philadelphia?
Well, I looked everywhere. After my trip, it boiled down to a short list of possibilities: Denver, Baltimore, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Really, Los Angeles?
Sure, because my family lived there. But I was living in New York at the time, and Los Angeles was just too far away. Denver too. I actually seriously considered opening in D.C. Chinatown, for a while — recently it’s exploded but it was still kind of sleepy back then, which I liked. But D.C. already had a couple of cocktail bars. Baltimore wasn’t good for this kind of bar. Boston the liquor licenses were too expensive. Also they’re not allowed to have happy hour.
So that leaves Philly.
I thought, “You know what, it might have potential.” I checked out almost all the bars here — at the time, no one knew who I was, so they don’t remember me coming in, but I would go in, order a bottle of water and just sit and observe. And I checked into rents, which were reasonable. So I set my mind and got myself an apartment in Old City. It didn’t happen right away. It took me a couple of years.
To choose this location?
My business partner and I almost got the space where Han Dynasty is now, on Chestnut [between Front and Second]. We were doing the walk-through on the final inspection, looking through all the details, when the owner said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a tax matter of $30,000.” So that deal was off.
For a little bit we said, maybe we’re missing out. But then for two weeks I really studied that Old City scene, I was there every night. All of a sudden I’m like, “You know what, maybe we got lucky. I don’t think these people are the right ones for my bar.”
Then you found the Chinatown spot?
It had been closed for years. The brick walls were all covered with sheet rock. There was a drop ceiling with wires hanging out of the panels. But I liked the space. When I brought a couple of friends from New York here to check it out, they walked in and said, “Yeah, it’s a decent space, but it’s a shithole!” And my partner said, “I guess you see something here I can’t see, but the rent’s cheap enough that it can’t be all that bad to try.”
But you knew it would work?
I could see how it would work from the start. I remember, I brought in [Philly.com food editor] Michael Klein and showed him where the bar would go. I said, “This entire wall is going to be liquor. All the way to the ceiling, three deep, and all the way across.” He said, “That’s crazy, how many bottles will that be?” I told him, “I have no idea, sir. I just know that’s what I’m going to do.”
And you did. Why have so many bottles?
Because I didn’t want to have a tiny bar with just 60 or 70 bottles. That’s a New York thing — New York bars do that because they don’t have the space! A guy in Denver, or in the middle of Nevada, or Arizona, should not have that. They’re just copying what they think is cool from New York.
I saw that so many times on my trip. All these bars wanted to have 10 ingredients in every drink, they wanted to find out what’s the latest spirits to come out of a Brooklyn distillery. “When are the lavender bitters going to be here? When are the Sriracha-ketchup bitters coming in?” Nobody wants to do new things anymore, they just copy.
You also learned to make drinks working in New York?
Yes, but I knew no one would make the kind of drinks that I was going to make — that my drinks would be different. When word got out I was opening, several people made me offers, that they would consult for $20,000 or $50,000 and help me make my cocktail list.
People think they’re experts now right away. You have people who open a bar or are working in a restaurant for a year and they think they’re ready for their own reality show. And you guys — the press — you encourage this shit. You’re part of the problem. You get them so excited, they work 3 months somewhere and see their name on Zagat or Eater Philly.
What should the food media be doing, then? Should it all be anonymous critics?
No, not anonymous. But look into the people who have been there for a while, who are slaving away every day. That’s more interesting. Not some kid who just made it 3 months. Because five years from now, 80 percent of them won’t have a job, because they’ll get a drinking habit or a drug habit and get burnt out.
You know about that from personal experience? That’s why you don’t drink anymore?
I never hide the fact that I used to be the biggest party animal on the block. Really.
When did you stop?
It was the year before the September 11 attacks, so 2000.
Was there something that made you quit?
I realize now it was a good thing I didn’t own a gun, because if if I owned a gun, I wouldn’t be here today. I hit bottom, sure. You have to hit bottom to realize there’s nowhere else to go. I didn’t have to go to rehab. Just turn off your phone, go someplace that you don’t know anyone, and work it out of yourself.
And it worked, you got clean?
Yeah, for me. I would not recommend it to other people.
You’ve said the reason you don’t let people take photos of you and don’t tell people your full name is because you want stories to be about the bar, not about you. But it seems like that just draws more attention your way — now your reclusiveness *is* the story.
I realize that now. I always tell my staff, this is a team effort. I might be at the head of the table, but it would never happen without a team behind it. I understand now that it has become — that Hop Sing is Lê and Lê is Hop Sing.
I want Hop Sing to be more of an establishment. Me, I’m the guy who likes to crack jokes. Two different persons. Somehow now, those two are woven together — I’m not sure why, or how, or when it happened. Did I want it to be that way? Absolutely not.
How did you feel about the Condé Nast accolade, one of the best in the world?
I didn’t even know about it at first — I was sleeping. I go to bed at 7 or 8 in the morning and I don’t get up until 2. But then my phone was going crazy, and a call from Michael Klein woke me up. I was thinking, there’s something fishy. It can’t really be. This cannot be true. But I checked it out and it was.
The first thing that went through my mind was that quote from Shakespeare. I didn’t remember the right words, but someone who was interviewing me knew it. It’s from Henry IV. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
You know what comes with a crown? A bullseye. They’re twin brothers. Because everyone would like to wear that crown. We don’t want it. We didn’t ask for it. Maybe that’s why they gave it to us. For spite.
There’s a perception that is exactly what you’re looking for — that you play a game of reverse psychology. Oh, we don’t want attention, we’re not going to let people in — just so people want to get in more.
If we have no seats, what am I supposed to say to people outside? It’s not like I’m sitting in here with an empty bar. From day one people were lining up outside.
But other bars don’t necessarily make people wait until there’s a seat. They let people in anyway.
Here’s my response to that. We’ve been here 3 years, and we’ve never had a fight or an argument between guests. No other bar in Philadelphia can say that, I guarantee you.
Because there’s space between the tables.
Exactly. How could you get in a fight with a guy who’s sitting all the way over there. When people first come in they realize, oh, we can actually talk in here. Instead of being 16 inches apart like at many restaurants. The only thing you can talk about in a place like that is “How’s the weather, how’s the kid, how’s the food?” That’s it.
Do you want kids?
I don’t know. It’s not something you plan for.
Well, yeah, usually you do plan for it, these days.
I don’t know. I have no idea.
Are you ready for another project?
Yeah. Maybe. But I have turned down many opportunities. I do not believe that just because you got a name for yourself you have to go out and open something right away. Yes, there is a saying that you’ve got to strike when the iron’s hot. You know who says that, most of the time? Idiots. Because they only care about how to make money as fast as they can. I’m not a money printing machine, and I’m not planning to turn into one.
Do we have offers to do other projects? Many. Many. So far, I’ve turned down every single one of them. When it’s time for me to leave, I’ll just leave this city. No big goodbye.
Are you leaving?
No, I’m just saying. When it is time, I’ll leave it the same way I came in. I came in the middle of the night, with no one knowing who I am, and I will leave in the middle of the night, with no one knowing who I am. And what difference would it make? There are hundreds of restaurants and bars here.
But you’re fun. And you have good taste.
I try to be a funny person. I hope one day, when it’s all said and done, that someone finds my tombstone and it says, “Here lays a guy who was somewhat funny, and he knew how to wind people up.” That would be the best statement. Or maybe, “He put his heart into everything he does.” That would be nice. Because I do put my heart into everything I do.
I just hope this place becomes an institution. My biggest hope for this place is that it becomes an institution of Philadelphia. Even if I leave, that the mentality carries on.
But for now, you’re here every night?
Yes. I have the key. I have never given out the key.
You’ve never given a manager a key?
The reason I have the key is to make sure I show up. It gives me a reason to continue to work hard on this place. Because the minute you hand over that key, “Oh, I don’t feel good today, they’ll be fine without me.” But there’s people counting on me. Not just my staff, but my guests. They’re counting on me to open that door.
You have customers who love you, but then there’s also a lot of people who come to that door and get angry.
Look, everything I say out in the front there, it’s not an act. It’s just how I am. If someone says something stupid to me, I can’t help myself. I gotta throw something back. Because to me, an idiot should not have the last say. If we let the world go with the idiots having the final say, the human race is in trouble. We as a whole are in trouble.
I mean, yeah, every now and then we have a stupid leader here and there. Kim Jong-un is definitely a perfect example. As much as I love him, my Dear Leader, he’s still an idiot.
You don’t like it? Don’t come. Don’t come here and say — this was a Yelp review — “I heard so much about the place, so I decided to check it out and I walked 3 miles to get there, and then he told me my boyfriend could not come in with shorts and sneakers.” Well, if you read a lot about the place, then you know there’s a dress code.
How often do people show up in sneakers or shorts?
Every single day. And really, I think they’re just here to pick a fight. Because if they come here, they read about this place. And it would be easier if they would just come up to me, look me in the eye, say, “Fuck you!” and walk away. So we don’t have to do the back and forth. I would thank them. We can stop wasting the dialogue. “You don’t like sneakers? Fuck you.” “Thank you.” That’s it.
Is there anyone in the world you would let in here with sneakers?
Yeah – when that guy in the white robe comes in September. I might let him in. You know, he’s old. He probably has a medical condition. And I’m sure I can get his ID verified.
Yeah, that’s him.