I watched the ever-expanding queue a couple of years back along Soho’s Lexington Street, and wondered: what makes all these people stand in line for a restaurant that only seats 15 people and sells Taiwanese street food? After its initial success in Hackney’s Netil Market, Bao has crossed the border into the West-End with two leading outlets in Fitzrovia and Soho.
Brother and sister Wai Ting Chung and Shing Tat Chung, and Shing’s wife Erchen Chang, are all under 30 and the idea of starting Bao came to them while were travelling together. Journeying through Erchen’s home country of Taiwan, they were inspired by the informal street food culture and culinary traditions they discovered – and that was how Bao found its inception. “We’d all just graduated, so we made the decision to travel around Taiwan together. We ate all over, and from there we were inspired to come back and start our own venture,” says Shing. “We discussed the idea of a market stall whilst travelling back to London. We thought introducing some of my home traditions, including the bao itself, on the stall could be a cool idea. It was much less risky for us to start out as a market stall in the beginning, as opposed to starting our own restaurant right away. Initially, we weren’t set on it having any longevity; we never planned for Bao to grow into what it has done. The initial response and attention it received was fantastic, and it was an organic progression.”
In 2013, Bao started out as a market stall at Netil Market in Hackney, and is today it remains a permanent fixture on Saturday afternoons. Taking things to the next level, from market stall to restaurant, Bao opened their first permanent premises on Soho’s Lexington Street in 2015. Both their Soho and Fitzrovia restaurants offer a relaxed environment, with efficient yet relaxed service, and the interiors bring the trio’s background in fine art to life with catchy branding. “With our Fitzrovia site, we have adapted the space to the brand, and the brand to the space. At first what appealed more than anything was the extensive amount of natural light it had – it was the perfect corner spot for us. Before we opened, we loved the casualness of u-bars, and felt this was something that we wanted to bring to the space,” says Shing. “We liked the idea of diners watching as drinks are prepared, we wanted people to be engaged with the aesthetic of the brand and feel like they’re at the centre of the restaurant. We wanted the basement to have the exact opposite feeling. We wanted to create a completely different vibe, with a tin-clad and spacey feeling to it as you look into the kitchen and watch the food being prepared,” adds Erchen.