I ate at the first US location of a popular Chinese chain, and it was like dining in a creepy Orientalist crypt
- Helen's is a popular Hong Kong-based lounge chain with over a hundred locations across China and Hong Kong. Its Asian locations combine extravagant decor with creative cocktails and Cantonese pub snacks.
- I visited the first Helen's location in the US, which opened in New York in September.
- It was like dining in a creepy crypt, and only kind of in a good way. Helen's American menu is generic, while its decor and drink names go overboard with outdated Orientalist themes.
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Going abroad is never easy, but it can be rewarding.
US chains like McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut have had branches all around the world for decades and have integrated into their new cultures in unexpected and sometimes marvelous ways. Pizza Hut is a sit-down fine-dining establishment in China. KFC has become a Christmas tradition in Japan.So it only makes sense that international chains coming to the US might have the same chance to build something new and exciting in a foreign land.
But only in the past few years have international chains, like Jollibee and Bonchon started coming to the US. These chains have carved out a place in the American pantheon of chain restaurants by bringing their signature foods and styles to the table, with minor adaptations to appeal to American diners.
So I was excited when I heard that Helen's was opening its first US location in New York. Helen's is a bar and lounge chain from Hong Kong with over a hundred locations across China and Hong Kong.
In order to get an idea of what I might expect, I checked out the TripAdvisor page for a Hong Kong location. From what I could tell, it had extravagant decor with many traditional Chinese motifs, but it also seemed to have a relaxed, pub-like atmosphere. Customers seemed to love it for its cheap beer, creative cocktails and affordable snacks like fish and chips, deep-fried cheese, and seafood spaghetti.
I went to the new Helen's location in Manhattan expecting a similar experience, but what I got was an eerie Orientalist fantasy with one foot in the grave.