When it first opened in a quiet stretch of South San Francisco in 2017, the Night Market was probably the one Bay Area restaurant that best captured that atmosphere of the bustling night markets you can find in back alleys all over Asia. Inspired by the traditional open-air food stalls in Hong Kong known as dai pai dong, the restaurant featured a menu heavy of street food classics — curry fish balls, mix-and-match cart noodles, and Hainan chicken rice. Hong Kong street scenes were projected onto the back wall in a continuous loop. And, for that extra dose of authenticity, the seating was all folding tables and plastic stools. It was a kind of magical place.
In the summer of 2018, the Night Market abruptly closed for what was meant to be a quick renovation... and then it just never reopened. Until earlier this week, that is, when the restaurant just as abruptly announced that it was open for business again on a “soft opening” basis, with takeout and outdoor dining, as well as a drastically revamped space that goes even further, owner Kevin Lee tells Eater SF, to recreate that full-blown Asian night market experience — COVID-19 crisis be damned.
“It’s basically the worst time for restaurants to open,” Lee says, laughing.
Lee explains that the crux of the issue back in 2018 was that he’d always planned to make the restaurant much more night market–like — to, for instance, ditch table service and instead have customers be able to stroll through the space and order items from individual stalls. The problem was that the street carts he’d brought over from Hong Kong to help execute that plan weren’t health code–compliant, and so he’d initially meant to shut down for a couple of months to make a few tweaks. But, Lee says, “the more we worked on it, the more we wanted to do it right.”
The results of the subsequent full-blown, two-year-long renovation are striking: Now, the entire interior of the restaurant is set up to resemble a bustling street in Hong Kong — complete with a crosswalk and a bus stop — with different food stalls set up all around the perimeter of the “sidewalk”: a dim sum station, a wok station, a little boba and dessert window, and a stall where fish balls bob in vats of curry and malatang. The idea, Lee says, is for customers to feel like they’re sitting down to eat out on the street, just like they might do if they were buying food at a real Asian night market.
Of course, with indoor dining still just a distant dream, there isn’t any seating at all inside right now. Instead, customers simply order everything at once at the boba window near the entrance of the restaurant, after which they can either bring their food home or haul it to one of the socially-distanced folding tables that the Night Market has set up outside. By this weekend, Lee says he expects to add even more outdoor seating, taking up about a quarter of the parking lot.
Soon, however, he wants to figure out a way for customers to safely walk a loop around the inside of the restaurant, taking in the sights and smells of all the food offerings being prepared, before they place their order. Other COVID safety measures — QR code ordering, for instance — are in the works as well.
As far as the actual food is concerned, the Night Market’s new menu has a slightly broader Asian street food focus rather than focusing so heavily on Hong Kong dai pai dong fare. The customizable Hong Kong-style cart noodles will still be a staple, as will the curry fish balls and the Hainan chicken rice. But there’s also a full dim sum selection now — ha gow, siu mai, and xiao long bao. There’s Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken (served with plenty of fried basil as it ought to be) and crispy fried chicken skin dusted with salted egg yolk. There’s soft-serve ice cream, with flavors like black sesame and White Rabbit candy, and a full slate of boba drinks. And there are exceedingly takeout-friendly rice boxes: classic Cantonese barbecue pork, but also Spam and eggs over butter rice.
Perhaps most exciting, Lee hopes to set up a mix-and-match Chiu-Chow style jook bar by next week, with customers able to choose from 20 or so different topping options, like pork floss and marinated bamboo shoots.
According to Lee, the irony is that the al fresco setting will make the dining experience feel even more night market–like, in some respects, than if customers were sitting inside. In many ways, Lee says he feels lucky that the restaurant’s reopening was postponed until now — that he wasn’t forced to shift to a takeout model midstream, just pushing a table up to block the doorway like so many other restaurants had to do. Instead, he had the luxury of time to consider how he might adapt the space to make it safe.
“I had to retune myself,” Lee says. “It’s supposed to be a really busy, fun, crazy atmosphere. It’s not going to be like that.”
The Night Market is open 11 a.m.–9 p.m. everyday except Tuesdays. Customers can call in (650-634-8388), walk up, or order via Grubhub, Doordash, or Uber Eats. See the opening menus below: