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September 24, 2009

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Humble Kiwi finds city's dining groove

THE tables are filled with people from Prada and Calvin Klein. Top designers launch their latest ranges; businessmen settle deals and trendy Shanghainese couples meet for dinner and a cocktail.

But step behind the scenes of Hamilton House and you will find the owner of the bar and restaurant is anything but elitist.

Richard Xavier describes himself as "a humble man."

He comes from New Zealand, a country with only 4 million people.

Arriving from South Auckland to set up a bar and restaurant in a 1930s Victor Sassoon building at 137 Fuzhou Road near the Bund was no easy feat, he says.

Despite 25 years' experience working in top restaurants in Sydney and London, doing business in China has been much harder than Xavier expected.

"You have language and cultural barriers to contend with, not to mention you are competing with more than 27,000 other restaurants," he says. "Chinese people are also very savvy when it comes to business, so you have to work very hard to make a name for yourself."

But it is his naivety and small-town background that have made him an unexpected success in thriving Shanghai.

The connection to New Zealand is part of the attraction of Hamilton House.

Using the freshest produce from New Zealand, including lamb, butter and wine, Xavier has created a Western-style restaurant specializing in 1930s French cuisine.

Meals range in price from 98 yuan (US$14.34) to 250 yuan.

There is also an extensive cocktail menu with all drinks priced at 50 yuan.

But Hamilton House is about more than just dining, Xavier says.

"Coming here should be an experience," he says. "I want to deliver an international experience at international standards."

In particular he wants women to have a good experience. The beautiful yet simply decorated venue is aimed at female diners.

"Women are the decision makers in life," he believes. "Men are simple, they will go wherever their wives or partners feel comfortable."

The font used on the building's sign is a simple black design that intentionally mimics the font used on perfume bottles.

"I want people to think of 'Sex and the City.' Shanghai is a sexy place and I want to reflect that," he says.

He also sees Hamilton House as a bridge between the East and West.

"It is a good meeting point for businesses," he believes. "Westerners feel comfortable here, and Chinese can feel proud to bring in overseas clients because it is a good-quality venue."

Hamilton House is coming up to its second year in business and Xavier still counts his blessings every day to be operating in one of the most rapidly emerging cities in the world.

"Every day I'm humbled to be able to do business in China," he says.

"I'm always learning.

"I want to help put Shanghai on the map and in turn put New Zealand on the map," says the New Zealander.


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