When you think of Sanrio's Hello Kitty brand, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t a craft cocktail bar. Luckily for the adult Hello Kitty fan wanting to celebrate the Sanrio brand, there's now a place to go. On Sept. 14, the Hello Kitty Grand Cafe opened its doors at the Irvine Spectrum Center. It's the brand's first permanent cafe concept, and offers both afternoon tea and a cocktail service in its private Bow Room.
The front of the store is the public cafe where customers can buy a bevy of Hello Kitty merchandise, including a gold bow handle mug exclusive to the location, as well as branded sweets and menu items also exclusive to the location, such as made-to-order mini hot doughnuts and a pick-your-own four-piece set of Sanrio character mini cakes. At the back of the cafe, a bow-shaped knocker marks the entrance to the Bow Room, a speakeasy-type experience featuring the afternoon tea service, $55 per person, and the cocktail bar at night (both offered Wednesdays through Sundays, reservations strongly encouraged).
"I'm taking this quote from one of the brand people at Sanrio, Dave Marchi, but he always says a Hello Kitty fan is 4 to forever, so we really tried to bring the concept to touch every fan," says Urania Chien, one of the three owner-operators of the Hello Kitty Cafe. "The young fan can be outside and they can take their picture with Hello Kitty and watch the doughnuts being made and pick things that are appropriate for their [age]. And [in the Bow Room], there's cocktails and afternoon tea. [There's something] for every fan at any age. They can come here and just do it all."
Chien, who licenses the Hello Kitty brand from Sanrio, got involved about four years ago when she and her partners created the Hello Kitty food trucks; two mobile trucks now travel on both coasts. The trucks were so successful that the group opened a pop-up in San Diego and a couple of mini-cafes, also in California. "I just love Hello Kitty. From a young age I just really took to her," Chien says.
And she stresses that all the hard work that went into the new cafe is for the fans — and it shows. The level of detail in everything is incredible, from the barstools with bows on their back to the tea stand in the shape of Hello Kitty's head. It's all custom-made and all Hello Kitty–branded, including the cushions and plates.
When you walk into the very pink Bow Room, you're immediately taken by the giant Hello Kitty silhouette, complete with bow, behind the bar. Even the bathroom is decked out in Hello Kitty wallpaper. The room is intimate yet breathable, lively but not chaotic. "I describe [the Bow Room] as walking into a hug, like you walk in and you're surrounded, it feels safe and warm," Chien says. "I've spent a lot of time here, obviously, and every time I walk in I still get the same feeling. It's just very calm and upscale and you kind of want to move in. ... It's really mellow and relaxing and it's the right size. Anything bigger or smaller would've been too small or too big. The design was done in collaboration with Sanrio, so [we] came together and created this space."
For the tea service, each customer gets to pick a tea from a list of black, green, oolong, blended or caffeine-free teas. Tea also includes a fairly large selection of snacks — fruit as well as sweets, such as macarons and mini cakes — and savory bites, such as a pretzel croissant with smoked salmon and cream cheese or a pesto tart with mozzarella and tomato. All food and tea were handpicked by Chien and the other owners to be on brand with Hello Kitty. For example, the icing of the cupcake is in the shape of an apple, which is how Hello Kitty measures her height (five apples) and her weight (three apples). It should be noted that most of the tea items cannot be purchased in the front cafe.
Once 5 p.m. hits, the lights are dimmed, some classy piano music plays on the speakers and the tea service becomes a cocktail service. The menu is comprised of delicious craft cocktails curated by bartender Emily Delicce (with Sanrio's approval, of course). Customers can order drinks with practically any alcohol (vodka, gin, whiskey, mezcal and tequila) as well as wine by the glass or Hello Kitty brand wine by the bottle (bottles can't be purchased to take home, though). Delicce, who has a background in craft cocktails, describes the menu as "crowd-pleasers that are also more crafty."
And every single cocktail has a cute gimmick or Hello Kitty reference in it, which Delicce says comes from the Hello Kitty philosophy of "small gift, big smile." The You Had Me at Hello (cachaca, aperol, lemon, sherry, pineapple) and the Aloha Kitty (vodka, pineapple, yellow chartreuse, lime) both come in Hello Kitty–shaped containers (the Aloha Kitty even has a hula skirt!); the 1974 (an old-fashioned with black walnut) features an ice cube with Hello Kitty's face in it; and the Picture Perfect (Bison Grass vodka, strawberry shrub, lemon and strawberry popping boba — yes, actual boba) literally comes with an instant photo taken by the bartender.
Some standout drinks were the Pink Bow (gin, raspberry, lemon, Liquor 43 and aquafaba, a vegan substitute for egg whites), which actually features a pink bow in the drink made with coloring spray; the Hello Kit-Tea (Japanese whiskey, jasmine tea, lime, Depaz cane syrup, yuzu and cream), which comes with a macaron and has a green bow inscribed in it; and the Dear Daniel (mezcal, tequila, pineapple, lime, salted coconut whip), which comes with sprinkles atop the whipped cream.
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The guests enjoying the cocktails were an eclectic mix, such as gay and straight couples on dates and groups of friends, including some groups of women all dressed up for a night out. It also seemed that the long drive from Los Angeles to Irvine didn't deter many Angelenos. At one point, practically the entire bar was filled with people who drove down from L.A. Jacqueline Bustamante came all the way from Mid-City to enjoy an old-fashioned. Celeste Martinez and her husband drove 90 minutes in traffic from South Pasadena to celebrate her birthday. All of them were lucky enough to have made reservations right when they heard about the cafe on social media (it can be hard to get a reservation now, but the Bow Room is accepting walk-ins on a first come, first serve basis).
"It's been crazy. I would say crazy but amazing because a lot of the fans are coming out and a lot of them come dressed for the occasion and the whole Hello Kitty costume," Chien says. "It's really fun to see other fans reacting to all the work that we've put into it." Indeed, that work has paid off — now not only do children who are fans of Hello Kitty have a place to go but adults do, too.
Hello Kitty Grand Cafe, 670 Spectrum Center Drive, #860, Irvine; for hours and reservations, please visit sanrio.com/pages/hellokittycafe-bowroom-res-ca.