Thais take their food very seriously. Combine this fact with Bangkok’s vibrant cosmopolitanism and you have a city that will consistently keep your taste buds singing. You might dine in a traditional Thai house serving the finest of Thai cuisine, or find yourself tucked away in a French restaurant able to compete with the best of Parisian kitchens. You can try the latest in Pacific Rim fusion food, or grab a serving of pasta that an Italian would be proud of. Or if it’s simply noodles at 3am you’re keen on, Bangkok’s streets will keep you sated.
Thailand’s cuisine has reportedly spread across the globe these past three decades at a speed unprecedented by any other nation’s. The reason is not difficult to fathom: it’s absolutely delicious. There are two types of Thai food: Royal Thai cuisine, and the “common” fare. The former is food traditionally served to royalty, and is prepared so that the food doesn’t need to be cut by the diner. It’s also garnished with exquisitely carved fruits and vegetables. Benjarong is one of several fine restaurants serving Royal Thai cuisine.
“Common” Thai food is just that: what Thais eat every day. Each of the four regions in Thailand has a distinct cuisine, and unless you’re dining in a regional restaurant, you’re likely to find a blend of them on most menus. It’s usual to mix your regions during the one meal: harmony is the goal of any Thai repast, meaning you should try striking a balance by ordering a dip served with vegetables, a soup, a curry and a spicy salad. Wanalee Earth Kitchen is one restaurant where the menu is divided by regions, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
In the fertile central region, the food is known for being hot, salty, sweet and sour. Dishes such as nam phrik (dips) and soups served with boiled rice are standard fare. In the dry northeastern region, sticky rice is the staple food, and hot, salty and sour dishes are common. Som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang (barbecued chicken) and laap (salads of meat and fresh herbs) are some of the more popular dishes. Much of the street food in Bangkok is from the northeast, due to the large number of vendors coming from this region. Food from the north tends to be mild or spicy, salty and sour, but not sweet. Sticky rice is also the staple here, and fermented sour pork sausages are a favorite – you’ll also see them being barbecued on the street. In the maritime south, fish rather than meat is eaten, and sour curries (without coconut milk) are the norm.
Good places to start your Thai culinary adventure include Baan Khanita , Lemon Grass, Harmonique and Cabbages and Condoms. Large hotels usually have excellent Thai restaurants—the stigma prevalent in the west of eating in hotel restaurants is certainly not existent here. Celadon, Thai on 4, basil, and Ruen Thai should get you started on the hotels.
If you’re shopping and you want a quick meal, you’ll be surprised by the quality and range of food served for very low prices in the food halls of malls. There’s usually a coupon system in place, where you purchase your coupons, buy your meals and return your leftover coupons afterwards. The Emporium food hall is particularly good, as are the Tops supermarket halls. And of course, there’s the street food. Point, smile and you’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised by what you get.
But if it’s international cuisine you’re hankering for, Bangkok will sate you all the same. From Indian to Greek, to Middle Eastern and Latin, name your cuisine and somewhere there’ll be a waiter ready with a menu for you to peruse. There are loads of well-regarded Chinese (Mei Jiang, Bai Yun) and Japanese (Benihana, Edogin) restaurants , while European restaurants are relatively new on the scene. Italian cuisine has positively boomed here recently, although oldies such as Angelini’s and Rossini’s continue to attract huge crowds. Several new French restaurants have opened to rave reviews, such as Le Café Siam and Auberge Dab. However Bangkok is still in the grip of a Latino craze which swept into town during 1999, making nouvelle Latino cuisine the latest and hippest development. Senor Pico Bar and Restaurant, The Salsa Club, El Nino Latin Heat Caféand Baila Bailaare just a few enjoying the craze.
British and Irish pubs serving up traditional sturdy fare are also making their impact felt. The Bull’s Head and Delaney’s Irish Pubare two old favorites, while The Dubliner Irish Puband The Londoner Brew Pubare two relative new kids on the block.
And then there are the truly “international” restaurants serving up often Asian and Italian-inspired dishes, but which refuse to be easily pigeon-holed: Eat Me, Greyhound Cafe, Café Bongo, Indigo, Homework and Zanzibar are just a few.
As for drinking, Bangkok’s pubs and bars are up there with the best, although it is worth noting that steep government taxes on wine push even basic table vino into the “expensive” bracket. At its very core, Bangkok is a beer and whiskey kind of town, meaning you can order a bottle of whiskey at many establishments which they’ll keep for you to finish off on your next visit. The mushrooming of world-class drinking establishments over the past decade or two, however, means that a full bar is now more likely to be the norm.
There are a number of micro-breweries (including The Londoner Brew Pub, Haus Hamburg , The Londoner Brew Pub and Brauhaus Bangkok)to keep ale lovers happy, and plenty of bars for spirit-sippers to relax in (ranging from the laid back Bangkok Bar and Cheap Charlies to the more upmarket The Barbican and Compass Rose.) Then there are the Thai pubs–with the almost ubiquitous Thai cover band playing popular Thai songs and, at some stage in the evening, Hotel California—such as Ad Makers and Saewana. Note that Thai pubs and bars serve delectable drinking food, making an evening of drinking and grazing through a trendy part of town a fine way to pass the time. Try the bars around Phra Arthit Road or Narathiwat Soi 15 for such an evening. Lounge bars could be the next big thing, with About Café/Studio and Q Bar opening the race.
Coffee is enjoying a boom in Bangkok, and although Starbucks may now be everywhere, there are other chains springing up, such as Au Bon Pain and Coffee World, as well as one-off coffee and tea shops offering refuge and rejuvenation. Kuppa, The China Journal and Nim’s Tea House are just a few of the latter.
While this guide should point you in the right direction, it can’t possibly do justice to the literally hundreds of restaurants that dot the city. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous: it is difficult to find a bad meal in the City of Angels. With a little exploration and just a touch of bravery, it’s highly likely that food will become one of your favorite memories of your trip here.