Experts taste the pulse of Bangkok’s food and drink scene today – and tell us about the dramatic changes that have entirely reshaped it.by Thomas Sturrock
Bangkok’s food and drink scene has undergone a drastic transformation in recent years. It was, once upon a time, a culinary backwater with no cocktail culture or bar scene to note. Now, of course, it is one of the region’s most cosmopolitan cities and a dining destination boasting untold varieties. We chatted to a handful of experts about the way Bangkok has reinvented itself.
Writer and musician
“I first arrived in Bangkok on March 18, 1977. Nightlife here back then catered to two very different markets. One served the American presence—with five major military bases just having packed up before I got here (to be replaced by the backpacker market)—and the Thai male market. ‘Good’ Thai girls rarely went to pubs, bars or other non-restaurant-related night-time establishments then, so it was heavily male-dominated, with working girls being the main female component.
He adds: “Most live music back then, and up until the mid-1980s, was found in clubs and bars along the Ploenchit and Sukhumvit roads. In the late 80s, live music venues popped up in other parts of the city. The most important neighborhood, in terms of both numbers of venues and quality of music, was Soi Lang Suan and Soi Sarasin. None of these places exist anymore.
“Overall the nightlife is better. Big and flashy is out; small and funky is in. For dining out, there are way more international and high-end eateries now than pre-2000. The only thing I miss is the quality of the street food and night markets in the 1970s and 1980s. In my opinion, these have decreased both in numbers and more importantly in quality.”
Artisanal butcher at The Accidental Butcher
“Casual dining and wine concept-based restaurants would be the biggest segment shift in the hospitality industry throughout Bangkok – this is both within independent businesses and also in outlets within hotels.
He continued: “It’s driven by disposable incomes and kids leading the way, encouraging their parents to try something outside of the norm. They can relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“The growing appetite for beef is all about availability,” he added. “Often, the issue here is being able to find the products. Once found, purchases follow as does word of mouth. Many a chef in Bangkok will say that Thai people do not like grass- or pasture-fed beef – I say they’re wrong: 50 percent of my customers are Thai and we don’t sell any grain-fed beef, it’s all grass-fed. Who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s debatable, but it’s all about education.
“I have many friends that are chefs, and me being a food person and a cook of sorts, we talk about food, ingredients, the industry, etc. But the funny thing in Bangkok is that we never talk about the next big thing … this is sad! Trends exist for a very short period here and I think the great culinary experience we are missing here are the pub grub and gastro bar experiences.”
Chef and restaurateur
“I think the variety of restaurants and cuisines has expanded quite rapidly. Bangkok is still behind the trends of other big cities, but it is closing the gap very fast.
He adds: “People are appreciating that Thai food doesn’t have to be something cheap and fast, and that there is more to experience with flavor combinations, and ambience and service as well. Dining should be an overall experience and there are now all types of different ways and settings to experience Thai cuisine.
Kittichai continues: “I think Bangkok has always been an attractive dining destination, but now we see a depth and variety of cuisines and dining experiences offered versus what was available in the past. Many more restaurants now operate outside hotels and I think that is quite important – we see that development all over Asia. It increases the competitive landscape and pushes restaurants, hotels and chefs to continue improving and innovating.
“Some of my formative career background was spent working in five-star hotels. Back then, the hotels would be the only ones to bring in famous or Michelin-starred guest chefs. Now the chefs themselves are coming to Bangkok to open restaurants or do guest chef events in restaurants.”
Nightclub owner and entrepreneur
“The Thai market has opened its heart and mind and has accepted new trends. Just in the last four years, wines bars, craft beer bars, and upscale cocktail lounges are appearing. Bangkok never had that until four or five years ago. You have these places that do molecular cocktails – even three years ago, no one was doing that.
“When I first came out here, working in clubs, you could only get Johnnie Walker Black, maybe Johnnie Blue; for vodka, only plain Absolut, nothing else. That change all happened slowly so we had to bring it in by hand-carrying bottles. Thousands and thousands of dollars of alcohol every month was brought in inside people’s suitcases. Single malt, every tequila, every other whiskey, every other vodka. The demand has become more sophisticated and the market has expanded to cater to that.
“When I open Chi Ultralounge (●facebook.com/ChiUltralounge) on Soi 15, it’s going to be only about the best, premium ingredients in the cocktails. That’s what banging nightclubs specialize in now. It’s not just about volume any more. That was the biggest change.
“For DJs, Bangkok just wasn’t part of anyone’s grand plans for Asia. It’s now 100 times what I used to see when I first came here. The economy changed and Bangkok became more appealing – a top tourist destination rivaling anywhere in the world.”
Nooror Somany Steppe
Executive chef and co-founder of Blue Elephant Restaurant Group
“Thai food has become very popular. I’ve seen it when I travel as well. It’s really interesting to see the modern techniques being used. As a chef, I love to use modern techniques but you have to keep Thai tastes and retain its authenticity.
“Chefs have changed their attitudes to Thai food but customers have changed as well. They still want the Thai tastes but the modern presentation can be there. I have seen that change occur quickly in maybe three or four years.
“People have become educated about food – a lot of customers are foreigners; they know more about Thai food as well. And Thai people tended to eat at home because their mothers were the best cooks but they have become more interested in going out and going to restaurants.
“Thai people traditionally had a “som rap” or shared dining style. But we needed to make it so that everyone had their own plate, like in a French restaurant or any other cuisine. That had to happen for Thai food to become more like fine dining.
“Everyone loves to drink wine now, so we need to think about pairing wine and Thai food. It depends on the dish, of course. A pomelo salad, you want a fruity wine. If it’s a meat dish, then that goes with red wine. But you can also have a chilled red wine or rose as well.”
Q Bar founder and current owner of Smalls
“It’s changed so much. I came here and opened Q Bar in 1999, and having lived in Hong Kong and Singapore, I saw that the bar scene was so bad here. You’d order a scotch and soda and the servers didn’t even know the word ‘scotch.’ I thought it was easy pickings—there was no competition. That’s how primitive it was – they had nothing available in terms of drinks. That’s one of the biggest changes, the amount of different alcohol that’s now available … good gins, good bourbons. None of that stuff was here.
“In the early years, I was asked to be a judge for Bacardi’s Bartender of the year and it was all flair. That was what people thought bartending was all about – not cocktails or mixology. Now, young Thai guys from good families actually want to be mixologists. They’ve changed the way Thai people drinks – they’ve become more brand-conscious and more interested in good cocktails.
“In terms of food, Thailand was ignored for a long time. No one talked about Bangkok – that took time. But that all changed when David Thompson came in. Bo.Lan, Sra Bua, Soul Food, Paste came later. People are eating in a different way than they did five years ago, when they were still going to pubs and getting a Shepherd’s Pie.”