By Adam Purcell
WHILE the majority of Bangkok’s street names don’t reflect anything about the roads they identify (Wireless Road, the biggest offender, is strung together like a 1950’s computer), the moniker Thonglor actually works. Well, at least figuratively.
You see, roughly translated, Thonglor means molten gold, and for a street that has established itself over the past five years as the city’s most affluent neighbourhood, where a constant flow of sophisticated Thais and expat foodies arrive with healthy bank balances and an appetite for new drinking and dining experiences, this description couldn’t be more apt.
“Thonglor is where it’s at,” says Arin Malhotra, co-owner of Perfume, a new restaurant and bar at Eight Thonglor which specializes in premium cocktails and ‘aromatic cuisine’ (food designed to excite not just the palate, but also the olfactory senses). “It is the city’s most fashionable street. Not just in terms of what people wear, but in mindset, too. Thonglor is where creative entrepreneurs can flourish; it’s here you see the city’s most exciting drinking and dining concepts. And we attract the city’s coolest, most open-minded crowd.”
Arin, 26, is just one of many young entrepreneurs who have flocked to the street to tap into the spoils afforded from a highbrow clientele that, on any given day, includes impossibly lithe Thai women wrapped in body-hugging dresses – by top designers, no less – wandering arm in arm with gym-toned blokes, clad in white-shirts and rolled-up-chinos, whose hair points heavenward with a super-glue sheen.
“Most people who come to Thonglor don’t mind spending a little bit more for top quality products,” says Arin. “They come here not to just get drunk; they come here to soak up the whole experience. They want to enjoy people watching. They want to sample food and drinks they’ve never tried before. And Thonglor delivers.”
Outside of Thonglor, he’s continued to impress with his designs for the Chinese opium den-inspired Maggie Choo’s, the floating library The Bookshop, and the gothic-industrial Five. Opened just last month on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn on Sukhumvit 22, Bangkok Betty carries on his unique brand of quirkiness with a 1940s Americana-theme and an assembly line of chrome-coloured bombs.
But Ash, as he’s best known around these parts, is not the only one who has found his muse in Thonglor. Welsh-Chinese expat Chris Foo, founder of HOBS and owner of the ever-popular Brew at SeenSpace on Thonglor 13, has sailed the craft beer zeitgeist down Thonglor to discover a land of opportunity.
“I opened Brew around three years ago just when Bangkokians were starting to get a taste for imported beers,” he says. “Now, it’s not uncommon to see tables at Brew full of young Thai women – each tucking into a nine percent beer.”
Such has been the popularity of Brew, whose menu offers around 300 different imported beers, that Chris has gone on to open three more branches – Khon Kaen, Sri Nakarin, and a sprawling new venture at Asiatique. More outlets are in the planning, but right now his focus remains on Thonglor.
“Everyone wants to be in Thonglor,” he says. “There was a time when Sukhumvit Soi 11 was Bangkok’s hottest Soi, but as that street continues to morph into Khao San Road, more and more people – owners and consumers – have shifted their attention to this area. In fact, there was a time when consumers in Thonglor were 80 percent Thai and 20 percent foreigners. Now it’s more like 60, 40. There’s a real international mix here.”
To capitalize on this global blend, this month on Thonglor Chris will open Bangers, a restaurant selling sausages and mash drizzled with gravy, and gourmet hot dogs inspired by various countries around the world.
Open from 6pm-3am, it looks set to become a big hit with diners looking for a quick, wholesome bite, as well as night-owls swooping for a hangover-preventing feast.
“We held a tasting last month and our Full English Breakfast Hot Dog was a huge hit,” says Chris, grinning. “I may be biased, but it’s the best Full English I’ve ever had.”
Featuring a Cumberland sausage heaped with beans, scrambled egg, mushrooms, and crispy bacon, the Full English hot dog (see above) is just one option in around 20 different selections carefully designed by Chris and his team. There’ll also be a design-your-own hot dog, as well as a celebrity-designed option which will change every month. Hot Dogs will sell for between B150-B200.
The desire to provide the best of the best is something that most restaurateurs in Thonglor have in common. After all, the savvy, hipster-centric crowd who frequent the street expect nothing less. Fail to deliver what they want, and the only gold you’re likely to collect is Fool’s.
Arin, of Perfume, says, “To do well on Thonglor you must have a strong concept. And you must be passionate about what you’re offering. My partners (Tep, a chef; and Thumb, a mixologist) and I already have full-time jobs, but Perfume isn’t just a side-hobby. This is a passion.
“We spent two years of hard work with no return to get our concept off the ground; we even shunned beer and wine from our menu during our first two months of opening to establish ourselves as the go to place for premium cocktails. Crazy? Maybe, but you have to believe in what you’re doing. You must be dedicated. And we really do want to foster a ‘fine drinking’ culture in Bangkok.”
Perfume is not the only venture on the street to refine its drinking (and, in some cases, dining) options. The recently opened Sapporo Bar, on Thonglor 15, for example, is owned by Japan’s renowned Sapporo Brewery and sells nothing but its own lager – a steal at just B159 a pint – alongside a small selection of spirits. There’s also Brotzeit, a Singapore-based brand whose Thonglor Soi 10 branch features top quality imported German beers and Bavarian-inspired eats, and, a short walk away in Arena 10, Sway, which specializes in chicken wings and craft beers that punters can pour from a tap themselves – either a spurt for a taster, or a full, lip-smacking pint.
To shun usual F&B convention and follow through on convictions like these, of course, you must be confident. So it’s no surprise to find that some Thonglor-based restaurateurs have more self-belief than R&B crooner R. Kelly, who, if you remember his smash-hit single, believed he could fly.
Take for instance, Chompol Serimont, owner of Moulin at No. 88, Thonglor Soi 5. “”I created my restaurant because I felt that there aren’t enough amazing restaurants in Bangkok,” he says.
But before you go and wave a flyer from your favourite eatery in front of his face, hear him out. He’s talking about his tastes – and, as a fashion designer who has spent most of his life living in New York, dressing celebs such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Cyndi Lauper, and jetting off to glamorous locations around the globe for fashion shoots followed by dining at some of the world’s best restaurants, Chompol can certainly claim to have a refined palate.
“I came back from New York to take care of my family and I realized there were no restaurants selling the kind of food that I was accustomed to,” he explains. “And while Bangkok does have some decent restaurants, I felt that most places are simply content to deliver a standard dining experience.
“Many restaurants cut corners – especially when it comes to sauces – and will leave ingredients out of a dish if it makes them cheaper to make. I wanted to create a restaurant which always puts quality first, where ingredients aren’t sacrificed for the sake of profit. I wanted to bring my international dining experiences to Bangkok, and offer them for the city’s most affluent crowd. So Moulin was born.
“My chefs are willing to tweak their recipes to suit my tastes,” says Chompol, who has no formal chef’s training but learnt the art of cooking from an Italian family in Florence, where he lived for almost a year. “And as soon as they [the chefs] taste the tweaks I make to dishes, they’re always pleasantly surprised with the outcome.”
Another Thonglor-based restaurateur who has brought to Bangkok’s dining scene what he felt was lacking – albeit with more of a wholesome vision – is Varatt Vichit Vadakan, a professional barista trainer and owner of Roast at SeenSpace (second floor).
An expat favourite, Roast focuses on comfort food, eco-friendly and craft products and packs in foodies morning, noon, and night thanks to its great coffee, an all-day-brunch menu featuring dishes such as Classic eggs benedict (B240), Classic Nicoise salad (B340), and Pulled pork burger (B320); as well as a dinner and sharing menu brimming with highlights like House famous barbecue ribs (B790) and Wild mushroom risotto (B280).
Partners at Roast include Experience Creator and Talent Connector, Somdej Luengthaviboon (a childhood friend of Varatt’s who is responsible for all of the small details at Roast – lighting, music, and décor, as well as collaborating with talented and creative young people); Twist Juice, the juice mixologist; furniture makers If I Were a Carpenter; and Bangkok’s butcher of the moment, Joe Sloane of Sloane’s.
“The idea behind Roast was to bring to Bangkok something that I believed was missing in the market here,” says Thonglor resident Varatt, who, prior to returning to Thailand in 2006, spent 13 years in the States divided between Boston and California. “That is, simple, honest, and hearty food. Not fine dining, just comfort food that isn’t always easy to find here but is always a delight to eat.
If that sounds like an admirable vision, wait till you hear about Varatt’s upcoming project, The Commons, an urban marketplace on Thonglor 17, which, when it opens in early 2015, will bring together local purveyors that are specialists in their own fields.
Set over four floors, this vast project (7,000sqm) will feature a large indoor market selling everything from coffee (by Roast) and baked goods (by Maison Jeanne Phillipe), to Isaan bites (by Soul Food Mahanakorn), Seafood and cocktails (by Rocket Bar Group), rotisserie and pasta (by Appia), and beer (by Brew Beer and Ciders – does Chris Foo ever sleep?). “Basically, all the people who want to do simple things right,” says Varatt.
The second floor will feature a garden and courtyard area with small lifestyle shops (such as Container Bag and Storia), a florist (Plant House), and dessert cafes (including a brand new concept from the ever popular After You). The third and fourth floors, meanwhile, will be given over to restaurants, including a new farm-to-table restaurant by Roast.
“People now want to spend less time in mega shopping malls, and more time in the community in which they live in,” explains Varatt. “They want simple, yet quality things in their community and they are beginning to support local producers.
“All in all, The Commons is being created to meet the needs of the Thonglor community. We want people to be able to enjoy the very basic things in life, like grabbing good food and drinks and enjoying good conversation with friends and family – simple wholesome living for everyday city folks.”
The dining and purchasing habits of Thonglor residents are not the only changes Varatt has witnessed in the area over the past five years. “There has also been a dramatic change and increase in development in both residential and commercial landscape,” he says. “Everyone wants to be in Thonglor.”
Included in this all-encompassing everyone are hotel chains such as the Marriott. Early last year the group opened the Bangkok Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit – the first five-star hotel in the Thonglor district – bringing to the area not only top quality accommodation, but also a stunning rooftop bar with a 360-degree view, Octave; an all-day-dining restaurant, 57th Street (try the new Sunday Brunch); and The District Grill Room & Bar, an excellent steakhouse inspired by New York’s meatpacking district (see Marriott’s local touch).
Another hospitality chain currently preparing to establish a presence in Thonglor is Centrepoint Serviced Apartments. Unlike the Marriott, though, its arrival will sadly come with a loss; namely the long-standing expat favourite Witch’s Tavern, which will be razed to the ground to make way for the project.
The fourth establishment in a fast-growing franchise that includes branches at Impact Arena, Silom Road, and Asiatique, Flann O’Brien’s has the honour of being Thonglor’s first ever Irish pub. And, despite its modern looks and extensive outdoor terrace, there’s no denying its Gaelic flavour – green and cream walls, photos of James Joyce, Guinness on tap, and a menu of hearty-eats like Irish stew and Irish Boxty.
Even the pub’s English manager Haydn Drew (formerly of The Londoner on Sukhumvit 33), does his best to fit into the picture, claiming to have scaled the highest, sparsest branches of his family tree to come >> back with a twig that suggests that, yes, he does have Irish blood in him – “My great Granddad’s Grandma was Irish,” he jokes.
Jesting aside, though, the Thonglor branch of Flann O’Brien’s certainly means business, and the owners hope it will be a figurative pot of gold at the end of a lucrative Thonglor rainbow.
“We’ve seen how Thonglor is fast developing, how busy it is with Thais and foreigners, and we thought it was the perfect time to set up business here,” says the pub’s owner Liam Herrity, who, for the record, is genuinely Irish. “The plan is to make Flann O’Brien’s a big name in Asia, not just Thailand, and Thonglor offers the perfect springboard for this. If we’re a hit with the crowd here, we’ll be a hit anywhere. And considering our great location – street-side, and with parking – we can’t go wrong.”
These new venues join a large number of established restaurants and bars in Thonglor which prove that, even in a dining scene as notoriously fickle as Bangkok’s, one which has seen numerous casualties on Thonglor since we last mapped it in 2010 (Ana Garden, La Villa, Blue Velvet, to name just a few), success is still possible.
Just some of our favourite places which have made a name for themselves on the Soi include Soul Food Mahanakorn (for Thai Food and Cocktails); Shades of Retro (for boozy cocktails and a chance to buy retro goods); Phuket Town (for Southern Thai cuisine); Bad Motel (for cocktails and getting our groove on to cool DJs); Xuan Mai (for authentic Vietnamese dishes); Wine Republic (for reasonably priced wines and International eats); Boon Tongkiat (for Singaporean-style Chicken and Rice); Massala Art (for Indian cuisine); Crepes and Co (for its mouth-watering, European-inspired crepes); Harvey (for steaks and dishes inspired by sunny California), and diVino (for its authentic Italian cuisine and a chance to chat with its affable owner, Roberto Ferin).
As you’ll see from our two-page map (scroll down), venues on Thonglor are reasonably spread out, so walking between them may leave you looking like you’ve showered in your clothes. Luckily, getting around is a doddle thanks to the constant stream of taxi cabs, hair-raising motorcycle taxis, and a dedicated fleet of small red buses (which will take you the length of the Soi for just five baht).
Along the way you’ll catch glimpses of antiques shops, wedding planners, dance studios, football pitches, a Ducati showroom, and many more shops of interest proving that, just as the entrepreneurs interviewed here have noted, “everyone wants to be in Thonglor.” Truly Bangkok’s golden mile.
Chris Foo, Owner of Brew Beers & Cider
Chompol Serimont, Owner of Moulin
Arin Malhotra, Co-owner of Perfume
Roberto Ferrin, Owner of diVino Restaurant
Ten great Thonglor experiences
1. Enjoy a feast for all the senses with a cocktail or two at Perfume (our pick, Smoking Aces)
2. Eat cakes and sip tea surrounded by teddy bears at Mr Jones’ Orphanage
3. Sample beers from all around the world at Brew (great for people watching too!)
4. Tuck into delicious Thai food – including some hard-to-find dishes – at Supanniga
5. Kick off your weekend in style with a plate of Eggs Benedict at Roast
6. Sink your teeth into a medium-rare steak at The District Grill
7. Imbibe boozy cocktails and marvel at the rooftop view at Octave
8. Share some syrup-soaked Honey toast with friends at After You
9. Embark on a mini-pub crawl starting at Fat Gutz, followed by Apoteka, Iron Fairies, Brew, and Clouds. All within walking/stumbling distance of each other.
10. Sit on the terrace of Wine Republic/Brotzeit/Perfume/Flann O’Brien’s and indulge in some of the finest people-watching Bangkok has to offer
You drink – they drive…
• DRINKING and driving is for fools, yet every night merry jesters all over town still stumble out of bars to their cars for blurry-eyed trips back home, just so they don’t have to collect their vehicles the following day. Worth it? Not if you get stopped by the cops, it isn’t. Not only will you get hit by a big fine, you may even have to spend the night in a cell with a cockroach or two for company.
Fortunately savvy-entrepreneur Chris Foo – him again! (see main story) – and four of his friends have come up with a solution: ‘UDrinkIDrive,’ a chauffeur service with male and female drivers who will ensure you and your car get home safely. Available for pickups in Thonglor, with plans to expand to other areas of Bangkok, the service starts at B500 for the first 10km. “It’s the perfect combination says Chris. “Now I can get everybody drunk at Brew, and get them home safely too.” For more info: udrinkidrive.co.th
Marriott’s local touch
• IN an interview with The BigChilli last August, the Bangkok Marriott Sukhumvt Hotel’s GM, Gerrit Graef, told us: “Thanks to our location in this lively and interesting area of Bangkok, we really do feel very much part of the local community.”
Hollow, corporate words? Not at all. Simply take a peek inside the hotel’s District Grill & Bar on a Friday evening and you’ll discover that Thonglor denizens, expats and locals, have embraced the hotel with gusto.
Briton George Cossey, manager of The District Grill and a Thonglor resident himself, is quick to note that Thonglor residents make up most of his clientele. “Of course, there is tough competition when it comes to carnivore restaurants in Bangkok,” he says, “but what keeps people coming back here is our homely atmosphere – a modern and more rustic take on the sometimes stuffy and pretentious steakhouse – and the fact that we really want to be a local hangout: we focus on top quality meat and seafood, our well-informed staff remember diners’ names, and our prices are more than reasonable.”
It’s a winning combination that definitely warrants a visit – especially if you top off your night with a cocktail or two at the hotel’s rooftop bar, Octave.
Menu highlights include Classic whole leaf romaine Caesar Salad (B400); Sirloin steak (B250g. B1350); Australian lamb rack (B980++);
and Sea bass (B780).
2 Sukhumvit Soi 57, Tel: 02 797 0000 www.marriott.com