The rise of Bangkok’s indie eating scene

The rise of Bangkok’s indie eating scene

Renegade-style pop-up dinners and markets are changing attitudes to food
Opposite's pop-up dinners are convivial, boozy affairs where a guest chef presents a themed menu.

On a recent Friday night, some 30 foodies trickled down an unpaved alley in Bangkok’s Thong Lor district.

They went up to the second floor of a nondescript shophouse, where they were welcomed into a warmly lit room with two long communal tables topped with jugs of potent white sangria. 

They sat shoulder to shoulder on benches, drank local craft beers and wines and chowed on a four-course meal created by pirate-like Australian chef Jess Barnes from the soon-to-open Bangkok restaurant Quince

They chatted with friends and strangers, passed each other the bread and poured each other more wine. 

It was a typical pop-up restaurant at Opposite, one of many independent food events creeping up on Bangkok in recent months. 

Co-owners Somrak Sila and Christopher Wise organize set dinners for a fixed price that varies according to the theme -- convivial, boozy affairs where a guest chef presents a themed menu. Previous themes have included New Orleans cuisine, northeastern Thai and an offal-heavy Roman dinner. Tickets routinely sell out within days.

In this city of endless street stalls, cutesy café-restaurants that serve an all-too-familiar menu of Thai-Western fusion and five-star hotels touting week-long visits from celebrity Michelin-affiliated chefs, Opposite is doing something heretofore unseen.

“The hotels sell the chefs’ name or Michelin affiliation, no matter how tenuous, more than an unusual regional cuisine or unexpected ingredients,” says Wise.

“Often it's the same kaleidoscope of foie gras, Wagyu, lobster that is already in all the high-end venues in Bangkok. We’d prefer to offer some tripe instead.” 

Trickle-down eatonomics

The Opposite pop-ups are arguably the most glamorous and centrally located events in Bangkok’s developing indie food scene.

But further-flung dinners are proving that people are willing to travel to try something new. 

No professional chefs here. Space Dinners are self-service and open to anyone. Across the Chao Phraya River, up a hard-to-find set of stairs in the middle of Klongsan Market, photographers James Nachtwey and Yvan Cohen and their friends have turned a concrete and plaster room, called “A Space,” into the site for Space Dinners -- food and art parties where the meal is prepared in advance not by chefs, but a group of willing enthusiasts.

“We’ve had Italians doing amazing lasagna, we've had French people cooking beautiful French food, we've had a Thai chef doing an amazing dinner built around a kind of herb,” says Cohen. 

Inspired by the Jim Haynes Sunday dinners in Paris, where the U.S. expat opens up his home to anyone who wishes to eat and chat, Space Dinners are self-service.

Diners head to the kitchen, grab a plate and help themselves. Many pick up their own beers from the 7-Eleven downstairs. A small suggested donation covers the cost of food and rent.

“Nobody involved is getting paid,” says Cohen. “Some guests have given us fans, some have donated furniture and some of the artists who have shown at the Space have even donated some of their proceeds.” 

Eating, ethics and the environment

Casual dinner parties are not the only new food concept in the city. More and more denizens are leaving the air-conditioned dining rooms for sultry afternoons at food fairs quite unlike the hundreds of fresh markets that are one of Thailand's hallmarks.

Among the offerings at Big Bite Bangkok: delicious homemade Thai sausages. These ones come with lofty causes. 

Big Bite Bangkok takes place in the parking lot of the Maduzi Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 16. Foodies brave the sun to sample and purchase home-crafted beers, small batch–roasted coffee, bagels and cream cheese, homemade sausages and more. 

“We wanted to do something like Smorgasburg in Brooklyn,” says food writer Chawadee Nualkhair, a co-organizer of the event.

The involvement of a local charity, In Search of Sanuk, whose co-founder, Dwight Turner, organizes Big Bite Bangkok with Nualkhair, brings a particularly personal touch.

“There are also people who benefit from [Turner’s] organization who contribute,” says Nualkhair. “Like the Sri Lankan family who cooked up incredible tasting deep-fried fish balls for the event. It was great to get to know them better through their food.”

A few streets over, at gourmet Thai restaurant Bo.lan, a new farmers' market aims to assist Thai organic farmers as well as the environment.

Foodies and their children gather on the first Saturday of every month to buy organic vegetables, organic Thai rice, local goat cheese and sustainable fertilizers. For the less DIY-inclined, there is plenty of prepared food like grilled sausages and curry.

“A lot of our organic suppliers cannot afford to get into modern trade,” says Bo.Lan chef and co-founder Bo Songvisava.  

“One way to stop them from quitting [organic practices] is to bring them to a wider market. The market also provides Bangkokians access to better food.”

But who’s coming?

While they do have a reputation for being food-obsessed and slipping food-related questions into their small talk, Bangkok denizens are not known for dinner parties with strangers or for cooking up a storm at home.

Organic produce, rice and local goat cheese are all on sale at Thai restaurant Bo.Lan's monthly farmers' market. It’s not hard to notice an imbalance among the crowds at these food events.

Wise admits that though attendance at the Opposite pop-ups is growing, there are more expats than Thai guests.

“It’s not because the cuisine is unfamiliar. Rather our garrulous family-style nights are a new concept,” he says.

At the farmers' market, where most of the wares are intended for cooking, the issue of Bangkok’s urban habits is more relevant.

“It clashes with Bangkokian sensibility big time,” says Songvisava. “They love one-stop shops, air-conditioning and double-bagging. We are trying very hard to encourage people to cook at home.” 

In fact, the farmers' market aims to encourage new habits by offering demonstrations on cooking, vermipost -- worm compost -- and gardening techniques in the future.

Of course, the events vary in terms of concept and compatibility with existing local food habits. What feels like an adventurous new experience to some locals may be a long-lost, nostalgic pastime to some Western expats. Still, the programming is growing.

Opposite is putting together an all-vegetarian pop-up and a single malt whiskey–paired dinner in the near future; the Bo.lan farmers' market aims to go from monthly to semi-monthly; and the next Big Bite Bangkok is slated for July. 

Whether expat or local or some lopsided combination thereof, the people keep coming.

The venues

Opposite: Across from WTF Cafe’ & Gallery, 27/1 Sukhumvit Soi 51.

Bo.Lan: 42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong Songkram, Sukhumvit 26. +66 (0)2 260 2962.

Maduzi: 9/1 Corner of Shukhumvit Soi 16, Ratchadaphisek. +66 (0)2 615 6400.

The Space: Klong San Market Above 7-Eleven. +66 (0)8 1814 2536.