The first ráan khâo kaeng (rice & curry shop) to have been historically documented was a lean-to affair situated just outside the palace walls in 17th century Ayuthaya. It was said to have served rice and curry to palace courtiers who were too busy to prepare meals for themselves, but we know nothing else about the establishment.
Other than the simple ráan khâo kaeng in markets, Thai food wasn’t available at most pre-WWII restaurants, which tended to be either Chinese or, more rarely, European. Real Thai restaurants – with full menus of kaeng, yam, tôm yam and phàt dishes – didn’t appear until the beginning of the Cold War, when Indochinese conflict brought an influx of foreigners with diplomatic, military or commercial interests. It could be said that Thais discovered the enjoyment of a Thai meal outside their homes only after the experience received outside attention.
This self discovery coincided with the tremendous economic development the nation underwent between 1963 and 1997, when per capita income levels in Thailand increased 19-fold. Nowadays Thailand boasts many more Thai restaurants than any other type of eatery, and it’s hard to believe that that barely 50 years ago finding a full-menu Thai restaurant was not an easy task.
Today urban Thais eat out almost as often as they eat at home, whether it means grabbing a lone chair at a street vendor table for a quick bowl of kaytžaw, or driving in convoy with 15 family members to a pier-top restaurant for a weekend seafood feast. Watching where the Thais congregate to eat is the best way of all to determine the potential quality of a ráan aahãan (food shop) or rót khěn (vendor cart).
Ráan khâo kaeng (rice & curry shop)
At a ráan khâo kaeng (rice & curry shop), pots of curry are placed on a table at the front of the shop, along with a large rice cooker. Typically the pots are not on a stove or heating element of any kind. Instead the curries are cooked early in the morning and, once lidded, they will stay warm for at least a few hours. Re-heating is not usually done, as it risks drying out or over-thickening the curry (a good curry should not be thinned with water, and to add more coconut milk would risk throwing the flavour balance off). The variety of beverages available are slim, often just water, náam chaa (weak Chinese tea) and a few soft drinks or fresh fruit juices.
Ráan aahãan taam sàng (food-to-order shop)
The more generic ráan aahãan taam sàng (food-to-order shop) can usually be recognised by one or more tall refrigerated cabinets with clear glass windows at the front of the shop. These will be filled with many of the raw ingredients – Chinese kale, tomatoes, chopped pork, fresh or dried fish, noodles, eggplant, spring onions – for a standard repertoire of Thai and Chinese dishes. The ingredients are often there as a simple means of promotion, as the actual kitchen stocks many more ingredients. As the name of the eatery implies, the cook attempts to prepare any dish you can name, including any kind of rice or noodle dish as well as more complex multi-dish meals. You won’t usually find curries at a ráan aahãan taam sàng, but if they have them, the curries will usually be pre-prepared as at a ráan khâo kaeng. Most of the standard Thai dishes are available, including those in the tôm yam, yam and phàt categories. Almost any kind of beverage is available, from water and soft drinks to rice whisky and beer. Ráan aahãan taam sàng can be open at any time, although typical hours are 10am-9pm.
Ráan khâo tôm (boiled rice soup shops)
In larger cities you may find a few 24-hour ráan aahãan taam sàng, especially if they serve khâo tôm (boiled rice soup), a popular late night meal. In fact ráan khâo tôm (boiled rice soup shops) and ráan aahãan taam sàng frequently overlap in menu and function. A true ráan khâo tôm, however, carries a greater variety of khâo tôm accoutrements and will have more of a Chinese orientation. Both kinds of eateries often use the word phochánaa – a Thai-Sanskrit term meaning ‘meals’ – in their names, as in Sayam Phochanaa or Si Chaiya Phochanaa.
Ráan kaytžaw (noodle shop)
At the front of a ráan kaytžaw (noodle shop) you’ll see steel- or wood-framed cabinets filled with piles of snowy white noodles. Hanging next to the noodles are pre-cooked meats, such as muu daeng (strips of bright red barbecued pork) or pèt yâang (roast duck). On a lower shelf sit little piles of chopped raw meats or poultry for custom cooking and on another shelf are any accompanying vegetables. Two steel boilers near the cabinet contain plain water (for dunking the fresh noodles) and soup broth. On the dining tables you’ll find the traditional rack of condiments. Noodle shops don’t have standard opening hours. Some cater to the breakfast and lunch crowd, others are open from 11pm until dawn.
One of the simplest and most pleasurable venues for dining out in Thailand is the night market, which can vary from a small cluster of metal tables and chairs alongside the road to more elaborate affairs that take up whole city blocks. While breakfast or lunch may be quick and functional, a meal at a night market can be an evening in itself, starting with a drink and kàp klâem (drinking food) at one vendor, followed by a slow perusal of the other vendors to put together a feast. There are two types of night market, firstly the tàlàat laeng (late afternoon market) or tàlàat yen (evening market), which sets up just before sunset and stays open till around 9 or 10pm – possibly later in large cities. The second is the tàlàat tôh rûng (open until dawn market), which begins doing business around 11pm and keeps going until sunrise.
More upscale restaurants – the type that would offer printed menus – are usually only found in provincial capitals or tourist resorts. Average Thais prefer to order their favourite dishes without referring to a menu at all, so these more expensive restaurants only cater to an upper-class clientele with more international tastes. It is in such restaurants that you will find air-conditioning, tablecloths, and individual soup bowls. There’s no special name for this kind of restaurant, although the owners often bestow them with Thai names that have royal or historic connotations – Wang (palace), Tamnan (epic), Than Ying (a titled lady) – or that are intentionally humble – Baan (house or village), Rai (field) or Kratip (sticky rice basket).
Reua aahãan (food boat restaurants)
Other kinds of Thai eateries fall into smaller, specialist categories. In Bangkok, for example, a number of reua aahãan (food boat restaurants) operate dining boats, which leave the restaurant’s pier once or twice nightly for a one- or two-hour cruise on the Chao Phraya River. Such restaurants offer a regular Thai menu from the restaurant’s riverside eatery. It’s a fine way to dine outdoors when the weather is hot, away from city traffic and cooled by river breezes. Several of the boats cruise under the illuminated Rama IX Bridge, the world’s longest single-span cable-suspension bridge.
Phae aahãan (food raft)
In provincial towns with rivers or lakes, you’ll come across the similar phae aahãan (food raft), a floating platform moored to the bank. Although the rafts never move from their moorings, the cooling breezes off the water make for a pleasant dining experience. Be especially discerning when choosing a phae aahãan, as the cooking sometimes takes a distant second place to the location. Follow the usual rule of thumb in restaurant selection – look for a crowd – and you should be fine.
At ráan khâo kaeng, ráan khâo tôm and ráan aahãan taam sàng – places where the jaan diaw (one plate) meal is the norm – you’ll fit right in dining alone. Eating at places like these not only saves you from buying a dish and a plate of rice separately, but the portion will be ample for one.
At reua aahãan, phae aahãan and the more up-market restaurants, it’s fairly unusual to dine solo. It’s difficult for one person to eat a multi-dish meal alone, since most dishes are meant to feed at least two. Even if you order only one dish and some rice, it’s not much of balanced meal to Thai eyes. The most socially acceptable solution when flying solo is to stick to jaan diaw places.
More guides to eateries in other countries here.
Originally published Feb 2011. Updated Nov 2012.