Savannakhet offers a good mix of Lao, Vietnamese and Western fare, and there's even some great Japanese and French to be enjoyed.
The best place to get a feel for the mix of food found in Savannakhet is Savansai market near the bus station. Here you'll find southern Lao-style sun-dried beef and sticky rice sweets beside Vietnamese spring rolls and noodle soups. Cheap prepared foods are widely available in the market but it's also a great place to sample fresh fruit and glimpse mounds of fresh produce and spices used for Lao-Thai-Vietnamese cooking.
Another good place to try local foods is Talaat Yen plaza. A number of street carts set up here every evening around 17:00 and serve Savannakhet specialties like gaeng kathi (an orange coconut curry with pumpkin) and phorn ba (spicy fish soup with a mix of veggies).
Spicy Lao food is readily available throughout Savannakhet both in local-style restaurants and tourist-oriented establishments. Som tam is hugely popular and is prepared on the doorsteps of homes on practically every block, but be warned this is Lao-Isaan style som tam which is spicier and more pungent than the more common (in the West at least) 'som tam Thai' with peanuts. As you walk around Savannakhet in the mornings, we guarantee you'll notice a a foul stench; it's not raw sewage beneath the footpaths but rather pla raa (fermented fish sauce) -- an essential ingredient in Lao som tam -- being boiled by hand.
If wanting Lao food in a no-frills setting, several open-air restaurants get rolling in the late afternoon and sling som tam, grilled chicken and fish to go with huge helpings of sticky rice on the hill overlooking the river, not far from the Thai consulate and Mekong Hotel.
Yet the best authentic Lao food and the best atmosphere we found anywhere in town was at Savan Lao Dearm Restaurant, located at the bottom of a small hill almost due west of the Thai consulate, directly on the river. It's easy to miss the English sign but you'll know it by the glittering lights and large thatched roof buildings down by the river. The open-air dining area is on floating platforms, making this a fabulous place to watch the sunset. The som tam, spicy koi and laab salads, red ant egg salad (seriously, it's great!), grilled whole salted fishes and even the French fries were all extraordinary. The extensive menu has pictures and English translations and prices are low for the high quality of food and service. Note the innovative zip line used to carry buckets of ice and bottles of whiskey and beer from a bar perched up on the hill down to the dining area. Savan Lao Dearm opens late afternoon and shuts down around 23:00.
Another good spot to kick back with Lao food in a relaxed and comfortable but more local-style setting is Sabaidee Restaurant across from Chez Boune Cafe on Chaimuang Road. Here you'll find a spacious open-air dining area where you can enjoy Lao salads and sin dad (southern Lao-style sukiyaki) or sin jum (hot pot), both of which are considered local specialties. Sabaidee opens only in the evenings when the terrace fills up with locals who come to enjoy live music and karaoke, making this a good spot for a drink or two.
A couple of Thai-Lao spots on Ratsavongseuk Road -- Au Rendezvous Cafe and Seven Restaurant -- cater especially to foreigners. While these are lively "watering hole" types of places that sell basic cocktails and cheap beer, and are good places to chat it up with local expats, we recommend looking elsewhere for real Lao food as our meals at both were lacklustre. They are both cheap however and Seven Restaurant has free WiFi. For some tasty Thai-Lao and a bit of Western food to go with great Lao coffee and free WiFi in an accessible cafe-style setting, head to Lin's Cafe instead, just north of Talaat Yen plaza on Latsaphanit Road.
Vietnamese food is also widely available throughout town, especially mieng dip (fresh rolls with pork and peanut sauce) which can be easily scored on the street. Nondescript Pho Bia restaurant just past Au Rendezvous Cafe if heading south on Ratsavongseuk Road serves up outstanding traditional beef pho with lashings of greens on the side and gets packed in the morning but closes by afternoon. Banh mi-style French bread sandwiches, known in Lao as khao jee pate, can also be easily found in Savansai market and other random corners around town. We had good luck with the stand right across from Cafe Anakot also on Ratsavongseuk, where a friendly man heaps spiced sausage and/or fried eggs along with sweet mayo and pickled veggies onto baguettes fresh from the oven -- cheap and delicious.
When it comes to international food, Savannakhet has a handful of excellent choices. The French influence is still felt in Savannakhet, exemplified by Dao Savanh restaurant on the north side of Talaat Yen plaza. It's pricey with dishes costing 20,000 to 100,000 kip, but well worth it if you're in the market for an entrecotte grille aux herbes de province (grilled ribeye steak with thyme and rosemary), slow cooked duck leg with olive or croque madame (ham, cheese and upside down egg with caramalised onion sauce on baguette). The candlelit atmosphere is perfect for a romantic evening, which you could finish up with a "Colonel Ivonavich" (lemon ice cream drizzled with vodka). Dao Savanh also serves more simple Western fare like burgers and vegetarian tortillas, and they're open daily for lunch and dinner.
Another standout for Western food is Chez Boune Cafe on Chaimuang Road. Also on the pricey side, Chez Boune is run by Lao-French repats who were schooled in France on how to make the perfect espresso and cappucino. They also serve quality French wines and aperitifs to accompany large and succulent steak dinners, classic Italian pasta dishes and some decent pizza with loads of cheese. The huge lasagne portions take a good 20 minutes to prepare but are worth the wait. Chez Boune offers both air-con and outdoor seating to go with a perpetual mix of Steve Miller Band and the Eagles. It's open daily for lunch and dinner until 22:00 and it's tough to miss thanks to the giant penguins out front -- not sure what they have to do with Laos or France but we like them anyway.
Our favourite of the entire bunch of Savannakhet eateries is also one of its newest: Cafe Anakot in the middle of Ratsavongseuk Road. Run by a spirited team of Lao and Japanese young people, this chilled out cafe boasts a cool atmosphere defined by tasteful and softly played jazz, free WiFi and outstanding food and drinks. Start with a pot of high quality Japanese green tea, Lao coffee or a frosty coconut shake. Move onto a grilled tofu or chicken sandwich on whole wheat bread that come bursting with veggies and homemade pesto (delicious!) or a Thai curry or fantastic set of sushi. And finish up with a homemade slice of cake or an ice cold Becks or Hoegaarden beer. Prices are in the 20,000 to 50,000 range for main dishes and worth every kip. Cafe Anakot is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner until 21:00, every day but Monday.
Cafe Anakot also serves a range of vegetarian foods, but for those wanting vegetarian in a more no-frills setting, a small stand just around the corner from Au Rendezvous dishes out Vietnamese-style meat substitutes and stir-fried veggies with rice during daylight hours for dirt cheap prices.