For a small island, Ko Maak offers a surprisingly good mix of Thai and Western food, with some low-key nightlife thrown in.
The widest mix of food and drink is found in Ao Kao, where a small but colourful strip of restaurants fill up with travellers each evening along the main drag behind the beach. Run by a local islander family, Food Garden offers an extensive selection of Thai food and barbecue in a spacious open-air garden that gets lively after dark. The Thai salads are tasty, but we're partial to the “Chili Burning Seafood”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Prices are a bit steep, starting at around 120 baht per dish, but portions are hefty and the food authentic.
Not far from Food Garden, a few Thai-Western restaurants with similar menus all vie for business. Aimee is a long-running spot known for its authentic Thai food, while both Hawana and The Chill do reasonable Thai along with surprisingly good burgers. In association with Koh Mak Steakhouse over on Ao Nid, Food Art Hut also has a Thai menu to compliment a more extensive Western selection, including stone-oven pizza and quality baguette sandwiches. With prices starting at 60 baht, all of the above are good choices for those on a budget. If you're on a bare-bones budget, head for any of the cheap noodle soup stalls that dot the roadside.
On Ao Kao beach itself, Monkey Shock Restaurant and the related Monkey Bar offer what's probably the most happening nightlife scene on the island. A quality barbecue fills the air with the scent of grilling squid, fish and kebabs, but many come for the cheap cocktails and fire-dancing shows after dark. Monkey Bar is also the place to let loose to thumping beats or pick up an instrument, be it a guitar or a humble tambourine, during one of the nightly jam sessions. Things can get a little wild on “Crazy Monkey Saturdays”. Not far from Monkey Island on the main road, Art House is a funky little thatch-roofed hangout where you'll find portraits of rock-n-roll greats and more instruments. Every Monday is acoustic night, and beer goes for 50 baht, cocktails for 100, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
If you're in need of some hearty Western stodge, Baan Sabay doesn't mess around with its New Zealand lamb shank, cordon bleu and the calorie-rich Tenderloin Swiss Roesti, which consists of a fried potato with bacon, cheese and a fried egg plopped on top. Baan Sabay is also known for house-made massaman curry, and its big, twinkling bar that's a good spot to chat with some of the expats. Further east near Island Hut, Swiss Sawasdee does Jager schnitzel and curry bratwurst along with a full Thai menu. They also offer a small gym, in case you need to work off some of those calories. Both Baan Sabay and Swiss Sawasdee are pricey -- expect to pay at least 150 baht for a Western dish -- but portions are huge and the food made with love. Don't forget to save room for the homemade ice cream sold at nearby Koh Mak Cottage.
Further east, quaint little Ao Nid is a foodie destination thanks to two very different but both outstanding restaurants. The first is the long-running Koh Mak Seafood, where you can indulge on a feast of king prawns, whole fish and soft shell crab on a breezy and spacious terrace overlooking the bay. In addition to a cooking school that has received good reports, there's also a cosy little museum. Just downhill from Ko Maak Seafood, right next to the pier, a laid back German chap runs the aforementioned Koh Mak Steakhouse. The generously sized baguettes are baked on site, and you can even buy a whole birthday cake with some advanced notice. Standards like fish and chips are available, but the real draw are the steaks. Choose between several different cuts of beef or go all-out on lamb, deer or crocodile. Prices are reasonable for what you get, and a private four-course candlelight dinner for two is available for 1,800 baht.
Few stand-alone restaurants are found over on Ao Suan Yai, but the resorts do a good job of satisfying most tastes. One of the owners of Thaidaho Vista runs a small baked goods company, making this a great choice for breakfast. Thaidaho also does quality pizza and an eclectic mix of Thai and Western food throughout the day. Down on the beach, Cococape boasts whole separate menus for Western and Thai, and the quality generally stands up to the high prices. Cococape also has two bars -- one inside at the restaurant and another on the picturesque pier that shoots out over the bay. Though we didn't try them during our last visit, we've also heard good things about the food at Koh Mak Resort and Suchanaree.
A few standout eateries are hidden away in the island's more remote eastern reaches. The first is La Dolce Vita, a make-it-all-from-scratch Italian restaurant run by Bamboo Hideaway's food-obsessed Italian owner. Dive into a steaming plate of squid ink spaghetti, fritto misto di pesce or veggie lasagna, served with house-made bread and a thoughtful selection of wines. Prices run from 120 to 280 baht, making this an affordable option for a romantic splurge. Also set in a romantic spot, Little Moon Villa warrants mention for its coffee bar and tasty Thai dishes.
But if there were one “can't miss” restaurant on all of Ko Maak, it would have to be the nameless beach shack kitchen on idyllic Laem Son. After spending an hour or two lounging on the silky-soft white sand and soaking up the majestic underwater scenery (snorkels can be rented here), grab a seat on one of the long picnic tables for grilled squid, whole saltwater crabs, fiery tom yum soup and ice-cold beer. At just 50 to 80 baht for most dishes, prices are incredibly reasonable, and the widespread notion that Thai food should be watered down for Westerners doesn't seem to have made it here. If there are no empty tables, just grab any available seat and make some friends.