Where to eat and drink: Hua Hin

Hua Hin: Where to eat and drink

Hua Hin offers just about every kind of dining and drinking experience you could want, from seafood on seaside terraces to fine dining, fast food, baked goods, real Italian, authentic Thai (street or upscale), humble watering holes and lively beachside bars. A trip up Naeb Kehardt, swing through the night market and visit to the fishing village are a few of the highlights. Many of the makeshift beach restaurants were being cleared at time of writing, which could make it harder to order food straight to your lounge chair.

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Central Hua Hin: Soi Nares Damri and surrounds
Not surprisingly, many of the restaurants in the central tourist area serve bland Thai food and blander Western food at ridiculously high prices, but a handful of spots do stand out from the pack. The obvious choice here is Saeng Thai Seafood, a very popular restaurant that sprawls over a massive seaside terrace near the fishing pier. You’ll find typical selections like whole barbecued fish and steamed mussels, but also central Thai specialties like nam prik kapi kap pla-tuu, or whole mackerel served with spicy shrimp paste, Thai omelette and steamed veggies. The atmosphere is lively and the beer flows, though you do pay for the experience. If you’re after a more laidback setting, Moon Terrace is another decent choice for Thai and seafood.

For a romantic splurge, the seaside Brasserie de Paris off the northern end of Nares Damri gets it done with lobster bisque, fois-gras-stuffed chicken and sole filet with lime and coriander in the 150 to 600 baht range. They offer a decent wine selection to go with set menus that start at 795 baht. Directly across the lane is the Fat Cat, a great little bistro/bar with reasonably priced steaks, wine and live jazz performed by the talented saxophonist-owner and friends on most nights from around 18:00 to 21:00. Right next to that is Ye Olde Buffalo Tavern, an English pub geared towards beer and classic pub grub like burgers and fish and chips. Prices are fairly high and the food is mediocre, but the lively atmosphere keeps the place packed. Nearby De Mario Restaurant isn’t a bad choice for Italian, though we’d skip the skimpy pasta portions and go straight for the New Zealand steaks and brick-oven pizza.

Smack in the middle of Soi Nares Damri, Cool Breeze is an eclectic spot for lunch or dinner, serving hummus plates, Russian salads, potato croquettes and baguettes to go with coffee and cocktails. Just south of that is Coffee Club, an Australian chain that does pricey burgers, eggs benedict and quality coffee in an air-conditioned space. Over on Damnern Kasem, Frida Restaurant serves up Tex-Mex and margeritas, with neighbouring IL Italiano dishing out over a dozen flavours of gelato. If you prefer chocolates for dessert, head over to Best of Belgium on Dechanuchit Road; they serve ice cream, strong coffee, Belgian beers and baguettes in addition to the extensive truffle selection.

Those seeking a cheap Thai meal most often head over to the main night market on the other side of Phetkasem (see below), but you will find a cosy congregation of street carts dishing out staples like noodle soup, khao man kai (chicken rice) and grilled chicken with som tam on Soi 55/1, around the corner from Chomsin Road. You’ll also find a street vendor focusing solely on pad Thai at the corner of Chomsin and Naeb Kehardt, while a nondescript Chinese-Thai khao thom (rice porridge) shop does a roaring trade in an old-school setting at the corner of Dechanuchit and Naeb Kehardt.

When it comes to nightlife, both Soi Pindabat and Soi Poonsuk host more than two-dozen hole-in-the-wall bars that often have a seedy feel. For something a bit more sophisticated but not quite stuffy, a wine-obsessed Frenchman runs Le Bar Francais, at the far southern end of Poonsuk -- usually a good sign in our experience. Also an importer, the place supplies wine to many of the area’s hotels, and red-clad bartenders are known for their cocktails. For more of a party scene, the massive Hua Hin Brewing Company (attached to the Hilton) has live bands and DJs until late, while Johnny Walker’s Pub on Soi Selakam dishes out nachos and chicken wings to go with live music and sports on big screens. If you’re looking to impress, you can’t go wrong with the early 20th century vibe and classic cocktails at Elephant Bar, an upscale lounge in the Centara Grand Resort.

Central Hua Hin: Night Market and Sa Song Road
The main food draw west of Phetkasem is the night market, which pops up along Dechanuchit Road (aka Soi 72) every evening from 17:00 until late. You’ll find classic walk-and-eat items like pork skewers, kebabs, corn-on-the-cob and mango with coconut sticky rice, but also countless sit-down restaurants focusing on seafood barbecue. Competition is stiff, meaning that prices are reasonable and portions massive, though the lively atmosphere and beer towers are the main attractions for many.

For us, the night market’s highlight is an authentic southern Thai food cart run by an old woman at the far western end of the market; take a left at the western end of Dechanuchit and you’ll see it on the immediate left. Here you can sample melt-in-the-mouth massaman curry and fiery gaeng tai pla (southern fish curry) with rice, among countless other options, for less than 50 baht per plate. A roadside table is available for eating on the spot, complete with trays of complimentary veggies. For dessert, head back into the market and keep your eyes peeled for Together Bakery (on the left if heading back east on Dechanuchit). They do an exceptional mango cheesecake along with many other baked goods and fresh coffee, and they’re open all day.

While this area comes alive after dark, you’ll find a wide selection of cheap and authentic Thai and Chinese available during the day as well. Vegetarians will be pleased to know that an old-school ahaan jay (vegan food) shop slings tasty curries, stir-fries and meat substitutes with rice at the corner of Dechanuchit and Liab Tang Rod Fai roads from morning until late afternoon. Not much English is spoken but all of the food is displayed so it’s easy to order by pointing. Over on the corner of Sa Song and Damnern Kasem roads (one block west of the train station) is a no-frills boat noodle joint that does delicious pork noodle soup in a blood-tempered broth (tastes a lot better than it sounds) from morning to late afternoon. The bowls are small and cheap, and locals tend to order two or three to fill up. Beyond those you’ll find dozens of cheap local-style noodle, roasted duck and Isaan food shops all along Sa Song Road.

Those after a local-style breakfast might head into 90-year-old Chatchai day market, which sprawls under a high roof between Sa Song, Phetkasem, Chomsin and Dechanuchit roads in the heart of town. The dark and damp market is partly devoted to fresh fish and produce, but several vendors sell sticky rice or rice flour sweets that often include banana, taro and red bean and are steamed or grilled in banana husks. Just outside the market on Phetkasem is a Chinese bakery where you can pick up dumplings and sala bao (steamed rice buns) stuffed with sweet and savoury fillings; we recommend the muu daeng (barbecued "red pork").

The Sa Song area also doesn’t disappoint if it’s Western food you’re after. On an alley that shoots south off the eastern end of Amuaysin Road (aka Soi 74; look for signs for Tanawit Hotel), the long-running Euro Bakery serves hefty sandwiches on house-made bread to go with cinnamon buns, croissants, cakes, hearty breakfasts and fresh coffee. They stay open for dinner to serve Swedish meatballs, salmon croquettes and beetroot salad along with European beers and a small liquor selection. Prices are quite reasonable for what you get, and a few rooms are rented out if you want to keep all of that bread close at hand. Neighbouring German Bread and More has a smaller selection of baked goods but the breakfast that we tried there was excellent. Around the corner on the far southern end of Sa Song, All in Hua Hin is a full-service deli with imported meats, cheeses and beers to go with hearty entrees like lamb chops and schnitzel.

Northern Hua Hin: Soi 51 and surrounds
With a far more relaxing atmosphere than Nares Damri and the night market, this trendy area caters mainly to Thai holidaymakers, which means it’s full of excellent Thai food served in a wide range of settings.

Often cited as the best restaurant in Hua Hin, You Yen Balcony is a must off Naeb Kehardt Road (on the right just after crossing Soi 51 if coming from the south). Set in and around a stately old house overlooking the sea, You Yen is best known for its Thai and Chinese dishes that include slow-roasted meat curries, fried soft-shell crab, century eggs and incredibly tasty chilli pastes served with steamed veggies. Along with baked goods, coffee, beer, wine and liquor, they also offer an American-style burger grill that dishes up everything from sliders to half-pound patties made with USDA beef. Prices are fairly high -- no less than 100 baht for starters and reaching up to 900 for imported steaks -- but the food is well worth the splurge.

Another good option for a classy dinner is Baan Rashnee at Hua Hin Silk Village, right on Naeb Kehardt to the north of Soi 51. The focus is on royal Thai cuisine, meaning no bones, shells or pits and a careful attention to detail in both preparation and plating. Standouts include slow-roasted lamb massaman and red curry with generous hunks of crabmeat. The flavours are phenomenal despite spice levels being toned down for Western tastes.

If you crave some serious heat, don’t miss the makeshift Isaan (northeastern Thai) eatery that materialises on the beach end of Soi 51 on Saturdays and Sundays. Here you can indulge on sticky rice, grilled meats and authentic salads like som tam (with or without pickled crab and fermented fish sauce) and laab made with choice of duck, chicken or pork along with roasted red chillies and toasted rice. The place is constantly full of eager Thais and might seem intimidating at first glance, but everyone is welcome. If you arrive on a weekday and miss the Isaan fare, pop into nearby Mooz for a taste of authentic southern Thai halal food.

At the corner of Soi 51 and Naeb Kehardt, Hua Hin Memory is a somewhat odd market that blends concrete lighthouses and pieces of old boats with outdoor seating, TV screens tuned to soccer and a host of street-style vendors serving pad Thai, khao man kai, noodle soup and barbecued fish. Prices are low and the atmosphere is conducive to hanging around and playing cards between sips of beer or Thai iced tea. Right next to that is Gallery Drip, the second location of what we feel is the best coffee shop in Bangkok. If you’re really into coffee, don’t miss the northern Thai organic or Ethiopian Yirgacheff brewed using the hand-held drip method. The small cafe has both air-conditioned and outdoor seating and is a favourite of artistic young Thais. Another cafe worth mentioning is Eighteen Below, which also does fresh coffee along with some excellent ice cream a few more steps up Naeb Kehardt.

When it comes to nightlife, this area is more about casually lounging on a patio than getting crazy at a club or sleazy bar. You’ll find several small Thai-style bars like Thong Lor (named after Bangkok’s trendiest hood) on the western end of Soi 51. These cater mainly to holidaying Thais by way of beer towers, bottles of Johnny Walker served with buckets of ice and mixers, and low-key live music. At the beach end of Soi 51, Coco 51 is worth mentioning for its spacious seaside deck with fairy lights and acoustic performers on most nights. Both the Western and Thai food receive solid reports, and you can’t beat the atmosphere. If you’re aching for a good glass of wine, Mondo Vino Wine Bar is an importer that serves an extensive selection of wine along with gourmet cheese plates in an upscale, air-conditioned space near the corner of Naeb Kehardt and Soi 53.

Southern Hua Hin: Soi 67 and surrounds
Those staying in the budget guesthouses on Soi 67 enjoy fewer eating and drinking options in the immediate area, but that doesn’t mean you’re forced to head down to Nares Damris. A stone’s throw from Soi 67, Chan Sa Wang is a popular spot serving a mix of Thai and Western dishes in a shack just off the beach. Though pricey, we enjoyed the steamed mussels and laab pla (spicy fish salad), and both food and beer can be served to beach chairs. We’ve also heard good things about the Thai food and breakfasts at Rahmayah Guesthouse’s first-floor cafe.

Across the road from Soi 67 is Hua Hin Market Village, a large shopping plaza with dozens of chain restaurants. Just north of that is another night market that sets up next to Hua Hin Grand View Hotel and has a more low-key vibe than the main night market down on Dechanuchit. You’ll find a similar (but smaller) selection of meats-on-sticks and mango with sticky rice, and several cheap sit-down Thai restaurants are clustered against one whole side of the market.

Immediately to the left of Grand View night market is Volare Restaurant, a cosy Italian joint that serves far better food than the Italian spots around Nares Damri -- and for more reasonable prices. The southern Italian owner/chef enjoys chatting with customers before disappearing to the kitchen to whip up fantastic lasagna, pizza and fettuccine with pink sauce. On the other side of the Hua Hin Grand is Mekong Cafe, the only Vietnamese restaurant that we saw in town.

Heading back south from Market Village on the west side of Phetkasem you’ll find a few gourmet supermarkets that often sell quality prepared foods for takeaway -- not a bad idea for a picnic if you’re daytripping to some of the outlying beaches. This is also where you’ll find Soi 80, an expat enclave with several hole-in-the-wall bars and eateries.

Far Southern Hua Hin: Khao Takiab Road
The Khao Takiab area’s big highlight is the fishing village located at the bottom of the road leading up to the eponymous temple. A tangle of colourful boats line an adjacent canal, and the locals display fresh, often still swimming (or at least wriggling) catches in a market that chokes both sides of the street. Several of the stalls have a few tables and are happy to grill and serve fish, prawns, squid, horseshoe crab and shellfish on the spot. This is where many of Hua Hin’s pricey restaurants purchase their seafood, and you can save some serious cash by going straight to the source.

For a great everyday cafe, Yummy Corner at Takiab Soi 5 does a mix of Thai food, baked goods and French-drip coffee. Owned by the same family that runs Sea Harmony Eco Lodge, it has a similarly homely atmosphere and has received good reports for traditional Thai dishes like massaman beef and boat noodles. If you’re after Western food in this area, Papa John (not to be confused with a similarly named American pizza chain) is probably the best bet. While the area is more tuned into relaxing than partying, Cicada night market is a popular spot that blends art, music and food after dark. You’ll find a varied mix of food options served in a trendy courtyard setting.

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