You dined with dogs, got a meal off a truck and sampled exotic popcorn. All this and Hello Kitty too THAILAND'S CULINARY historians will no doubt have already flagged 2014 as the year everyone seemed to go crazy for macaroons and tea rooms. There was more than that, of course, and we're not talking about the molecular fad that will probably remain in orbit a little longer.
The dining scene in the big Thai cities became more vibrant and versatile overall this year, thanks to those developments and other seeming trivialities (like "designer popcorn") as well as theme cafes (such as the ones for pets). We've now got celebrated Parisian patisseries opening branches here - and, yes, those suddenly ubiquitous food trucks.
Popcorn finally made its way out of the cinema and into the mainstream market with several new local brands joining Chicago-based Garrett Popcorn in targeting deep-pocketed Thais.
Despite the political mob surrounding the mall, the first Bangkok outlet of Garrett Popcorn opened at Siam Paragon early this year, immediately drawing a long queue. The crunchy popcorn sold out within hours, encouraging the owners to predict that Bangkok would become one of the world's top-earning outlets after Tokyo and the brand's hometown, Chicago.
Just days earlier, Ittipat "Tob" Peeradechapan, the man behind the popular Tao Kae Noi seaweed snacks, opened Tob Corn at Terminal 21. Now serving 4,000 customers a week, he expects to gross Bt100 million this year and plans to have 100 shops across the country within five years.
"More people are going to the cinema and popcorn sales have reached about Bt2 billion annually," said Ittipat. "And, with more Thais travelling abroad, there's also greater awareness about international brands. Online sales have soared too, so the time was right to expand into popcorn."
Siblings Jakrapan and Preeyanuch Somsakraksanti beat these guys to the punch by three years, though, opening their first Popco outlet in Chamchuri Square and subsequently expanding to seven branches in the capital and a franchise in Khon Kaen.
"I don't think popcorn is a fad that will fade - three years of growing profits would seem to prove that," Preeyanuch said as she was racking up Bt50,000 bags sold every week.
The Internet is popping too with several local brands, among them Delipop, Le Kate, Popbablycorn and Nine Popcorn, offering sweet and savoury versions online.
Taking Bangkok by storm, theme cafes arrived in a whirl of cuteness, as if designed purely for taking pictures to post on the social media.
Rowan Atkinson's beloved television character began welcoming visitors to the Mr Bean Coffeeshop on Soi Thonglor last December and proved so popular that new branches have since opened at the Walk mall on Kaset-Nawamin Road and in the Siamkit building in Siam Square.
Next came a favourite comic-strip character with the opening in May of the Charlie Brown Cafe at Mega Bangna. Japanese seal Sirotan put its tempting desserts on sale in June at the Mercury Ville on Chidlom Road. And the sweet Sanrio Hello Kitty House Bangkok in Siam Square One mall has been packing in the city's feline fans since its opening in August.
"Today's entrepreneurs need to find a gimmick to draw in the customers," said Smith Tsoi of Mr Bean. "Thais love to try new dining experiences. Then the word spreads through Facebook and Instagram, which make marketing easier!"
Rabhi Chakrapeesirisuk, a co-owner at the Charlie Brown, pointed out that the central characters have their own persona that allows restaurateurs to "get creative with the menu, the interior design and the collectible items".
"Food is still the priority," he stressed, "while the cartoon characters are the added value."
Food critic Rapeepan Luangarmrut and her partners invested Bt100 million in the 800-square-metre, three-storey Sanrio Hello Kitty House. It's decked out in pink, of course, and has Hello Kitty in stained glass for a ceiling.
Half a dozen Asian cities have Hello Kitty franchises, she said, "but ours is the first to combine coffee shop, spa and gift shop".
Alisa Srijamroen scored a franchise first with the Sirotan Cafe - the inaugural licence from Japanese firm Creative Yoko. "I fell in love with the white seal doll during a trip to Japan when I was a kid," she said. "It's a comfort doll that welcomes family members of all ages."
DOGS DINE OUT
Bangkok's cat cafes continue to draw crowds, and it didn't take long for someone to notice that dogs were being left out - and rabbits too. Now we have bunny clubs, though nothing like the ones Hugh Hefner used to run.
You can have a coffee and a cuddle with a husky, for example, at Neverland Siberians on Soi Ari Samphan 2. It's a breeding farm that welcomes visitors with snacks and beverages. Chotiros Ratanabirabongse has bred huskies for 12 years but only opened the coffeeshop last December. She figured it would be a great place for dog fanciers to meet and share ideas, and where people buying her puppies could learn about proper care.
You can hang with rabbits (apparently they have lucky feet) at the Lucky Bunny Cafe in Chiang Mai run by Gullayanee Jiamsinkul. The bunnies bounce around in their pen while you dine elsewhere. Then you can join up to six guests at a time in the rabbit den for 20 minutes of fun. The rules are strict for the sake of the bunnies' health - wash your hands, don't touch the babies, and no feeding.
Meanwhile back in the cat corners, the Purr Cat on Sukhumvit Soi 53, Caturday Cat Cafe in Coco Walk on Phyathai Road, and Zakka Cataholic Cafe on Sukhumvit Soi 39 never fail to be a-meow-sing.
VIVE LA FRANCE
Bangkok is now home to outlets of several leading European cafes and restaurants. Celebrated Parisian pastry shop Fauchon opened its first local branch in the Groove of CentralWorld in August and has since added one at Siam Paragon. They serve eclairs, cakes and macaroons alongside gourmet merchandise flown in from France.
Laduree, famed for its tempting macaroons, opened its first Bangkok outlet at Siam Paragon in September. "Laduree has the potential to satisfy the demand for luxury foodstuffs," said general manager Penprapai Siridanupath. "Thais also like to share photos of luxury fare on the social networks."
The newest French kid on the block is Paul, opened in September at Central Embassy. Run by Thai franchisee Bakehouse - a subsidiary of the CP Group - the cafe-cum-restaurant offers freshly baked pastries, exquisite main dishes and salads, as well as smoothies and teas.
Food trucks have enjoyed a revival in the US and Western Europe and couldn't fail to catch on in Bangkok too. Thais are queuing up for American-style burgers at Daniel Thaiger, parked on Sukhumvit Soi 38, Orn the Road on Soi Thonglor, Mother Trucker on Khao San Road and Hip Hot Dogs and Burgers at the Walk mall on Nawamin Road.
Cheese Break BKK sells American street food like sandwiches, macaroni-and-cheese and nachos at the JJ Green Night Market. Summer Street on Soi Aree 2 grills giant prawns and squid and does a nice seafood platter. On Lat Phrao you'll find Pizza Aroy selling freshly made pizza, while Kofuku proffers Japanese comfort foods like a pork cutlet on rice, gyoza and tonkatsu sandwich.
Even French fashion label Kenzo got into the act after opening a store at Central Embassy earlier this year. It has a "pop-up cafe" - a van sitting out front of the shop. All through January it will be serving coffee, tea and desserts like lemon-blueberry teacake and velvet cupcake.