Chiang Mai has made a name for itself with its food scene; flavourful Northern Thai cuisine that ranges from creamy green curries to the traditional tangy khao soi (soup). Slurp on homemade noodles, exclaim at the spice of a tom yam (a hot and sour soup) and delight in grilled meats fresh off the barbecue. Whether on a backpacker’s budget or a fine-dining tip, sample the best with Culture Trip’s list of the top local restaurants.
The chefs behind Rimm Phi Romm Thai Restaurant study the ancient cooking techniques and origins of dishes before they embark on recipe-testing their new ideas. The result is authentic Thai flavours presented in new and exciting ways. A little out of town in the neighbourhood of Mae Rim, this is a fine-dining experience worthy of a celebration. The steamed fish soufflé in an oyster cup and the braised Australian lamb shank in massaman sauce dishes are incredible in both looks and flavour. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Juicy, freshly grilled and perfectly crisped skin, this is chicken as it should be. With sides of fresh papaya salad and sticky rice, you’re going straight to heaven. With a barbecue out the front grilling up and simple, unassuming decor inside, this place feels untouched by tourism, so get there before all the foodies do. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Come and pray at the altar of papaya salad at Som Tam Udon. An institution in these parts, this restaurant is famed for offering the quintessential Thai dish in every possible way, with seafood, pork or grilled chicken. Originating from Lao, a som tam (papaya salad) is known for its spiciness, so if you’re not keen on the heat ask for a less spicy version. Note that ‘not spicy’ here still means spicy, so you have been warned. Dinner service stops at 8pm, so get there early for your papaya fix. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Owner Soontaree Vechanont is a celebrated folk singer who reached fame in the 70s for her rendition of Ka Jao Pen Sao Chiang Mai. She’s known to jump on the mic with her singer daughter to entertain her customers, which is a joy to listen to. As well as a famous folk singer, this restaurant serves up stellar Thai cuisine. Order the prawn salad with onsen quail eggs, and enjoy at the riverside location of this local hotspot. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Just 30 minutes from the centre of Chiang Mai, yet you couldn’t feel further from the city’s bustle. Enjoy the chef’s table experience from a private shack overlooking the resort’s organic gardens and the rolling hills of Doi Suthep-Pui. Truly magical. Traditional Thai dishes are served with impeccable presentation by attentive, unobtrusive staff. If you really want to treat yourself, book a night in the on-site treehouse to save the taxi fare home. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Crispy, deep-fried noodles atop melt-in-the-mouth beef tenderloin and a flavourful broth. This place is known as the place to sample Thailand’s renowned khao soi, and for very good reason. If you don’t mind your restaurants with unassuming decor and chickens pecking the floor at your feet, this one will do nicely. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
This spot has been topping best-restaurant lists since it opened with a new approach to Thai cuisine and incredible flavours. At the helm is Chef Tutu – watch as he cooks up a storm from the open kitchen serving impeccable dishes, such as crab and mangosteen salad and crispy Peking duck with sweet, black soy and mustard. The atmosphere is homely, making this one of the most relaxed places to experience a gourmet adventure. Drinks haven’t been forgotten, and the bergamot in syrup is the perfect refreshing afternoon drink. Recommended by local insider Shayanan Panich
Bring the whole family, order many dishes and share the lot; it’s the Thai way. Khao Soi Lam Duan is known for its khao soi, but the rest of the menu is worthy of your time too. Pork satay, nam ngiaw (Burmese noodle soup) and crispy fried shrimp with chilli sauce will tickle your taste buds. A long-standing favourite with locals and tourists, this spot can get a little busy with khao soi lovers, so be prepared to wait a short while. Recommended by local insider Shayanan Panich
A humble diner north of the Old City, Khao Soi Mae Manee stands out from the many khao soi offerings in Chiang Mai for its variations of the traditional dish. Beef, chicken and fish are offered alongside some offal dishes for the brave! The warm and friendly owners have been in the business for over 50 years, and it’s a long-standing joke that diners order the same dish more than once. Come hungry. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Feed the belly and the soul at this easy-on-the-eye restaurant. The owner is clearly an avid collector of beautiful things, and their art pieces both decorate and intrigue. Flavourful dishes of red curry, lotus leaf noodles and vermicelli salad are as excellent as the colourful, mismatched crockery they’re served on. Don’t come on a busy day as you’ll struggle to leave this comfortable spot. Recommended by local insider Shayanan Panich
Big bowls brimming with spicy noodle soups, zingy salads and the famous khao man gai are what the good people of Chiang Mai come here for. The well-known Thai dish of perfectly cooked rice and chicken in a ginger chilli sauce is the signature dish here. Help yourself to as much of the clear gourd soup as you like – it’s known for its detoxing and cleansing properties and tastes good too. It is easy to understand why this is a favourite lunch spot for the San Sai District. Recommended by local insider Shayanan Panich
In the heart of hotspot Nimmanhaemin, you’ll find traditional Thai dishes with a side of hipster. This is a fave of the Instagram elite with its calm, picture-pretty decor and small plates. It is tapas-style servings, so sample all your favourites and share with your party. A highlight here is the Chiang Mai sausage, typically pork flavoured with red curry paste; it is famous in the region and a firm favourite in Chiang Mai and beyond. Recommended by local insider Passawee Thepmanee
Expect no frills at this joint, just good, honest noodle soup. As you’d expect from a signature dish; they do it damn well. Fish balls, boiled fish or pork ribs top umami broth and silky-smooth noodles. Get ready to get your slurp on at this casual, relaxed eatery. Cool your palate with the chrysanthemum ice juice. Recommended by local insider Shayanan Panich
You get involved at De Zaab. Choose from a wide selection of quality meats and vegetables to cook in your choice of soup. If you don’t fancy cooking your own, select from the range of starters and appetisers. The som tam soup and pad Thai is decent, and there are plenty of dessert options to satisfy the sweetest tooth. There’s also an option to buy unlimited beer – make that choice wisely friends. Recommended by local insider Supawat Kadseesai
Small farmers and artisan suppliers provide the local, sustainable ingredients to prepare the food at Ginger Farm. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish here you don’t like. Steamed sea bass with sautéed ferns is an imaginative take and the crackling pork belly is to die for. This is the restaurant to try Son-In-Law eggs – fried, boiled eggs served with a sweet and sticky tamarind sauce. Recommended by local insider Mattia Miani
Locals flock at lunchtime for a bowl of goodness from Kuay Teaw Tamlung. With a grill outside and a small, open kitchen at the front of the restaurant, this is a very typical, understated Thai diner. They are a family-run team, and they’ve been in the noodle business for 40 years, so they know a thing or two. Go for gold with two dishes; a noodle-based hot soup and a spicy noodle to try the best of both worlds. The pork and ivy gourd soup gets a big thumbs up from Culture Trip’s local insider. Recommended by local insider Shayanan Panich
A favoured backpackers’ hangout spot, Kanjana offers an extensive menu with regional and national Thai specialties, all perfectly spiced and made with fresh ingredients. Tucked away in side street off Rachadamnoen Road, the inconspicuous restaurant has simple furniture, low prices and no-fuss service. Don’t forget to round off the experience with the sweet mango sticky rice dessert.
Although hidden down a soi (quiet lane), a few minutes from Tha Pae Gate, Dash is no secret and is popular with Chiang Mai locals. They offer a mixture of Thai and Western food, but it’s the setting that really appeals. The restaurant is located in a fabulous wooden house with a pretty patio area and lush garden. The live band that plays in the evening adds to the homely ambience that keeps punters coming back time and time again.
With a superb location in a traditional Thai house, Ginger & Kafe offers a distinctive restaurant experience with excellent food and service. The restaurant’s decor is fabulous, with antique furniture, colourful accessories and amazing attention to detail. They offer Thai and international favourites, with the massaman curry being hailed as the best in the city. Before you leave, pop by the on-site shop where you can buy incredible furniture and other household items.
Don’t miss the chance to taste some authentic Northern Thai cuisine at trendy Tong Tem Toh. While many restaurants water down their recipes in order to accommodate foreign tastes, this place will have none of it and serves up fiercely authentic and spicy dishes. The restaurant itself is full of charm, with dark wooden furniture and drinks served in antique metal cups.
The Lemongrass Restaurant serves magnificent Thai cuisine following traditional recipes in a basic setting; as the restaurant’s motto itself states: “no view, but tasty”. Take your pick from a menu offering all the traditional favourites as well as authentic Northern meals. The tom yum soup is an extraordinary fusion of flavours.
The vegetarian scene is steadily growing in Chiang Mai, but Taste from Heaven continues to stand out from its competitors. The culinary focus here lies on traditional recipes with some Indian influences; try the feather-light samosas. Skilled head chef Nan spent five years in Australia before returning to her home town to open the restaurant and cook up creative dishes full of intense flavours.
The Dhara Devi Hotel is one of the city’s most impressive hotels and also offers gourmet cuisine prepared by Thailand’s most skillful chefs. Situated outside the city centre, the Dhara Devi was modelled in the style of Madalay palaces and its Thai restaurant, Le Grand Lanna, has been set up with intricate wooden pavilions and other Lanna features. The food is a mixture of Northern and traditional dishes, eaten on the terrace or inside the salon and usually accompanied by traditional music and dance.
This is an update of an article by Iona Proebst
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