Many expats have returned to Thailand in recent years, opening restaurants on Nimmanhaemin Road and infusing the city’s nightlife scene with international flavours.

Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north is a city known for its ancient history, pristine mountain ranges and exciting elephant treks. Less known are all the after-sunset possibilities, when Chiang Mai’s Nimmanhaemin Road becomes the core of the city’s vibrant nightlife scene.

Located west of the old city, Nimmanhaemin Road is lined with tiny bars; and the crowd, which stems from nearby Chiang Mai University, is young, hip and always in flux. “The cafes, art galleries, bars, restaurants… there’s a great energy here and you can walk everywhere,” said Vin Threeprom, the proprietor and chef at Jagajee (1/1 Nimmanhaemin Road Soi 15), a three-month-old tapas bar located at the centre of the action. Threeprom is also one of the many expats that has returned to Thailand in recent years, eager to open establishments on Nimmanhaemin Road and introduce international cuisine to a distinctly Thai scene.

Although he was born in Bangkok, Threeprom lived for 23 years in the small town of Monchengladbach, located along Germany’s northwest border, where his father was an overseas engineer for Thai Airways and his mother owned a Thai restaurant. At age 14, Threeprom concocted his first dish: a spicy macaroni and cheese. “I never went to culinary school,” he explained, “I actually thought I wanted to be a pilot!” He abandoned that goal after a year of training and launched a career as head chef for various restaurants in Germany, serving up everything from experimental sushi, to fusion food to contemporary German cuisine.

Enamoured by Chiang Mai’s laid-back charm, Threeprom returned to Thailand at the end of 2010 with the goal of introducing approachable European cuisine to Thais. In early 2011, Threeprom opened barfry, a high-end French fries bar that serves paprika and rock salt fries in paper cones, along with an impressive selection of homemade sauces and additional toppings such as pickles, fried onions, jalapenos and pork rinds.

After a year, Threeprom opened Jagajee, which is reminiscent of its Barcelona tapas counterparts with a slender long bar showcasing Threeprom’s daily offerings. The menu, full of locally-sourced ingredients, includes items such as adobo chicken wings, tzaziki, deep fried anchovies with anchovy mayonnaise, macaroni with a spicy basil sauce, beef goulash, and the chef’s favourite: a cashew and sweet pepper purée. An open cooking station allows patrons to observe Threeprom at work.

Around the same time that Jagajee opened, so did House of Wine (HOW) (1/1 Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 15; 668-2389-8633), adding to Nimmanhaemin’s cosy cluster of international hangouts. Owned by Bangkok Beer and Beverage, a locally-based beer and wine supplier, HOW’s main business is distributing a wide range of wines to hotels and restaurants. But the space quickly turned into a small wine bar, and Sara Tanthawee, HOW’s proprietor and a trained chef, added some cheeses and other light bites to the menu. Only nine people can sit inside the compact and delightfully chilled cooler, though there is additional seating outside.  

Tanthawee originally left Chiang Mai to further her education in New Zealand, but a degree in media turned into one in culinary arts. After working in a few restaurants in Auckland, she returned home and eventually opened House of Wine. “People come in here and don’t feel overwhelmed,” said Tanthawee. “I want to dispel the idea that wine is posh or for the rich. It’s for everyone.”

Tucked in a quiet lane east of Nimman, Café Compassion offers ovo-lacto vegetarian and vegan fare amid whitewashed walls, French-style cafe chairs, and chalkboard menus. “Our Japanese salad is one of our best sellers,” said Marisa Agrasut, the cafe’s co-owner. The humorously named I love Daiso, Muji and Chindogu Salad (Daiso is a cheap Japanese chain store, Muji is a Japanese clothing/lifestyle store and Chindogu is a the art of useless but fun Japanese inventions) features organic brown rice, sesame seeds and a rainbow-coloured array of vegetables tossed in a ginger-soy dressing, topped with shaved daikon radish and a delightfully crunchy seaweed crisp. “Some people say they don’t like seaweed and I push them to try it,” said Agrasut. “Most are happy they did.”

Agrasut, who grew up in England with a Thai father and Chinese mother, opened Café Compassion in 2011 with her fiancé Paul, an experienced raw food chef from Singapore. The menu largely reflects what they like to eat. “We don’t have a microwave and we don’t use any processed foods,” said Agrasut. The bulbous burger, another popular menu item, features a dense mushroom patty, packed with herbs and served on a soft wholegrain bun, with optional egg and cheese toppings. If you are after something more decadent, the shareable banana bread ice-cream sandwich with homemade butterscotch sauce is the only way to end the meal.

After dinner, stop in for some coffee at Ristr8to, a latte cafe that opened in 2011 with astonishing success. “I’m obsessed with the number eight,” said Arnon “Tong” Thitiprasert, the owner and barista. “There are 44 chromosomes in Arabica coffee and double that in a doppio ristretto [a short espresso], so 88.” Somehow this logic has resulted in opening hours from 8:08 am until 11:08 pm, the price of every drink contains an 8, and Arnon even named his son Ristr8to. When this obsessiveness translates to coffee preparation, good things happen.

Thitiprasert, originally from Trang in Thailand’s south, spent time in Sydney studying English. He got a part-time job in a coffee shop and made up to 1,200 cups a day, without ever tasting a single drop. “I didn’t like coffee,” said Thitiprasert. “I found it very bitter.” Then he began working in an Italian restaurant, where it was considered unacceptable to serve something he wouldn’t try. “I started with two sugars and eventually none,” said Thitiprasert, who now tastes every cup before it reaches his patrons.

The sixth place winner in the 2011 World Latte Art Championship, Thitiprasert flies to Singapore to select his coffee beans and offers up to eight blends from every corner of the globe. His menu is designed to educate, explaining the regional differences in coffee, including grade, processing and roasting techniques. “I got people hooked on flat whites [an Australian take on a latte],” said Thitiprasert rather proudly. “Most locals didn’t even know what a flat white was until I introduced it to them.”

Thitiprasert uses a stir-shake-blend-build strategy to prepare the Shaken Irish Coffee, a combination of Jameson whiskey, Kahlua, and Colombian coffee, served in a tall glass over ice. His after sunset menu also features a Shaken Ristr8tini, possibly the world’s first coffee cocktail to contain the number eight.