There’s an evolution going on in West Lake. Since the beginning of this year, pounding hammers, bricklayers and men with buckets of fresh paint have been transforming a section of this suburban neighbourhood. Not frenetic Xuan Dieu, but the recently renamed Quang An — it used to be simply Ngo 27, Xuan Dieu. The sleepy waterside strip long helmed by Don’s Bistro is suddenly turning into a food and beverage hotspot. Starting at The Warehouse on the corner of Xuan Dieu, which opened in September 2013, and winding up past Don’s, this short stretch has welcomed five new venues since Tet: R&R Waterfront, Sushi Club, India Palace, The Republic and Al Fresco’s.
Why have these establishments veered off Xuan Dieu’s well-beaten path? Ask any of the proprietors and they’ll give you the same answer: too congested, rising rents, and a widening of the road at the top end have stalled opportunities for growth along the busy West Lake artery. Query them about Quang An’s strongest points and they’ll come back with the view, parking, walkability and room to expand. Plus, they’re hoping the cluster of international cuisine will generate return business from curious clients who want to try something new.
Lakeside pioneer Don Berger, owner of Don’s Bistro, has been in his Quang An location for six years. “When I first moved into the neighbourhood to live 15 years ago there were no restaurants. The road along the lake wasn’t finished. They worked on it for five years and expropriated the backyards of residential homes. Since then the buildings along this road have gone through a lot of renovation.”
Is he worried about all the competition moving in? “Each of these restaurants has its own niche,” Don says. “My clientele is expats and Vietnamese. I offer casual comfort and fine dining. I may lose a bit of market share to cheaper restaurants that attract different clients.”
Looking at the big picture, Berger welcomes the strip’s transformation. “More restaurants are going to make it more attractive to come here,” he says. “Maybe one day it can become Hanoi’s Lan Kwai Fong” — a reference to the neglected Hong Kong strip that morphed into an entertainment mecca in the 1980s through the efforts of Canadian developer Allan Zeman.
The New Guys
One of his new neighbours, Al Fresco’s, serves up its well-known formula of international comfort fare on a delightful terrace that lives up to the chain’s name. At the other end of the strip next to The Warehouse, Peter Mitchell, an Australian IT specialist and restaurateur has transformed the unsuccessful Senso’s into a sister restobar of his R&R Tavern on Nghi Tam. The casual street-side patio and air-conditioned interior entice passers by with R&R’s signature Tex-Mex menu, plus a few upscale items such as salmon and steak.
The restaurant also has a flexible beverage list, one of the perks of having hospitable neighbours. “We don’t have to invest in inventory, we just go next door and get what a customer wants,” says Mitchell.
A couple of doors down, The Republic opened its doors in early September. The brainchild of Chris Vella, an Australian who worked in food and beverage for the Al Fresco Group for six years, The Republic is a healthier type of sports pub, with an indoor smoking ban. The upper and lower outdoor decks, however, are loaded with ashtrays for clients attached to their vices.
“There was a need for a good sports bar and gastropub in the area,” Chris says. “Lots of people like sports but they don’t necessarily want to be sitting in the smoke that usually comes along with sports pubs.” The Republic, which holds a little more than 100 people, boasts five TVs in the main bar with a projector beaming games onto a wall outside for those sitting on the deck. “We make sure we cover all the big events and split the TVs into groups around the room.”
The pub grub, he hopes, will draw customers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Throughout the day the kitchen produces mezze-style small plates, six types of burgers (from Waygu beef to vegetarian), steaks and specials including fish, chicken and pasta. “We keep it fresh and simple,” Chris says, adding, “I hope we can contribute to an improved food and beverage culture here in Hanoi. Right now I can count on one hand the number of places you can go and drink and relax with good quality food and service.”
The Republic is open 7am to midnight seven days a week, and is offering promotions such as Ladies’ Cocktail Nights, Sunday Roasts and Breakfast & Bubbles — brunch with sparkling wine. Soon DJs and musicians will be added to the offering. On their opening night they brought in well-known Hanoi-based band, The Yard Dogs.
Between The Republic and R&R Waterfront, India Palace took up residence a few months ago and is counting on its food and location to attract customers. “We were on Xuan Dieu for nine years and closed in 2012 to focus on a new restaurant, Asia House, in the city centre,” explains owner Ravi Kumar. Asia House — which offered a fusion of Indian and Vietnamese — didn’t fly, according to Ravi, because it wasn’t ‘authentic’ enough. “Traditional Vietnamese dishes feature pork and beef and we didn’t have that.” Tandoor, a very successful Indian restaurant that’s been operating in the city centre since 1996, is also part of the same empire.
“Our new India Palace location on Quang An is smaller than we used to have on Xuan Dieu, but it has a much nicer view,” says Ravi. And visibility isn’t an issue — they’re relying on word of mouth from the Indian community to build up the restaurant’s business. “They love the food here,” he says — from a menu offering southern Indian non-vegetarian dishes through to the full range of north Indian fare.
This autumn they’ll introduce a buffet special, as well as Indian High Tea on weekends. Ravi is enthusiastic about the area’s potential. “People who live here don’t want to go into the city centre for a night out. It takes too much travel time and the traffic is bad. Here they get decent food and there is a spectacular view. Diners can feel calm as they sit beside the lake and forget their worries.”
Any downsides to all this new activity? Some critics say it’s too expat-focused. Others say the prices are too high. The proprietors counter, if you’re looking for local Vietnamese street food or a bia hoi, don’t come to West Lake.
“With such a mix of international restaurants opening in the area,” says The Republic’s Chris Vella, “people will want to come out a few times a week to try different places. We can create a new food culture.”