Chiang Mai Cafe Culture
Cafes to drink, cafes to eat, cafes for co-working, cafes for solitude… No matter what your persuasion or current mood, there’s a cafe for everyone in Chiang Mai. In this city, it’s socially acceptable to sit at a table for hours on end and only order one item from the menu. Many eateries offer free wifi, power and water, so a good cafe is an ideal antidote to heat, hunger, and if you’re trying to be productive, procrastination. In Chiang Mai, one particular type of cafe multiplies throughout the Old City and surrounding districts: the aesthetically pleasing kind, where interior design and ambiance are just as important as what’s on the menu. For those of us who like to eat with our eyes and drink in our surroundings, there is no shortage of coffee shops and restaurants to inspire and delight. Here are eight of the most beautiful cafes I’ve found so far in Chiang Mai.
Part cafe, part art gallery and part design store, there’s no doubt whoever manages the Woo empire is one aesthetically inclined individual. Located east of the Ping River on Charoenrat Road (close to Warorot Market), this cafe is one of my favourite interior spaces in all of Chiang Mai. After being greeted at the door by a giant hanging fern, diners can chose from two distinct seating zones: Woo’s light-filled front rooms, or the cloistered dining space out back, made cozy by the addition of dozens of potted plants.
Along the cafe’s front counter, giant glass cloches showcase an excellent array of homemade cakes and brownies alongside a perfectly ad-hoc arrangement of design objects and curios. I can vouch for Woo’s coffee and light lunches; we especially like the Thai-style spaghetti with Isaan sausage and chilli. The earthen table wear is also worth a special mention – if it takes your fancy like it did ours, you can purchase items by the same ceramicist from the shop next door. As far as Chiang Mai cafes go, this one is definitely on the pricier side, but worth a visit if only to ogle at the fit-out.
Rustic and Blue
One of Nimman’s more intimate cafe spaces, Rustic and Blue is housed in a little glass box on popular Soi 7. The space is light, airy and looks out onto an unruly back garden where diners can sit among the trees (the AC here is great, so we always opt for a seat inside.) Farm-style communal dining tables painted in shades of aqua crowd the cafe’s interior, the focal point of which is a white-tiled counter draped in dried herbs and jars of house-blended tea.
What’s really beautiful about Rustic and Blue is the cafe’s locavore philosophy: seasonal produce and artisan foods reign supreme here, as evidenced in the presentation (and taste) of dishes such as soft scrambled eggs with radicchio and cherry tomatoes, and the Dutch baby pancake, served hot in the skillet and heaped with fresh tropical fruit.
Another of Nimman’s trendy cafes, SS1254372 is affixed to one side of Gallery Seescape. The menu offers some fusion dishes plus an all-day breakfast selection, but you don’t need to eat here – or even step inside – to appreciate the design sensibility behind this spacecraft-themed eatery. (Honestly, the only time we’ve sampled the food is when SS1254372 catered for the launch of the Chiang Mai Art Map.) Described by the owners as ‘a food supply vehicle for the exploration of artistic space’, this cafe is certainly an extrovert. Large porthole windows look spectacular in the evening, when the cafe’s interior orange glow spills out onto the street, while mosaic tile tables and colorful folding chairs provide an ideal curbside dining spot.
Loosely themed on a Parisian cafe, Ab’Petite looks a little out of place on the sparsely populated Wiang Bua Road – not that we’re complaining. This is one of the closest cafes to our apartment building and even though we were a little reluctant to try it at first, we’re so glad we did. Coffee and food is priced competitively and Ab’Petite offers a good range of both – including Western cafe favourites such as a generously layered club sandwich. It’s easy to spend hours here at a stretch. The staff are delightful, the wifi is excellent, and the cafe itself has a calm, soothing atmosphere, perfect for concentrating on work or study. With it’s floor-to-ceiling windows and colonial shutters, the front room is nicely juxtaposed by cozier nooks in the cafe’s rear.
ImmAim Vegetarian & Bike Cafe
We’ve come to appreciate ImmAim as something of an oasis in our neighbourhood. The indoors/outdoors cafe occupies a sprawling undercover courtyard, shaded throughout the day by tall trees and faded umbrellas. The decor includes rusted bicycles, terracotta vessels filled with guppies, moss-covered stones and prayer flags. Everything feels alive and vital at ImmAim – just like we always do after devouring a beautifully presented plate of hummus or salad. ImmAim’s healthy smoothies and plant-based dishes provide a much-needed veggie fix here in Chiang Mai, the land of pork and rice.
ImmAim’s healthy food earned the cafe a spot in my ‘Expert Guide to Chiang Mai’! Read the full article here.
Dom Cafe (formerly Local Cafe)
Located inside Think Park, Dom Cafe is an ideal spot for people watching. There are lots of cute decor features dotted throughout the spacious interior – including a miniature version of the giant cat sculpture that is the centrepiece of Think Park. The menu at Local aims to foster a relationship between old and new, contemporary and traditional, and we particularly enjoy the set dishes that fuse Japanese and Thai flavours into wondrous concoctions like tempura Isaan sausage. The menu, which is more of a magazine and free to take home, is a thing of beauty itself. Flick to the back page and you’ll find an illustrated map of the local area, its landmarks and recommended eateries.
There’s a rule in Thailand that says you should always choose a busy restaurant to avoid eating bad food. Well, the same doesn’t apply to cafes. One Place (no website) can be accessed from within our apartment complex, so it was naturally one of the first coffee shops we tried after arriving here. The shop keeps odd hours (it seems to open mid-afternoon most days), and we’ve only ever seen one other person inside. This isn’t a bad omen, however – the coffee here is good quality, and the cafe itself is cool and quiet. It’s a comfortable place to sit, I especially love the embroidered cushions and brushed concrete floors, although the tables are low and the cafe is better suited to chatting than tapping on a laptop.
Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden
Surely one of the most frequently photographed and blogged-about cafes in Chiang Mai, Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden is a peaceful chill zone located just within the Old City’s walls, close to the Chiang Mai (south) gate. Heavy wooden doors separate the tranquil garden cafe from life outside, and heaving them open is the first signal that you’re about to enter into another world. The cafe proper is housed in a greenhouse, and this is where you can order matcha lattes, iced coffees and light meals including mango sticky rice and muesli with fresh fruit. But the real highlight of Coffee in the Garden is, of course, the outdoor area. Tables here are nestled among life-size statues and macabre piles of crumbling clay heads and limbs. No visit is complete without a poke through the figures on display – I guarantee you’ll find something new every time. The cafe actually doubles as a sculpture gallery: everything is handmade by renowned sculpture house Ban Phor Liang and available to purchase.
Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of beautiful cafes – too many to count, and far too many to photograph! I’m looking forward to trying more of them over the next few months. What is your favourite cafe in Chiang Mai?