Located 100 steps north of the Plaza (the old French colonial downtown), in a cute quiet street, you might hear some water falling down. It's the small waterfall inside Lin's cafe, with a few carps swimming there. Lin prepares healthy drinks, tasty Lao coffee, western (baguette, omelette and so on) and local food. The drinks and foods are prepared with love and care, in a setting that is comfortable to Western visitors.
What makes this place so interesting are the numerous extra services that Lin offers. Lin, who speaks English well, and who's connected to the local tourist centre, offers good guidance and tips for your stay in Savannakhet. While you're eating boiled rice with the most delicious fried mushrooms, you might want to use the free wireless internet service on your laptop. Lao cooking courses can even be followed. Upstairs there is a free comprehensive exhibition about the French colonial buildings in town, which is worthy to inspect! Lin exhibits and sells local handicrafts. There is also a unique bookshelf, with a surprisingly interesting collection of books about Laos.
Favorite Dish: Fried tofu with tomato and rice was delicious, as I am a vegetarian. Fried mushroom was so nicely fried... I should go again tomorrow.
The coffee is very good. Lin understands the importance of the right amount of milk and sugar, and won't mix it for you. She offers milk and sugar separately, something quite unique in Savannakhet!
Tourist guidebooks about Laos usually don't give much hope to the vegetarian people among us. Laos people are often presented as people who eat sticky rice, noodles, chillies, fish, chicken, eggs and frogs. And yes, most restaurants in Savannakhet town don't serve much vegetables. Sometimes you get some slides of cucumber or tiny carrot strips.
But at this restaurant everything is different. And why not? With plenty of organic farms on the outskirts of this town at one hand, and vegetarian influences from Thailand at the other hand, it might even be considered strange to see that this is the only entirely Vegetarian Food restaurant in Savannakhet.
Most people who take away from this restaurant are local Laotian people. Many foreigners who pass by will take a seat in the restaurant, where no alcohol is served. But Bavaria 0,0%, imported from Holland, is available. Why no meat, why no alcohol? One of the reasons might be genuine Buddhist practice. The lady owner and her husband are convinced and virtuous Buddhists, you probably won't find many like them in town.
The staff (mostly female) is sincere and very friendly. Some of them speak English well. Every time you go here you can observe and enjoy a real team spirit. The amount of customers is high, so that's making them working with a high pace as well. These people are happy to refrain from serving meat and eggs, but serve different kinds of rice, noodles, excellent noodle soups, tomato and vegetables soups, many kinds of tofu and mushrooms, fresh seasonal vegetables, baguette with pate, and the most nutritious and concentrated fruit and vegetable juices.
Although the Western foreigners I met here left very satisfied, the owners don't intend to do anything to attract more of them, except for the big sign in the front of the shop: "Vegetarian Food". It is meant to remain a traditional Lao restaurant. There is no menu card. Your looks, smells and tastes make menu cards unnecessary.
During these ten days (first part of October 2010) it is a kind of Vegetarian 10-days, a tradition adopted from the Chinese culture. It means this restaurant made big preparations (such as hiring extra staff) to serve the overload of customers. The majority of the customers might not be vegetarian. But middle class people in urban Laos start to understand the benefit of eating vegetables and tofu. A civilized way to get the right vitamins and proteins. Hanarhanj is not only for vegetarians!
Favorite Dish: I recommend not to skip any soup (5.000 kip), and compile your own lunch from the noodles and curries they offer (between 10.000 and 20.000 kip). Delicious are their different kinds of tofu, and I noticed that Westerners with whom I shared my meals, really enjoyed the fried dried mushrooms. Not everything is available all the time.
They put several organic tomatoes, carrots, apples etc. into the blender, to create a pure fruit juice for 10.000 kip.
Whilst a restaurant should always stand or fall principally on the merits of it's food, the dining experience is always better if you know it is in a good cause. The condoms and cabbages chain in Thailand is a good example. If that sounds like an odd name for a restaurant, look it up on the net. Cafe Anakot is much in the same vein, anakot apparently being the Lao word for future, which is completely apt here. A proportion of the profits from this Japanese / Lao joint venture goes to a charity which gives vocational training to young women to allow them to support themselves by applying the traditional weaving skills they have learned. It really works on every level, a gtraditional skill is kept alive and young women gain financial independence in a country where opportunity is often limited for them. There are some samples of the work for sale and a small book exchange to boost the coffers.
I mentioned that any restaurant should be judged on it's food, and this one certainly is not wanting. In the morning the restaurant offers the usual breakfast fare of eggs, baguettes, hot drinks etc. and they also make their own yoghurt daily on the premises which you can have either with locally produced organic honey or made into a smoothie. Of the hot drink selection I recommend the honey and fresh ginger, very refreshing.
After 11a.m. however, the menu takes on a completely different twist. Probably no surprise given the management of the place, but they offer a good selection of Japanese food, including a full range of sushi. One early evening I ate there and opted for the set meal of Japanese style pork, served with rice and various accompaniments. The food was particularly good, even if I cannot now remember the Japanese name for the dish I ate. I have pictured it so you know what to look for on the menu.
Service is quick and friendly, and it really is a great place for a meal. I really cannot understand why it seems to be almost permanently deserted. I hghly recommend you visit and attempt to rectify that situation, you will not be disappointed.
Open 0830 - 2100, closed Mondays and last food orders at 2030.
Favorite Dish: The Japanese etyle pork as described in the main text.
This place seems to be one of the most popular in town in the evenings, predominantly patronised by local people but with a good smattering of tourists. It is, in a typically Lao way, a conglomeration of bar, restaurant, karaoke venue, disco and meeting place. Whilst deciding what category to put it in, I decided on restaurant as the food I had the one time I ate there was very, very good. I had a whole fried Mekong fish with garlic and pepper served with salad and chips (French fries). It really was a complete meal in itself and no need for side dishes (see photo). I am always a little apprehensive fried food will be greasy but it was beutifully crisp and dry and the fish itself was remarkably free of bones, another plus.
Service is pretty good by local standards, and they normally have a couple of the Beer Lao "beergirls" to make sure your glass is constantly charged. To be a nation so totally in love with their national brew, I got the impression that the average Lao does not have much of a capacity for it and the younger ones seem to get completely drunk on just a few glasses. Never obnoxiously drunk, in fact quite the reverse, they become even more friendly than in sobriety, if that is possible. Thus encouraged, or should I say Dutch couraged, is probably the reason things start to go downhill a little.
As long as the bar is open, there will be a constant diet of (mostly Thai) pop videos on the projected screen. If you have never seen Thai pop videos, they are wonderful, almost without exception melodramas that would have done a Victorian novelist proud. The current favourite seems to be the one (played at least four times nightly) where one girl slaps another girl and she falls off a bridge to her doom. My personal favourite is where the young guy tearfully has to sell his beloved scooter to pay for his mother's hospital fees. You get the idea. Actually, I am beginning to quite lke them in an odd sort of way.
The problem occurs when the karaoke microphone is produced. Perhaps my ear is just not attuned to the nuances of Asian pop but it nearly alway ranges from the simply bad to the aurally painful. Encouraged by their equally enthusiastic friends, youn Laos of both genders will proceed to be to musical ability what an international prop forward is to ballet dancing.
Don't, however, let this put you off going, it can be quite amusing. If you do go here, don't leave it too late, the kitchen closes at 10, although the bar stays open later. If you are wondering about the name, it is because the restaurant is attached to the cinvenience store of the same name next door. Although obviously not officially franchised, it is a clear attempt to cash in on the 7-11 brand's popularity in nearby Thailand.
Favorite Dish: The whole fried fish as described above.
Firstly, let me say this place is not difficult to find. It is, I can say with absolute certainty, the only restaurant in Savannakhet to feature a six foot tall penguin outside! This completely incongruous beast stand guard over what is one of the more upmarket places in town, and very pleasant it is too. Everything about it is one step up from the usual places, excellent as many of them are. The ambience is excellent with decent furniture, good place settings, efficient and friendly service (the former somewhat at a premium in Lao) all create a favourable impression at first sight. There is also a mouthwatering selection of pastries on display.
Whilst the range of Southeast Asian standards is offered, they really specialise in European food ehich, on the basis of my one visit, they do rather well. As well as the usual pizzas and pasta, they do a range of speciality steaks, escalopes and the like. In the heat of the day, I only wanted a snack and opted for the cheese and ham crepe, which was served with a small side salad and an excellent vinaigrette.
The place seems to be frequented predominantly by Westerners although I did notice one table of Thai / Lao businessmen.
Whilst certainly a little more expensive than most other places around, it is still very inexpensive by Western standards and worth it for an occasional treat if you are on a budget.
Favorite Dish: I only had the crepe as described in the main text, and it was excellent.
I have no doubt the lady who runs this place is not called Natalie, and I have no idea where the name comes from but it is of little import. What matters is that it is a homely place for a meal, with superbly friendly staff and excellent food, both Western and local. It is sort of like going to your favourite Aunt's for a bite to eat. It is a small place, there are only about 12 covers and seems to be frequented exclusively by travellers, which makes it a good place to swap gossip. I met a few interesting people here.
I had a couple of excellent breakfasts here and of the Lao /Thai offerings the spicy beef was particularly good. After the usual pantomime of explaining that I can eat hot food, it was served exactly as I wanted i.e. hot, extremely hot. I think that the default position here is not to make the food too spicy, so you have to make the effort to get it hot. Just say, "Pet OK (phonetic)", and you should be OK.
Favorite Dish: The (very) spicy beef as described above.
Set in partly in a garden as the name suggests and in the open air under cover. This is a popular place especially with the local people. The food has a big Thai influence and tastes really good. Service is with a smile. Cold beer and good food. Occasional live music and the odd Karoke singer. 10,000 to 30,000 kip for a main dish.
Favorite Dish: We didn't have a bad dish.
Mmmmmm good. You get to eat right on the river. Sticky rice is just good with anything...
Favorite Dish: Sticky rice and deep fried fish. Yummy. And for you spicy food lovers my wife recommends the Papaya Salad (careful it is Laotian spicy which means ouch!!!)