I first arrived in Chiang Mai in May of 1992. I came to visit a high school buddy who had married a local – a professor at Chiang Mai University. They introduced me to the local cuisine and to their friends and family members who took me under their collective wing. 

I was hooked. I returned every year until I opened the first Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, Oregon in 2005. In the following years I opened and closed a couple dozen restaurants, wrote a few cookbooks and traveled the world evangelizing the food culture of Thailand – especially that of Chiang Mai and its surrounding countryside.

In the last 30 years, a lot has changed in the land of Lanna, but one thing has remained constant... Chiang Mai is one of the great eating destinations of the world.

Food and interior shot from Phantom cafe in Chiang Mai
Traditional breakfast includes rice porridge at the family-run Phatom © Andy Ricker / Lonely Planet


In Thailand, breakfast foods are often the same as lunch or dinner foods, so it pays to set aside notions of pancakes and scrambled eggs in the morning. My favorite spot for morning respite is the decades-old family-run Phatom, which specializes in rice porridge served with an array of Chinese/Thai dishes like jap chai (fried sweet Chinese sausage and braised tofu). Laap Dii Khom Khon Yong, just off the first ring road, serves some of the best Northern Thai laap. You can’t go wrong with laap muu suk (the cooked pork version) and dishes like jaw phak kat (greens soup), kaeng awm (beef shin stew) and grilled pork. This is where a local might take you! If you really must have a Western brekky, there’s The Larder.

Man serving coffee at Flo in Chiang Mai
L: Akha Ama is best for an espresso © Andy Ricker / R: Flo serves exceptional brews in an historic shophouse © courtesy of Flo


Thailand has become a hotbed of specialty coffee, and Chiang Mai is the de facto capital of this movement with hundreds of cafes serving locally grown and roasted beans. My go-to is Akha Ama in the center of the old town where highly trained baristas crank out the best espresso drinks in the city, made with direct trade coffee from the Akha people of Chiang Rai province. A little outside the core of the city is the local hip favorite Flo, housed in a 100+ year old wooden shophouse. 


In the heart of the old city is Yok Fa Pochana, where the tastiest plate of phat si ew (stir fry noodles) in town is made in a giant wok over a roaring fire to a formula unchanged in 50 years. Worth finding is Naam Ngiao Phayao, where little English is spoken but the friendly older couple who run it will make you feel at home. The eponymous dish is what you’re after: fresh rice vermicelli in a brothy, sour, umami-rich curry/soup with pork ribs, soft blood tofu and the dried pistil of the dawk ngiaw (red cotton tree flower). This is a crucial dish of the region, and theirs is one of the best in the area.

Khao Soi Prince serves an exemplary bowl of what is now considered the signature dish of Chiang Mai, khao soi (egg noodle soup in a curry broth). This involves a 20km drive out to Maejo University area, but it is worth the journey! The Muslim owner is the third (and last) generation cook, still making his own noodles by hand and preserving a family recipe that goes back more than four decades. Order the khao soi neua (noodles in curry with beef), or as a kicker try the phat sen khao soi (stir fried egg noodles) also with beef! 


Located in the heart of tourist mayhem on Moonmuang Rd across from the moat, Kafe 1985 is a casual old school pub where backpackers, expats, locals, refugees and in-the-know food heads gather at sundown for cold beers, people watching and killer drinking snacks like neua daet diaw (sun-dried beef “jerky”) and the platonic ideal of naem sii khrong muu (sour rice cured pork ribs), which are fried and served with fresh chilis, ginger and peanuts. A little more upmarket, the rooftop bar at the riverside Anantara has a happy hour menu and offers a sunset view of the Ping River. 

Images of dinner dishes, curry and grilled fish, from restaurants in Chiang Mai
L: The delectable curry at Rasik Local Kitchen / R: Sustainably caught fish served by Maadae Slow Fish Kitchen © Andy Ricker


The best meals to be had in Chiang Mai are probably during lunchtime, but some gems can be found in the evening; just plan on dining before 9pm. Probably the best new school restaurant in the city is reservation-mandatory Maadae Slow Fish Kitchen, where the cooks dish up sustainably caught seafood and local produce using traditional Thai flavors and techniques. Don’t sleep on the dessert of naturally harvested sago pearls in coconut cream. Rasik Local Kitchen has a similar vibe and is one of the top tables in town. The curries here are especially tasty!

Mitmai is an easy walk-in option with a huge menu of Yunnanese dishes. Order anything with Yunnan ham and be sure to pick the cucumber salad with pork chin! A 25-minute drive north gets you to Kong Kham, a Northern Thai restaurant where the cooking is solid and the prices are downright economical. Laap plaa piak (“wet” fish laap), saa phak ruam (a unique northern Thai dish involving hand-crushed raw vegetables, sour herbs, tomatoes and cooked fish) and the crowd-pleaser kaeng hang leh (Burmese pork belly curry) are all must-haves. 

Interiors of Bar San in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Soak up the speakeasy vibes of the upstairs room at bar San in the Night Bazaar © Andy Ricker


Maybe I’m getting old, but these days I want a chill spot for a well-made cocktail with some jazz playing in the background. San in the Night Bazaar area provides exactly such an environment. Head up to the semi-secret wood-paneled room on the second floor, where a bell on the wall summons a server who will bring you a perfect daiquiri, a glass of Japanese whisky or a glass of wine. A small menu of izakaya dishes is available if you are feeling peckish. During peak season (November to February) you may want to call ahead to reserve a table upstairs. For a true speakeasy vibe, find The White Rabbit up a flight of sketchy-looking steps in an old shophouse near Chang Phuak gate. This dark, cozy bar pours imaginative cocktails using Thai ingredients and international boozes. It’s a bit hard to find, so ask a local if you are lost. Have fun out there.

Here is more expert advice to help you plan your trip to Chiang Mai:

Save these top experiences for when you're ready to build an itinerary.
Read up on what you need to know before you go.
Find the best time to visit for fewer visitors or better weather.
Navigate like a local with these tips for getting around.
Give your wallet a break with these free things to do in Chiang Mai.

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