In an extended edition of our insightful insider guide to the best places to eat and drink in Saigon, there’s a legend relocating, there’s two brilliant new omakase restaurants vying for attention from across the river, there’s a cocktail den aging wonderfully, a clubhouse for the denizens of Thao Dien, a bar for lost birds and much more.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
The pull of this city is just too much. With the pandemic firmly in the rear-view mirror, lots of locals who made a life overseas have returned to start fledgling businesses, like Hoa Do at White Noise Café & Wine Bar and Culinary Frank and wife Jenny Pham at Society. They’re adding to the richness of the eating and drinking scene in Saigon, and so are places like Ủ Bar, which cleverly integrates old and new in its scintillating but secretive upstairs space in District 1’s hip Tan Dinh Ward. And the options for Japanese cuisine continue to expand. But there’s lots more besides all that. Here’s our joyful joyride through the best new bars, cafes and restaurants in Saigon. Dig in below.
The two models in the photo in the Gucci store window pout admonishingly down 200-meter long Nguyen Thiep Street and beyond to the bright lights of Nguyen Hue Walking Street. That’s because this prime location, populated by run-down tourist restaurants and tatty souvenir stores, always deserved some premium places to eat. And Shin-kon, with its eye-catching wooden slatted frontage, and sophisticated signage, is kick-starting the gentrification (although nearby Dot Bar and Shin Coffee may have claim to the same).
Inside, a riot of cranes clamor and collide across the mural on the gold wall behind the counter. And Chef Linh serves classic but opulent omakase, starting at 2.3M for their Kyoto Set, full of rich details. The mackerel comes carefully smoked in a cloche. The akami arrives with a crown of caviar. And the uni sushi is so stacked with sea urchin it looks set to topple over. Alongside that, the Shin-kon team serve (and import) Japanese wines, like their dry, white, umami-tinged Chateau Mercian Koshu from Yamanashi. Kanpai!
Location: 15 Nguyen Thiep, District 1
In Short: Classy omakase in downtown Saigon.
It’s a delicate balancing act: the playful preservation of culture. Fermentation is an act of preservation too; one that goes back thousands of years. At Ủ Bar – ‘Ủ’ meaning to ferment or to age – they wrestle with all these things. There’s the nostalgic golden glow of the bar in this dark, minimal upstairs space, and the music that segues from dub to nhạc vàng to Ngọt in the space of three songs, and the ao dai uniforms of the staff, that are as trendy and as traditional as the art of fermentation itself.
As you meditate upon all of this at the counter, or the tables in the center or on the sofas at the back, the drinks arrive. There’s a Cacao Negroni where usually subdued cacao notes ring out, and a Mã Nhật Tân, Ủ Bar’s take on a Manhattan with Eau de Vie, Frangelico, rye and raisin (and that’s just on the ‘strong & bitter’ menu – there’s ‘sours’, and ‘umami’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘sweet & creamy’ sections too). And the food has the same kind of next-level nostalgia, like Ủ Bar’s pho-accented beef tataki served with a grilled rice cracker in what is a modern cocktail bar with a very Vietnamese soul.
Location: 1st Floor, 50A Dang Dung, District 1
In Short: This hip Tan Dinh cocktail den is aging beautifully.
With its constant traffic of dog walkers and baby strollers, Thao Dien feels like an endless weekend. Now, WKND has opened as the area’s unofficial clubhouse.
‘WKND: It Never Ends’ the menu proudly confirms. And, as with Jay and team’s previous venues — Layla and Summer Experiment — WKND is fun and carefree especially in the shaded garden out back with its bowing bougainvillea and convivial curves of seating.
Then, there’s the fold out menu full of kitschy cartoons and offerings that go from a Seabass Pastrami Bagel to a Pulled Duck Tortilla in the flip of a page. There are big shared plates of roast chicken and stuffed squid, kombuchas, cold brews, and boosters, and lots of affordably priced craft beer — like Belgo’s ‘Wit’ and MixTape’s ‘Peaches & Cream.’ For cocktails, there are old school picks like Pimm’s No.1 and Margaritas, and a ‘Ginspirations’ GnT menu. And there are glasses of Belstar Prosecco for 120K a glass during the midweek happy hour (4-8pm). And why not? It’s the weekend after all…even on a Wednesday.
Location: 27 Tong Huu Dinh, Thao Dien, District 2
In Short: Thao Dien’s unofficial clubhouse is now open.
Lost Birds Bar
From across the street, the neon lights of a Family Mart are the only thing puncturing the dreamy, nocturnal atmosphere at Lost Birds Bar. That’s because Lost Birds Bar evokes the grimey grandeur of a Berlin dive bar. There are dilapidated concrete pillars and exposed brickwork. Above them hang Lost Birds Bar’s ornate chandeliers as if the whole place was stripped clean, only the removal guys forgot the ladder.
And rather than a back bar stacked with spirits, here they line the perimeter of the rectangular bar station that hogs the center of the room. The bartenders pluck one here and there to make their cocktails, before placing them carefully back. And so do inquisitive guests twisting a bottle of armagnac or absinthe around admiringly. Bartenders, the team tells us, hop around, from bar to bar, like lost birds, and this is a congregation place for them, and for anyone who wants to disappear for an hour or two from the glare of Thao Dien.
Location: 24A Xuan Thuy, District 1
In Short: A nocturnal nest for the night owls.
Refined Coffeeshop & Cocktail Bar
The 14 Ton That Dam building, one of the most famous former French apartment buildings thanks to its eclectic residents – ramshackle coffee shops, private lounges, Airbnbs, and speakeasy cocktail bars that opened right beside the building’s resident’s run-down apartments. Across the street, against the brutalist concrete wall of the bank building, kids pout and pose for Instagram. But now, inside, with a prime view of all the posturing from its balcony on the second floor is Refined Coffeeshop & Cocktail Bar, the brainchild of the serial entrepreneur and visual creator, Luffy.
There’s lots of soothing wood surfaces, softly-lit interiors, and old-school design elements which are a warm reminder of dynamic Saigon’s former claim to be ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Although it’s a welcoming place for a coffee during the day, Refined Coffeeshop & Cocktail Bar really comes into its own after dark, thanks to its cocktail menu created by some of the city’s best mixologists, served by bartenders savvy enough to serve you something bespoke, if you prefer.
Location: 14 Ton That Dam, District 1
In Short: Refinement by day or after dark, overlooking the brutalist bank building.
Full disclosure: The First isn’t new. Quite the opposite. Its near-mythical status as one of Saigon’s go-to cocktail bars before there were cocktail bars and its refusal to budge from its weathered location on Huynh Thuc Khang means The First and its founder, Hajime Tadano, deserve all the love they get. Especially now that last fact isn’t true anymore. The First has relocated.
And that’s our excuse for sliding it into this list, as the beloved cocktail bar slides into Japan Town, just inside the entrance from Thai Van Lung, where it already looks at home. Perhaps that’s because they’ve transferred the fish tank in the window over, and the wooden counter that, if counters could talk, could go on all night about the goings ons at the first The First. And if Hajime’s on-point Martini’s aren’t satisfying enough, he also claims (with some justification) to make the best curry rice in the city.
Location: 8A7B2 Thai Van Lung, District 1
In Short: A Japan Town ‘homecoming’ for Hajime Tadano and The First.
Society Cafe & Dining
Pham The Phuong, also known as Frank Pham, is not only a professional chef but also a famous Vietnamese-Australian YouTuber. His Youtube channel Culinary Frank has amassed more than 400,000 followers, and nearly 30 million views.
Last December, Frank and his wife Jenny Pham returned to Saigon (their hometown) from Australia after the longing to return grew to be too much. And now, they’ve opened Society Cafe & Dining in the 26 Ly Tu Trong Building, inspired by the coffee shops they fell in love with in Melbourne, and with dishes, not surprisingly, that wouldn’t look out of place on Culinary Frank’s culinary channel.
Location: 42 Ly Tu Trong, District 1
In Short: Culinary Frank brings his dishes to life at Society Cafe & Dining.
As Thao Dien’s Xuan Thuy gets overrun with bars and restaurants, fun projects keep popping up on nearby side streets. Ngo Quang Huy is a good example. Beside industry originals like La Villa, there’s hip bar-restaurants like Kanpai, and coffee shops like the District 2 branch of Luia. And, a few doors down, there’s the new omakase spot, Noriboi. Its name ‘nori’, means seaweed. And even the restaurant, with its u-shaped facade, looks like a piece of hand roll.
Inside there’s a sake bar and a horseshoe-shaped omakase counter. And upstairs there’s an outside terrace for romantic al fresco sushi dates. Lots of the spaces are divided by glass, allowing passersby to see inside, and for diners to admire the bonsai garden enclosed in the glass staircase. With such funky design features, you might guess the sushi coming across the counter would be all creative concoctions.
“The omakase scene has long been dominated by edomae-style sushi, where the fish’s natural flavor plays a prominent role. Each bite is minimally seasoned with condiments like wasabi, ponzu, and soy sauce. However, since Vietnamese customers are accustomed to more flavorful cuisine, this is where sosaku-style or creative sushi with non-Japanese ingredients like foie gras and caviar. At Noriboi, we’re somewhere in the middle,” the team tells us.
But they chef isn’t limited to fish. There’s also a Japanese wagyu omakase experience. “And be sure to try the Premium Bafun Uni Hand Roll with the Head Chef’s ‘magic sauce,’ and Ogawa Bafun Uni imported from Japan that’s a smaller and more densely flavored sea urchin,” the Noriboi team add finally about the melt in the mouth, umami hand roll.
Location: 35 Ngo Quang Huy, Thao Dien, District 2
In Short: Classic meets creative omakase in Soko Group’s new fun house.
White Noise Café & Wine Bar
White Noise Café & Wine Bar is like a funky two-floor furniture showroom – a mini, modernist Ikea where they swapped the meatballs for natural wine, katsu sandos and Korean-style fried chicken. And it’s all modestly hidden on the first floor, in a building down an alley beneath the Calmette Bridge.
For now, chef-owner Hoa Do is serving up bottles like their La Calmette Serpent à Plumes, a remarkably light and fruity French Malbec that, by accident, has the same name as the street White Noise Wine Bar is on. And theres an Anne Sophie Dubois Fleurie ‘Les Labourons’ – a bouncy natural beaujolais with a label Anne drew herself. And with them, small, delicious plates of food inspired by his time in Australia at restaurants like Melbourne’s Attica.
Location: Floor 1, 41/3 Calmette Street, District 1
In Short: Come on feel the noise.
We’ve often reported on the buzz around Pham Viet Chanh. Now, Symposium Bar is adding to it. A symposium is a conference or a meeting to discuss a topic.
Here, co-owner, Phạm Thuy Nhu Quynh, who opened Symposium Bar with her sister Phạm An, says there’s lots of meetings of conspiratorial couples at the bar counter downstairs, and groups in the upstairs lounge popping bottles of Luc Belaire to celebrate special occasions until late into the night. To spur more discussion, there’s classics like their Espresso Martini, and signature cocktails like their Cinnamon Sour.
Location: 85/5A Pham Viet Chanh, Binh Thanh
In Short: An inebriating meeting place on Pham Viet Chanh.
Tavolo dello Chef
Tavolo dello Chef is the kind of neighborhood place Thao Dien does so well. Tavolo is tucked happily beside Have A Sip, in the foodie alley at 28 Thao Dien. And here, Sardinian-born Chef Franco Mannazzu looks rather contented too, hovering between Tavolo dello Chef’s open kitchen and front of house, checking in with guests, just like they would on the Italian island Franco comes from. “Food that tastes good isn’t the only thing my guests are able to experience here,” Franco agrees. “I always make sure that they feel the love, the passion and the hard work in every dish that we serve.”
And, as an island off the coast of Italy, with around 2,000km of coastline, that means lots of the seafood that Sardinia is famous for: Salmone Alla Griglia, a perfectly crispy salmon dish with Italian herbs and spices and a homemade fresh squid ink tagliolini, as well as staples like pizzas and their signature Tavolo caprese salad.
Location: 28 Thao Dien Street, Thao Dien, District 2
In Short: Sardinian seafood and an island welcome.
Phileas Fogg would have approved of The Arth’s period details, like the grand art deco back bar, the skylight for stargazing, and the large railway station clock on the other wall.
The Arth, which is adding to the up-and-coming Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, serves up live music, like soothing saxophone, and the kind of classic cocktails befitting of this kind of era-evoking decor.
Location: 1st Floor, 222 Nguyen Cong Tru, District 1
In Short: A cocktail bar Phileas Fogg would have approved of.