I often get emails from people en route to Bangkok asking me to recommend the best places in town to eat. I reply to these when I can, but sometimes the volume of mail can get overwhelming, so back in 2006 I put together a blog post to address this problem. I recently stumbled upon the post, which by now is somewhat out of date, and thought it was high time to provide an updated version.
Again, this isn't a definitive list of Bangkok's best restaurants, but rather a general guide aimed at first-time visitors trying to make sense of the city's food offerings.
If you're fresh off the plane on your first trip to Thailand, I still feel that the best place to dip your toe in the water of Thai food is a mall food court. They're clean and cheap, the menus are written in English, you have a wide range of choices, and actually, the food can be pretty good. My favorite food court is probably the one on the sixth floor of Mah Boon Krong (also known as MBK). There you’ll find most of the Thai standards, a huge variety of Thai-Chinese food, and there's even a stall selling Thai-Muslim food and a good vegetarian stall. The food court in the basement of Siam Paragon is a bit more expensive and mostly Chinese-Thai, but is also a decent and convenient choice. If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, you could also try one of the slightly more downmarket food centres such as the two huge food halls at the end of Silom Soi 10 that serve the area's hungry office staff, or Food Plus, the alleyway between Soi 3 and Soi 4 at Siam Square.
At this point you’ve found a dish or two that you like and are likely at least somewhat familiar with the flavours of Thai food. Assuming you're on vacation, you'll want to hit up at least one upscale Thai restaurant. Unfortunately I haven't actually been to many upscale Thai restaurants in the years since I wrote the first version of this post. The only one I'm really familiar with right now is Bo.lan, which despite having eaten there at least five times, I've yet to blog about (they're open for lunch on weekends now, so I'll get around to it soon). The restaurant is owned and run by two former chefs of David Thompson's London restaurant Nahm, and their dedication to great ingredients and obscure old-school Thai recipes combine to make it a worthwhile investment. Another alternative, although it's upscale in the Thai sense, is the delightfully old-school Sorndaeng.
Once you’ve downed a few plates of food court nosh and have consumed the requisite nice Thai meal, I reckon you’re ready for the next step in Thai dining: a good food neighborhood. In my opinion, this is the highest level of Thai dining, and a good food 'hood will have mix of good stalls, specialist shops and a good all-around restaurant or two. The downsides to this are that you'll need a bit of experience to recognise what's on offer, and language can be a barrier. If you're game for a bit of adventure, one of Bangkok's best is the area around Thanon Tanao:
View Thai Eats in a larger map
a strip of road teeming with legendary Thai eats, including several specialised vendors including my favourite khanom beuang the excellent Paa Thong Ko Sawoey, and a few good all-around restaurants such as Chote Chitr, Poj Spa Kar, Kim Leng and a couple blocks away, Krua Apsorn.
At this point you'll have sampled a cross section of Thai cuisine and you're most likely ready for the final step: Thai street food. These affairs are generally only open at night, are not the cleanest restaurants you’ll ever see, very little English is spoken and are located in inconvenient parts of town. But the food can be outstanding and the experience fun. In this regard, I wholeheartedly endorse Bangkok's Chinatown:
View Thai Eats in a larger map
Simply walk down Thanon Yaowarat, avoid the annoying touts at touristy seafood restaurants, and pay attention as you reach the intersection at Soi 6. There you will find virtually every form of Chinese-influenced Thai street food. In this area I particularly like the egg dishes at Nay Mong, the kuaytiaw khua kai vendor and Nay Uan's kuay jap.