Thailand has several restaurants whose settings imbue their food with grandeur. Nowhere is this spectacle more evident than at Cafe de Norasingha, on the grounds of Bangkok's Phya Thai Palace, once a residence of King Vajiravudh.
History's vivid scents mingle with the tantalising aromas of coffee and basic home cooking at the café, within the Phra Mongkutklao Hospital compound.
Under the gaze of a statue of Rama VI, the cafe sits directly in front of the main palace building, the Phiman Chakri Hall, on the spot where the king parked his car. There used to be a hall there reserved for people waiting for an audience with the king.
Enclosed behind Victorian-style carved wooden doors, the cafe occupies a neo-classical structure of fine pedigree. The room is awash with French windows, high frescoed ceilings, leather chesterfields, elegant chandeliers and Art Deco dining chairs.
Built in 1909, the Phya Thai Palace was originally a laboratory for King Chulalongkorn's agricultural experiments. His son, Rama VI, surrounded it with five throne halls of Western architecture and lived in it for six years, departing on October 1925, a month before he died.
As upkeep was costly, the site was eventually turned into a hotel by Prince Kamphaeng Phet in 1926, during the reign of Rama VII. The Phya Thai Palace Hotel was considered the most luxurious hotel in Southeast Asia during its heyday. The suites had bathrooms complete with Jacuzzis, and cost about Bht 120 a night – very expensive at that time!
After serving as a hotel it was then turned into the Royal Thai Army's medical division. That evolved into Phra Mongkutklao Hospital in 1952. The hospital moved to an adjacent site in 1969, and 10 years later the palace was designated a National Heritage site.
The Cafe de Norasingha is a revival of the Norasingha Cafe that operated in Rama VI's day in Sanam Suea Pa near the Royal Plaza. Dubbed the first "European cafe" in Bangkok, it was popular among local aristocrats and foreigners. The cafe opened in 2003 but closed just two years later for restoration. It was finally reopened in 2010, under the administration of the Palace Fan Club.
The house speciality is an iced coffee (Bht 45) in a tall glass with alternating layers of syrup, milk and coffee. Otherwise try a café latte (Bht 40), fruit juice (35) iced lemon tea (Bht 40) or cocoa (Bht 40).
Its predecessor served dishes based on royal recipes, and the club's members maintain that aristocratic tradition with homemade marvels like steamed rice with roasted pork in gravy. There is also spaghetti (Bht 150), pot pie (Bht 70), sandwich (Bht 35), salad (Bht 45), blueberry waffle (Bht 95) and apple crumble (Bht 85), just to name a few, on the menu.
· The Cafe is located on Rajvithee Road inside the compound of Phra Mongkutklao Hospital
· Open weekdays from 8:00 am - 7:00 pm and on weekends from 10:30 am - 7:00 pm.
· Book a table at 023-548-376.
· The Palace Fan Club conducts two-hour tours of the Phya Thai Palace every Saturday and Sunday beginning at 9:30 am and at 1:30 pm. It's free but donations are welcome.