How Phuket transformed itself from party town to dining powerhouse

Christian Barker, contributor
Handcrafted cocktails at Wagyu Steakhouse in Surin Beach.
Courtesy of Wagyu Steakhouse

The image of Phuket as a cut-price destination for backpackers and budget-conscious retirees is long out of date.

Phuket has now become a favorite vacation destination for the world's wealthiest individuals, many of them arriving on super-yachts.

Yachts are becoming a common sight in Phuket.
Asiandelight

It started when the Amanpuri resort opened and spearheaded the island's upmarket transformation. Anthony Lark was the founding general manager at Amanpuri, before setting off in 2004 to create Trisara, one of the poshest resorts on the island.

Over the past 16 years at Trisara, Lark has taken care of a host of bold-faced names — Kate Moss, Roger Federer, Tom Jones, Kylie Minogue, members of U2 and Maroon 5. And he has watched Phuket evolve to cater to a choosier clientele.

"The changing culinary scene has been driven by supply and demand," Lark said. "When I first got here, it was all pad Thai noodles, green curry and grilled fish on the beach. There were a few good Italian restaurants but absolutely no demand for fine dining, so that category simply didn't exist."

Pru's jampa salad, which includes 15 different ingredients grown on the restaurant's farm, is topped with a passion fruit vinaigrette.
Courtesy of Pru

Phuket wasn't on super-yacht owners' radar 20 years ago, said Lark, whereas today, five marinas have been built to cater to them.

"There were maybe a dozen million dollar holiday homes on Phuket," said Lark of the 1980s. "Now, there are 150 villas worth in excess of that sum."

"That's brought a customer with higher, more exacting demands."

Phuket earns its first Michelin star

In 2016, Trisara opened Pru — a restaurant specifically aimed at catering to the tastes of nomadic foodies and wealthy travelers.

An acronym for "plant, raise, understand," Pru is a creative farm-to-table establishment that sources many ingredients from its own 96-hectare organic farm.

Black kingfish, sourced from the Andaman Sea, is paired with organic beetroot sorbet and house-made mulberry vinegar.
Courtesy of Pru

Young chef Jimmy Ophorst, who came to Phuket from the Netherlands nearly eight years ago, was rewarded for his efforts when Pru won a Michelin star — the first to be awarded to a restaurant on Phuket — on the inaugural 2019 Thailand list. Retaining the accolade in 2020, Pru remains the only Michelin-starred restaurant on the island.

"It's unbelievable the impact winning a Michelin star has had on me as a chef, and on this restaurant," Ophorst said.

Duck egg, charred eggplant, locally-sourced abalone and wild herbs.
Courtesy of Pru

"I've never worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant before in my life," he said. "From the moment we won it, the restaurant has been full — many people tell me they've come to the island just to dine with us."

Ophorst said when Pru was opened, a key goal was to make Phuket the second-best dining destination in Thailand, after Bangkok. He said the level of cuisine has grown a lot since Michelin started looking at restaurants on Phuket.

"There are so many good chefs here, I'm sure we can get plenty more stars on the island."

A decade of decadence

Ten years ago, there was little in the way of upscale dining outside the big hotels. Now, there are many independent restaurants doing brisk business.

Sardinian chef Alessandro Frau's modern-Mediterranean Acqua Restaurant is the bookmakers' favorite to be the next Phuket spot to secure a star.

Acqua's smoked Sardinian eel and pickled vegetables in a white balsamic vinegar sauce.
Courtesy of Acqua.

But an array of others is quietly vying for the attention of Phuket's discerning gourmands. For example, Suay Restaurant in the upscale northwest neighborhood of Cherngtalay serves creative, modern Thai.

Suay Restaurant earned a spot in the Michelin Guide 2020.
Courtesy of Suay Restaurant

British-run Bampot specializes in contemporary European cuisine, alongside excellent cocktails. Exquisite Italian is served at the lilliputian (just six tables) La Gaetana. Carnivores are catered for at Twin Palms' new Wagyu Steakhouse — unimaginative name, but unbelievable meat.

High-end southern Thai food at Anise.
Courtesy of Anise

Despite Phuket's increasingly upmarket positioning, it's still possible to enjoy an incredible meal here for a humble sum. Even Lark has deviated from his traditional high-luxury lane to launch a new value-focused restaurant, Anise. Its proposition: simple, beautiful, authentic Thai food served in an elegant space at affordable prices.

"Phuket's culinary scene has now done what Bali did in the 1990s," said Lark. "It's grown up."