1976 Australia’s first genuine Thai restaurant

Well, we have a controversy. I have received a note from Dr Wilbur Hughes, who claims I wrongly identified the Bahn Thai in Melbourne as Australia’s first Thai restaurant. Dr Hughes wrote:

The first Thai restaurant in Australia was in Balmain NSW in late 1975 when we moved there. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it will be in Council records. We had never heard of Thai cuisine before and it was the first time I ever tasted Pak Chee (coriander). I hated this at first but of course you eventually become infected with the taste. A strange place, the waiter wore an orange toupee and he was always there by himself.

I have spent some time trying to track down the aforementioned Thai restaurant and, indeed, have found an advertisement dated May 1976 for Pawan’s Thai Restaurant, located at 300 Darling Street, Balmain.  It certainly preceded the Bahn Thai and most likely opened in 1975 (the premises at that address were up for sale in late 1974 as a vacant possession shop and residence).

However, there’s some question about whether it was a genuine Thai restaurant. As Richard Beckette wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald some years later:

“There were a couple of half-hearted Thai offerings, run mainly by Caucasian gents who had been to that country for a week or more and had come home as amateur chefs and set themselves up in good old trendy Balmain. And as Balmain is so low rent they succeeded for a time.”

This accords with what Bob Larkin, founder with his wife of the Bahn Thai, told me when I wrote to him. He believed they had visited the Balmain restaurant before opening their own, but felt that it did not offer authentic Thai food. “It was run by 2 gay guys who “Simply Loved” Thai food having been there on a holiday,” Bob said. “My wife can remember later having a conversation with the owner of Siam at Bondi lamenting the fact they called it Thai Food.” (I should footnote this, though, by pointing out that the man who became most internationally renowned for his Thai food was not of Thai origin either, but Australian: David Thompson.)

So perhaps I should amend this story to say that the first genuine Thai restaurant in Australia was the Bahn Thai,  which was opened in Melbourne’s St Kilda Road in June 1976 by Bob Larkin and his Thai wife, Prapa. It was closely followed by the ‘Siam’ in Sydney and another Thai restaurant in Perth.

According to Museums Victoria, the first known Thai migrants arrived in Australia in 1901. In the 1920s, a representative of King Rama VI of Thailand arrived to purchase racehorses and there were further diplomatic and trade visits in subsequent decades. After the Colombo plan was launched in 1950, sponsoring Asian students to study here, the number of Thai people in Australia increased.

Thai food was relatively unknown worldwide until the 1960s when tourism to Thailand increased. This was driven by the development of Bangkok as a crossroads for international air transport and the arrival of American GIs for R&R during the Vietnam war. The first known Thai restaurant in the United States opened in 1959, while London’s oldest opened in 1967. During the 1970s that city acquired just three more.

In 1975 there were still no Thai restaurants in Australia. This changed rapidly in the 1980s. By 1986, there were more than 40. Then the boom really got underway. By 1999 there were more than 400 restaurants dishing up Tom Yum Goong and Pad Thai in Sydney alone.

In their 2014 paperThailand in Australia‘, Tamerlaine Beasley, Philip Hirsch and Soimart Rungmanee describe the truly remarkable explosion of Thai cuisine in this country. They point out that with more than 3000 Thai restaurants, Australia has more than three times as many of them, per capita, as the United States. In Sydney in 2014, nearly a quarter of the restaurants listed in the Australian Restaurants Directory were Thai.

The 2011 census showed 45,465 Thailand-born people in Australia, an increase of 48.8 per cent since the 2006 Census. There are now a number of festivals celebrating their culture and food. In 2003, Melbourne inaugurated the Thai Culture and Food Festival, later held in the city’s Federation Square. Sydney also hosts a Thailand Grand Festival at Darling Harbour.

Thai restaurants can be found throughout the country. You can drop in on the Banana Tree in Mount Gambier, South Australia or the Spice It Up in Mullumbimby, New South Wales. The Kon Thai on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula has been operating since 1989.

For some restaurateurs, though, the temptation to include a pun in their establishment’s name seems overwhelming. Thus we have the Bow Thai in Fortitude Valley, the Thai-riffic in Mildura, the like-minded Thai Riffic in Newtown, the Thailicious in Darwin and the Thainatown in (where else?) Sydney’s Chinatown.

*I received this information from Bob Larkin himself. In an email, he wrote: I write to correct some information regarding the first Thai Restaurant in Australia. My wife Prapa Larkin opened the first Thai restaurant “Bahn Thai”, at 46 St Kilda Rd St Kilda in June 1976, a couple of months before the Siam in Sydney. There was also a Thai restaurant that opened in Perth WA about the same time. We were reviewed in the Melbourne Herald shortly after and I remember the Headline of the review “Choking back the tears” as the reviewer had not eaten chilli dishes before and whilst his friends laughed, he cried all night. The current Thai consul can verify this as his predecessor the Late Eric Ferguson performed the official opening. 


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