Savannakhet’s promise of offering ‘the best of everything in Laos’ doesn’t quite extend as far as its eating options.
Decent Lao food is available throughout the town — we found Pho Bia, next door to the Xayamoungkhong Hotel to be a good pick — it’s a small but very popular shopfront place that does up traditional beef pho and Lao coffee. The soup is great and comes with lashings of greens on the side, though we found the coffee a little bitter.
Another competitor along the same road, Au Rendezvous Cafe, does very basic Lao food and some Western standards, seemingly aimed at those travelling on the cheap. Despite being a guide-book sweetie, we found the food and the service middling, and the atmosphere somewhat charmless.
Running from the immigration office to the south are a string of friendly som tam vendors who pop up in the late afternoon and run into the evening. The somtam is fiery and the servings of sticky rice huge.
There’s a string of riverside, sit-down places extending south from the Nong Soda Guesthouse area, but the highlight here is the sunset rather than the food. A good place for an evening drink, if you can deal with cacaphony of the competing sound systems pumping out Lao and Thai pop music for the ‘enjoyment’ of the customers.
The Hoong Thip Garden Restaurant, at the hotel of the same name, is in a large wooden building, and feels like it is owned by a Thai businessman with better accounting than restaurant sense. The duck larb was too timid, though as the massive Thai, Lao and Chinese menu offers plenty of other choices — half-coked fish, barking deer and duck cooked with healthy ingredients — give it a try, you may have better luck than we did. Outdoor and covered seating available.
As with a couple of other places in town, the Starlight Restaurant specialises in suki and steamboats and is very popular with the locals and expats — always a good sign. Both indoor and outdoor seating is available and with the friendly staff and good prices, all on a quiet side-street, this is a great option.
Tommy Restaurant is set in a 60s-era house which feels like it should be a guesthouse as well as a restaurant and bar. Tommy has a limited Thai and Lao menu, with suki style BBQ a speciality, as indicated by the holes in the tables. It has welcoming staff and comfortable indoor and outdoor seating. Most dishes are in the $1-2 range.
The French influence is still alive and well in Savannakhet: while the old favourite, Cafe de Paris, is now closed, The Lao-Paris (Four Seasons) Cafe south of the ‘main square’ by the river still offers up some pretty good chow, with some French-style dishes served up by a consistently grim and distracted staff.
The Sensabay Restaurant nearby used to offer up a similar experience, but on our last visit we found the place poorly staffed and poorly stocked. No matter what we tried to order, we ended up with fried rice. But, luckily, there are two newish places offering western food.
The Moonlight Cafe, just north of the BCEL, is now the only expat-run place in town. The atmosphere is lacking and location less-than-ideal, but the burgers are good, and the rest of the western food tasted like Mom used to make — if Mom was a mediocre cook who used frozen meats imported from New Zealand. Nevertheless, for the homesick, this might just hit the spot.
There’s a new spot half a block west of the Au Rendezvous Cafe, just east of the church. It has no name, no menu and the food is hard to define – most dishes are served on a sizzling skillet and offers include beef stew with carrots, pan fried flank steaks swimming in butter with French fries, and breakfasts of Lao-style pate and eggs. It’s only open in the mornings from 07:00 to noon, and ordering is largely a matter of poking your nose into aluminium pots and pointing to what others are eating. The owner speaks some French, but little English.
The shining star of the lot is Cafe Chez Boune, across from the Hue-Savannakhet Trading Centre. It’s run by a couple of Laotian-French re-pats and is a very popular spot for both western tourists and France-ified Laotian returnees. The interior is gorgeous, providing a great atmosphere, and the menu includes pizza with generous amounts of cheese, brochietta (ditto on the cheese), fresh salads with excellent Italian dress, and surprisingly large, succulent steak dinners (of the beef, lamb and salmon variety). French wines and aperitifs along with crepes both sweet and savoury round out the menu. The imported meats are a bit pricey, inevitably, but if you’re ardent about continental dining, you’ll probably wind up here more often than not.