YANGON — In Yangon, where a plate of Lok Lak about half as good as you’d get in Phnom Penh costs US$10, a handful of veneered restaurants and bars slap on an extra couple of thousand kyat, every few months, for diminishing portions of an exponentially-depreciating quality of fare.
Refusing to join the race to the bottom is The Phayre’s, a new restaurant with nighthawk aspirations next door to the famous Pansodan Gallery.
Wings and chips might not be Michelin star material, but at 4,000 kyats there’s not much of an argument to be made with a pyramid of sizzling chicken doused in Korean-style sauce—enough to make it hard to spot the half-buried clump of paprika and cajun dusted fries that peek out from beneath the pile.
“In Myanmar most of the restaurant[s] say their food is good, but sometimes it’s not, and usually [it’s] so expensive,” said Ko Htoo Kyaw. He is one of three young Myanmar who returned home from the United States and teamed up to found The Phayre’s, so-named as Pansodan Street was previously called Phayre Street, after Arthur Purves Phayre, the first British Commissioner of colonial-era Myanmar.
The pun on ‘fare,’ which has already caught on around Yangon, was inadvertent, conceded Ko Htoo Kyaw. Fair play to him for admitting that.
The sandwiches—again a 4,000 kyat outlay—are hefty enough to warrant a snake-like jaw-unhinging, though the 3,000 kyat beef salad is a bit light, even as salads go. A bit of ballast—some of that thick sandwich bread perhaps—wouldn’t go amiss. But the oil-drizzled foliage does come with some tender, drool-inducing strips of meat that should awaken the senses of even the most ardent veggie.
A Phayre warning should be given to coffee addicts: If you are looking for a lunchtime jolt of java, you might want to keep walking. At the time of writing, The Phayre’s served only brewed coffee, with no shiny Italian espresso machine behind the bar just yet.
That will soon change, however, according to Ko Myint Thein Oo, another of the three co-founders, who said they were hoping to install a coffee machine in the coming weeks.
Ko Htoo Kyaw and Ko Myint Thein Oo both came home recently after years working in the United States, cutting their business teeth with big names like Macy’s and Gap.
Why come back to start a business in a city where office space is rarer than sparrows on Jupiter and where land prices are so high that units should be offered in cm²?
“Just the business opportunities here,” said Ko Htoo Kyaw, suggesting that for those in the know, Yangon is the place to be. Only three months after opening, the idea is to open more branches elsewhere in town. But there’s no schedule for this yet, alas.
On the Friday night when The Irrawaddy visited, there were just a half-dozen drinkers in The Phayre’s, suggesting that for now the place is more of a daytime eating spot.
“We get the lunch crowd from some offices, [including] from Sakura Tower,” said Ko Myint Thein Oo. There’s also a weekly spillover of beard-stroking expats from the Tuesday night Pansodan Gallery gatherings.
The team behind The Phayre’s renovated the former Chinese restaurant’s interior with austere-looking timber—similar to the look of Fatman’s about a half mile away on Yaw Min Gyi St.
There should be movie nights soon—downstairs a whitewashed wall serves as a big screen for a projector parked across the room. Upstairs there are some couches you can sink into while sinking a few Myanmar draft or maybe a signature Pegu Cocktail.
The split levels and glass facade help keep the place well-lit. But if you’re waiting for your friends upstairs, don’t go yelling through the glass if you spot them shuffling in through the front door. The upstairs area is sound-proofed—making The Phayre’s a handy venue for a private party or a work gathering.
The Phayre’s is located at 292 Pansodan Street in downtown Yangon.
This review first appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.