To fully grasp the relevance of Thai Diner — and the loss of Uncle Boons — one must consider the city’s COVID-19 regulations, which function as a rebuke to one of the prevailing restaurant models of the past 15 years: the stripped-down gourmet spot. Pandemic rules have tightened the vice on those venues, indefinitely putting an end to bar seating, high-density dining rooms, and the communal table as we know it. Some might celebrate the closure of these cramped, reservations-free hangouts, but the reality is they served as a corrective to the posh big-box affairs of pre-Great Recession Manhattan, letting a generation of young chefs serve ambitious food at semi-accessible prices to patrons who were there because that’s what they were craving that particular night, not because they booked a table two months out.
The doomed Uncle Boons, by chefs Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, was a marquee member of that posse, serving fairly priced Thai fare in a space that, I’ll argue, would’ve been tough to translate to a COVID-19 world. The semi-subterranean Nolita spot didn’t have the type of lengthy business frontage or floor-to-ceiling window ventilation that allow larger brasseries to build sprawling outdoor patios and smart indoor setups. It lacked the type of commodious interiors or tony wine lists that give deep-pocketed operators more wiggle room amid the pandemic, and it boasted an intimate dining room with a perpetually thronged bar, where wait times could easily hit two hours. Waiting the literal length of a feature film for a table is always a tough sell, but that’s especially the case when state regulations make killing time at a nearby bar a slightly more complicated affair than meets the eye. Uncle Boons, alas, closed in August after the owners couldn’t come to agreement with the landlord.
This is where the Thai Diner pivot comes into play. Danzer and Redding opened the all-day space in late February, serving some of Uncle Boons’s greatest hits — the crab fried rice still contains a lobster’s worth of crab — with a collection of creative Thai-American dishes that still manage to fall under the rubric of comfort fare, like a stunning Southeast Asian take on Ukrainian stuffed cabbage and an eggy breakfast sandwich laced with heady Isan sausage.
What’s more striking, however, is how the restaurant’s ample outdoor seating and techo-diner model — patrons order via QR codes — convey the accessibility of aughts-style dining in a COVID-19 era. More exclusive a la carte venues have adapted to the new normal by going reservations-only, but Redding and Danzer’s setup suggest there are alternative ways to keep staffers safe while accommodating anyone who wants to eat great Thai food.
Here’s how it all works: Patrons wait in line for an outdoor table. After being seated, they aim their phone at a QR code to bring up an online menu. Then, they select dishes and pay on the spot. Runners bring out the food, then leave when done. There are no waiters pontificating on specials, repeating back long orders to make sure they’re accurate, or pushing more drinks or dessert. Staffers might replace silverware or say “let us know if you need anything,” but they pretty much just bring out your food and leave.
The format is a better fit for the moment, even if this Nolita newcomer is handily pricier than utilitarian Midtown diners. QR setups, popular in China and spurting up around New York, reduce the friction of ordering and paying throughout the restaurant, a process that normally involves flagging down hurried servers. The system also increases the friction of purchasing on an individual level, and that’s a good thing. To wit: It’s much easier to whirl your finger around and ask a waiter for another round of drinks than it is to take out your smartphone every 30 minutes, open up your browser, find the cocktail tab on the menu, re-enter your credit card info, and cope with the mental anguish over how much two drinks will cost you. At Thai Diner, the QR system effectively conveys the message that this is not a place to linger; this is a place to eat.
Eat well you will, sometimes to the point of being stuffed. Phat see eiw practically spills over the plate with piles of squishy scrambled eggs and soy-stained broad noodles. Duck noodle soup arrives with a leg of slow-cooked fowl hefty enough that I wouldn’t fault the kitchen for removing it and selling it as a separate main. If Uncle Boons was a study in shared plates, Thai Diner is an ode to the one-dish meal, a style of gastronomy that jibes more closely with the prevailing socio-cultural-epidemiological zeitgeist. Just as a classic tasting menu feels wildly out of place during COVID — with infinite server interactions and sommelier chats — so does a 90-minute meal of successive small plates.
The QR system, in addition to the menu format, plays a key role in reducing staff contact with outdoor patrons — mask-free customers who can’t, under state law, be required to leave contact-tracing data or undergo mandatory screenings. Just the same, those ordering takeout — or who don’t have smartphones — do so outside the restaurant from behind a plexiglass-lined window; there’s no need to go inside except to use the restrooms.
Should patrons be required pick up their orders quick-service style, without relying on runners? It’s temping to suggest as much, but the counterargument is that it’s potentially safer for, say, five waiters to bring food to 53 socially distanced diners than to have those 53 diners line up to fetch their meals at a window. Whether any of this is a fair deal for staffers tending to leisure-seeking patrons during a deadly pandemic, however, is a different moral equation to solve, especially as infection rates surge outside of the city. Indoor dining will begin here in the coming weeks, the owners say.
For those who stick with takeout, it’s worth keeping in mind that unlike sibling spot Uncle Boons Sister, which had a more dressed-down bill of fare than the flagship, Thai Diner maintains an identically ambitious menu for everyone.
Uncle Boons, of course, wasn’t the only Thai restaurant to close during the pandemic. The heralded Pam Real Thai and Taladwat in Hell’s Kitchen shuttered this year, as did Bennie’s, a staple for solid Isan food in the Financial District. Indeed, my colleague Robert Sietsema writes that of the 20 Thai institutions he recommended last year, a third have ended their run, mostly due to COVID-19. And while there have been a collection of big Thai openings over the past decade — one thinks of Ugly Baby in Carroll Gardens, Fish Cheeks in Noho, or Tong in Bushwick — some of the best of that bunch have shuttered as well, including Pok Pok and Larb Ubol. Absent a government bailout, the list of restaurant casualties will only grow. For now, though, it’s comforting to know that some of Uncle Boons lives on in Thai Diner.
Here’s a quick overview of what to order and what to skip
Mieng kum ($13): The appropriate snack to commence any meal. A chalice of peanuts, coconut flakes, dried shrimp, and chiles — essentially an elegant snack mix — comes with a tiny stack of betel leaves. With these ingredients, and a wedge of lime, one makes little wraps to jolt the palate with hits of salt, acid, sugar, savoriness, and bitterness.
Egg sandwich ($11): Scrambled eggs with cheese and Chiang Mai pork sausage wrapped in warm roti. It all tastes like it sounds; you get a blend of cheesy, jiggly, stretchy creaminess and a modest slab of ground meat that smells like a citrus tree. A side of amped up fish sauce accompanies the small platter for anyone who’d like to amp up the umami factor by a few notches.
Cheeseburger ($13): A classic beef blend with lettuce, American cheese, and pickles. It is a distinctly average burger.
Fried chicken laab ($17): Crispy boneless nuggets over a salad of cucumbers, onions, and herbs. The preparation functions as a KFC-style riff on the signature meat salads of Thailand’s northeastern Isan region. Each bite, when carefully constructed, flaunts the salty juiciness of good fried chicken, the electrifying punch of enough lime to make eight daiquiris, and the grassy uppercut of fresh mint. A side of sticky rice lets diners soak up all the fragrant juices that collect at the bottom. Outstanding.
Kuaytiew pet ($23): Duck soup with braised duck leg and rice noodles. The hot broth showcases a restrained broth that smacks more of warming cinnamon than of concentrated poultry. A tangle of firm noodles sit underneath the soft, meaty leg meat; both are meant for dunking in an orange vinegar sauce that provides a hint of fruitiness and a solid dose of duck a l’orange nostalgia.
Massaman neuh ($21): A mild curry blending cumin, nutmeg, lemongrass, and cinnamon. The spiced flavors and luscious fats of the coconut milk enrichen generous squares of short rib so tender they seem to flake themselves into the curry.
Kao phat puu ($25): Uncle Boons crab fried rice. This isn’t really an effort in celebrating the meaty excess of a good crustacean, as with a steakhouse crabcake — though there’s no shortage of firm flesh to enjoy. This is about the delicate sweetness of the shellfish and the smoky-oceanic way it seems to perfume the buttery rice grains. The dish works fine without any condiments, but a ramekin of nam prik dipping sauce, spiked with fish sauce and lime, comes as a side for those who want more acidic tang and high-tide funk.
Thai disco fries ($10): Crinkle-cut frites doused in massaman coconut curry sauce with peanuts and cilantro. This is starchy, crispy, crunchy, yet sometimes brilliantly soggy drinking food that pairs expertly with a cold pilsner. The spice starts at a low level, but quickly builds to a stomach-glowing heat.
Phat tai ($16): The classic sweet-sour stir-fry, executed with preternatural precision. A puckery dose of lime and tamarind sauce clings to the firm rice noodles, counteracting the dish’s pronounced sugars, while occasional bites of dried shrimp amp up the umami kick.
Cabbage tom khaa ($20): A Thai take on holubtsi, those famous Ukrainian meat-filled cabbage rolls slathered in gravy. Cooks stuff the brassica with a loose mixture of ground turkey, rice, and mushrooms, then surround the little green packages in a shallow moat of coconut milk. Initial bites yield a coarse and leafy texture at first, but then turn silky from the nut milk, which the kitchen infuses with the sweet musk of makrut. This is pure comfort — until you add too many chiles.
Banana pudding ($9): A three-layered parfait with pudding on the bottom, whipped cream in the middle, and a lotus root-shaped sesame tuile on top. Servers advise patrons to crack through the cookie with a spoon — a fine moment for slo-mo Instagram fiends — and then eat accordingly. The pudding itself is an ode to the non-artificial flavor of good, slow-cooked bananas; the whipped dairy takes down the sweetness to even more subdued levels; and the cookie imparts a buttery crunch. For anyone feeling the heat from dinner here, this cooling dessert quells the fire quickly.