A stable of Joe’s steady, non-trendy, favourite Bangkok nightspots
Anyone who knows me knows that I like to go out at night in Bangkok. A lot. Probably more than is good for finances and health, but I like meeting people, listening to music of all kinds and catching up on the latest drink fads, as silly as they are 90 per cent of the time.
Thus I’m always on the lookout for new city nightlife venues. You might catch me at the odd opening now and then, but overall I prefer to check in after a place has found its legs.
Here I offer a stable of steady, non-trendy favourites that I frequent regularly. You’ll notice I have a clear preference for small- to medium-sized venues with a distinctive playlist, DJs who can handle vinyl—if the venue doesn’t supply turntables, OK, but you can always tell a vinyl guy/gal even when they’re on CDJs—or even better, live music. Laptop music is usually a deal-killer.
I don’t go for big halls with theatrical themes, ladies’ nights and so on. Big-screen TVs, no thanks. Even during the World Cup. Dive bars are great, although Bangkok only has one or two true dive bars.
A place doesn’t need a vast liquor inventory, but if there isn’t at least one bourbon behind the bar, forget it. That’s what I drink, most of the time. Craft beers don’t matter to me since I rarely drink beer and they tend to draw an overly sporty, predominantly male crowd. Every bar or club benefits from feminine energy, and the conversation is better.
The 88 Surawong
88 Surawong Rd., Silom
Despite its avowed mixological orientation—it’s partially owned by Bootleggers, a local indie liquor distributor—88 is an unpretentious bar, free of theatrical menu text and other frills. Seriously good cocktail collection and a nonstop playlist of indie rock, blues and R&B.
Thararom Soi 2, Thonglor
Just up the soi from Shades of Retro, this tiny boite is a labour of love for its Japanese owners, who support an eclectic music menu, both live and digital, just as long as it’s weird. I recently caught Degurutieni—the Captain Beefheart/Tom Waits of Japan—and Kuru Circus—avant-garde improv from India—playing on the same night, separately and together; it was intense. Bar offers Japanese and Thai craft beers and home-made plum wine, plus the usual.
Ari Soi 4, Ari
Kick back on the beanbags strewn on the grassy outdoor square, surrounded by a colonnade of corrugated roofing and wooden deck furnished with sofas and tables. Bartenders shake up classics along with signature concoctions, while off to the side a stage holds live bands and DJs nightly. Complete food service as well. The most commercial place on my list, but hey it’s Ari, there’s not a lot of choice.
Adhere the 13th
13 Samsen Rd., Banglamphu
I’ve been going here for what seems like decades The name makes me think of glue, which is apropos since once I’m in for the evening I’m usually stuck fast to my seat listening to some of the finest performances of blues and R&B in the city. Negotiate your way through the long, narrow room past several rows of vinyl album covers and street art to reach the no-frills bar at the back where you can order up a Singha alongside the crowd of local artists, international musos and backpackers who have escaped nearby Khao San Road.
Soi Suan Phlu, Sathorn
You’ve heard of destination bars? Decorated by French artist Bruno Tanquerel and managed by New York photographer David Jacobson, Smalls’ assemblage of retro furniture, custom built-ins and local art, scattered across three floors of a 1960s corner shophouse, is pretty hard to resist. An exceptionally well-stocked bar—there are at least 20 kinds of absinthe available, as well as rare bourbons like Angel Envy—plus an eclectic music policy and arguably the most interesting clientele of any nightlife venue in the city make an all-nighter here a good bet.
When it comes to late-night revelry, Wong’s is everyone’s staple. The narrow barroom decorated with proto-selfie Polaroids, posters and magazine covers is Bangkok’s answer to Hamburg’s famed Café Lehmitz. Open since 1987, this spot draws virtually every local barfly, from on-a-tight-budget English teachers to celebrities to drag queens. Bottled local beers are self-serve from the fridge, and you can order up your usual well drink of choice at the bar. Prepare yourself for a lethal ‘Wongover’ the next day.
Iron Balls Gin Distillery
Tucked away in a nondescript community mall, this micro-sized, steampunk-themed bar is attached to a laboratory occupied by company’s gleaming gin stills. DJs spin atmospheric jams of R&B, funk and jazz varieties on vinyl only, as a well-dressed crowd mingles into the wee hours. A short list of creative cocktails are made with namesake Iron Balls gin, made from a base of pineapple and coconut, including a signature G&T made with a stiff one and half shots of gin and artisan tonic, and then garnished with lime, sweet Thai basil and pineapple. The most expensive bar I frequent, by a long shot.
23 Bar & Gallery
92 Soi Nana (off Charoen Krung Rd), Talat Noi
Ordinarily you wouldn’t pair an art gallery with a dive bar, but this is a unique exception, livening up Chinatown with its reasonably priced drinks, minimal décor, rootsy artwork and magnificent rotation of rock ‘n’ roll recordings. The heart and soul of the bar is artist and rock DJ Mongkol Sanla, who moved the shop here after six years in Sukhumvit. Mongkol runs the bar as if every night were a house party, inviting guests for shots while dancing behind the bar to everything from grunge and psychedelia to Brit-pop. Cheapest bar on the list.
Next to FooJohn, Charoen Krung Rd., Talat Noi
On nights that call for a Motown soundtrack, Bangkok has you covered. Inside a renovated shophouse, live bands blast funk, disco, R&B and soul. During breaks, a house mix keeps the rhythm going with throwback sounds from James Brown and The Four Tops. The centrally anchored bar offers stiff cocktails, and a variety of local craft and imported beers. Against a dark and industrial interior, local art adds a bit of colour and contrast.