The hidden restaurants of Thimphu

with 7 comments

There are a lot of good restaurants in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu.

For non-locals, the question is just how to find them.

At home in Europe, I’m used to most restaurants being on the ground floor, usually with an illuminated sign and a welcoming doorway.

They’re easy to find, vying for my attention (and my money, of course).

Not so in Bhutan.

In Thimphu, you’d starve to death if you expected to just stumble upon a restaurant on the downtown streets.

Can you spot the restaurant sign?

Can you spot the restaurant sign?

Eating places here don’t have neon signs, billboards, or anything else to grab the attention of the hungry.

Restaurants are usually well-hidden on the first floors of the city’s shopping complexes. Tucked away between stalls selling cheap Chinese imported goods, internet cafes and tailor shops.

To find a restaurant, you usually have to climb up dirty, uninviting stairs. The smell and appearance of these staircases can hardly be considered the “amuse geule” of an enjoyable dining experience. On the contrary.

But once you’ve managed to locate the restaurant in the dimly lit hallways (God forbid there’d be a sign or an arrow pointing the way), you’re often in for a pleasant surprise.

The atmosphere can be really nice, the prices are generally low (you can get a full lunch menu for as little as a Euro) and the food is usually pretty interesting.

Ema datse, for instance. Chillies with cheese sauce.

Chillies are considered a vegetable in Bhutan, not a way to spice up some other dish. They’re hot, but if you like spicy food, ema datse is actually pretty tasty.

Other national specialties include shamu datse – mushrooms sautéed with cheese –, or kewa datse – potatoes with cheese sauce.

And those who don’t like cheese might enjoy Bhutanese red rice, a kind of locally grown rice that tastes a little nuttier than plain white rice.

Unfortunately, you’ll only find such good food if you know where to look for the restaurants in Thimphu – and if you don’t let unappealing stairways put you off.


Written by Thorsten

September 30, 2008 at 1:43 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Yea I agree bhutan needs to learn the art of fine dining!!!


    October 16, 2008 at 2:58 pm

  2. But food tastes best at these places lol


    October 16, 2008 at 3:00 pm

  3. Thorsten,
    Cynicism seems to be your middle name. I’ve read another story of yours – Miss Bhutan – and you seem to be overflowing with criticism for anything Bhutanese. You rant on and on and just when the Bhutanese would have had enough of your high handedness, you cleverly end your story with a positive remark. Very smart. I’m irked enough to post a response and I’m not even a Bhutanese!

    Given your familiarity with the country, you may already know that Bhutan is a developing country, which is an euphemism for a ‘poor country’ and as such, ‘illuminated signs’, ‘huge billboards’ and ‘neon lights’ have not quite made their way into the country.

    Each country has sounds, smells and a feel that is unique to the country and I believe that visitors should be actively seeking these elements to enhance the experience of their visit. If you keep looking for your home in Bhutan, ( “At home in Europe, I’m used to most restaurants being on the ground floor, usually with an illuminated sign and a welcoming doorway” ) you will never be able to make your stay in Bhutan memorable. It is unfortunate that you only seem to focus on the negative aspects of the country. Surely , “In Thimphu you’d starve to death if you expected to just stumble upon a restaurant on the downtown streets.” is an exaggerated overstatement?

    You clearly are not adventurous and thus in the wrong continent, for every day in any country in Asia is an adventure that is surely not for the faint hearted.


    October 27, 2008 at 3:10 am

  4. Dear Kiran, yes, I do like irony and sometimes it might even be bordering on cynisism. I know that I may have overstepped the border on the Miss Bhutan post. However I think that in the “Hidden Restaurants”, I also make a case for the good food and the nice eating places that exist in Thimphu. It”s just hard at first for people from abroad to find these places. And if I write about neon signs and billboards, I’m not saying that these should be put up in Bhutan – I’m merely describing the differences between Europe and Bhutan.
    I hope that my other posts from Bhutan will not be as easily misunderstood as the two you have read and mentioned. I do love Bhutan very much and I cherish the opportunity i was given to visit the country and meet its people.


    October 27, 2008 at 7:08 am

    • What a lovely reply to Kiran’s comments. I hope Kiran liked it. Thanks to him, I’m going to read your ‘Miss Bhutan’ post and others too. It’s an accepted fact that Bhutanese cuisine is limited and yes, fine-dining isn’t one they’ve mastered yet, especially in cosmopolitan Thimphu with its seemingly upmarket crowd. I guess the economy of numbers needs to catch up a little more.

      So, if you’re there for the lovely people, a meditative atmosphere, an unmatched blend of culture and adventure, super experience of a nation where the Royal family cares for their people like no others on planet earth, you’re spot on. But for rich local cusine or hygine (Thimphu Thromde and a Japanese organisation are trying every trick in the trade to stop doma spitting in & littering public places as I write this), you better wait for some more time.

      There’s no harm calling a spade a spade. Right?


      February 12, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      • Thank you for your reply, Chriso. You’re right, Bhutan is an amazing place unlike any other in the world. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to go there in a while. Most of my blog posts about Bhutan are pretty old – things may have changed. Have a great trip, Thorsten


        February 15, 2016 at 9:41 am

  5. Ha ha ha… Neon signs are ugly and billboards spoil the beauty of the place by obstructing other attractive scenes in and around the city/ town. We don’t have billboards anywhere in the country.

    Though it is difficult to find some restaurants, all restaurants have sign boards and directions. Not all restaurants are well hidden on the first floor. Stairways to some restaurants needs to be cleaned and those restaurants are not tourist standard. All tourist standard restaurants and very clean and you would be surprised. So you see the difference in the money you pay in either type of restaurants.
    Good observations, though.


    April 27, 2011 at 11:02 am

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