When chef Donald Berger opened his first restaurant in Hanoi six years ago, he chose the unlikely district of West Lake (or, in Vietnamese, Tay Ho). Except for rows of dog-meat restaurants, the area didn't offer much in the way of dining certainly not of the international variety that foreign residents and travelers were starting to seek out. "There was nothing here," says Berger. "People said I was a moron." But today, West Lake is home to cafés, bars and high-end restaurants among them top names that have relocated from the chic French Quarter. The influx wasn't planned. Skyrocketing French Quarter rents simply drove operators to West Lake in search of affordable premises. The fact that the area had a captive market of wealthy Vietnamese and expat residents was another lure, as was its location 10 minutes from downtown.
Maverick chef and cooking-show host Bobby Chinn helped put the city on the culinary map with his eponymous French Quarter fusion restaurant. But when the rent was tripled to $45,000 a month last January, he packed up. The new digs, tel: (84-4) 3719 2460, are cramped, but fans will find the bordello red curtains, shisha-smoking rooms and irreverent menu essentially unchanged. Another French Quarter landmark forced to close was the perennially popular Emperor. The owners recently opened a fresh venture, the Mandarin, tel: (84-4) 3719 1168, on the banks of West Lake. Though the new venue lacks the imperial dining ambiance of the original, patrons can still sample some of the old Emperor's signature dishes.
A delightful addition to West Lake is the Love Chocolate Café, tel: (84-4) 2243 2120, plugging a gap in the market for decadent Western desserts, heart-shaped cookies, cayenne-pepper-espresso brownies and the like. But perhaps the most telling opening in terms of the area's newfound cachet is that of the Intercontinental West Lake, tel: (84-4) 6270 8888. The hotel has three smart restaurants a French bistro, an Italian restaurant and one that serves Vietnamese-Chinese cuisine as well as a bar set on its own island in the lake. Only the prices are hard to swallow.
Berger's eagerly anticipated new venture, Donald's, will be a four-story glass-and-open-air lakeside extravaganza, and is set to open later this summer with a wine room, oyster bar and multinational menu. It looks like the French Quarter's monopoly on fine dining has been lost. "Hanoi has grown so fast," agrees Berger. "We're now really the center."