In Vietnam, family-owned restaurants run the gamut from humble street food stalls fronted by a handful of plastic stools to French fine dining in gilded banquet halls. At some, an iron-fisted matriarch runs a tight ship where three generations work together like a well-oiled machine, while others are a one-man-show.
Long Nguyen’s family restaurant occupies a niche of its own. A Hanoi institution, Hanoi Garden Restaurant has been in business for over 20 years. It has withstood the test of time and proved immune to changing market trends, economic downturns and other tribulations.
For a blast from the oh-so-delicious past, Vietcetera sat down with Long and asked him about his family’s experience running the iconic venue in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and about his plans for this mainstay of the local dining scene.
Can you tell us about the background and heritage of the restaurant?
My parents opened Hanoi Garden in 1998 on the Hang Manh street in the Old Quarter where it still sits 20 years later. At the time of opening, it was one of the first independent casual fine-dining restaurants in Hanoi. We serve traditional Vietnamese cuisine, drawing on traditional flavors from across the country that appeal to locals and travelers alike. The restaurant ambience is cozy. It works well for family gatherings, but also for something more intimate and refined.
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The restaurant is known as “a green oasis in the urban desert”. Why is that?
Hanoi Garden was designed by Mr. Ho Thieu Tri, one of the architects that headed the renovations of the Hanoi Opera house in 1994. His touch was reflected in the restaurant facade featuring French-style doors, wide overhangs, and soft arches running throughout the structure.
The entrance itself was lent a unique character with a four-meter wide gate, drawing people’s attention and beckoning to come inward for further explorations. The main venue of the restaurant was receded from the street front – you would have to venture through a narrow alley before entering an open-air space.
The calming, relaxing atmosphere inside Hanoi Garden – curated through a waterfall, a lush garden, and candles flickering throughout – was in stark contrast to hectic streets of Hanoi.
How has Hanoi Garden’s architecture changed over the past 22 years?
For the first 18 years, changes were more iterative rather than conceptual. The food, service and ambience were frequently fine tuned, allowing us to build a consistent customer base of regulars as well as commercial partners. As such, revamps of any sort were not in mind for the longest time.
The biggest changes didn’t take place until 2016 – when my brother and I took the management of the restaurant from our parents as the second generation owners. We recognized that the F&B landscape in Hanoi was changing rapidly. Customer expectations, culinary experiences and knowledge have grown increasingly sophisticated; thus the original concept would no longer be viable for the future.
That year, Hanoi Garden underwent a renovation from both an architectural and culinary standpoint. Mr. Ho Thieu Tri’s team was once again contracted to head the redesign of the restaurant. At the same time, we worked with our chef and his team to overhaul the food concept, as well as elevating the services at Hanoi Garden.
After seven months of work, we finalized the renovation in August 2016, which brought an evolution of the original concept. The design team emphasized the retaining of the charm that has existed for almost 18 years. The familiar French doors were still there and so were the arches, but the ambience was more cohesive and the French-Colonial theme was more eloquently expressed.
Are there any changes in the restaurant cuisine after its renovation in 2016?
Regarding the food concept, we still offer Vietnamese cuisine with a little twist of modern techniques and ingredients. For instance, for our Honey Roasted Chicken, we vacuum-seal and sous vide the meat alongside its marinade before roasting it, allowing flavors to develop and tenderizes the meat.
Not to mention, we add liquid smoke to our steamed grouper, enhancing the smoky, woody profile to the dish. We also use rock salt when steaming seafood to add a layer of minerality that complements the natural sweetness of the ingredients.
What are some of the challenges that you face as a second generation owner?
It would have been easier to just knock the restaurant down and start fresh but then we would be foregoing our heritage, the existing customer base as well as the brand that has been built over the past 18 years. So one of the greatest challenges was to balance all these elements; to bridge the past and the present and to recreate a product that can resonate with existing clients while drawing attention from a segment that we have not been able to tap into.
This took a lot of time and multiple iterations of the concept to hone in on what works. Almost four years after the renovation, we can confidently say that we have found the balance and yet everyday, we are working off customers’ feedback to further refine our product.
What do you have in mind for Hanoi Garden moving forward?
For the foreseeable future, we want to focus on refining, developing our product further, together with building a team that can consistently deliver an experience that exceeds our customers’ expectations. Aligning the quality, ambience, cuisines and service with customers’ tastes and expectations is not easy and our approach evolves day by day.
But it is also one of the most rewarding aspects of F&B – to see the value of your product and to have customers who appreciate those same values. We’re lucky to have a loyal following and gain a good understanding of their needs; thus, we’re able to tailor our products specifically for them.
Address: 36 Hang Manh Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi