There is no denying that the hospitality industry has been floored in recent years, with many businesses forced to shut their doors for good.
Difficulty in finding staff, Brexit and of course the impact of the pandemic has been the final death knell for both local and chain eateries.
Simon Wong knows all too well the difficulty in overcoming obstacles, including numerous oil down-turns and the demands of the public.
Yet his business has truly stood the test of time, and is all the more remarkable considering the fact that it was the first of its kind in Aberdeen.
Customers are greeted by Simon, who is always suited and booted for the occasion in a smart tuxedo, and are well looked after by the team regardless of whether they are your average Joe or a celebrity.
With a fist pump from Simon upon arrival and a flash of his witty sense of humour, it’s no wonder that he is a firm favourite at Crown Terrace.
We paid a visit and found out why the Granite City’s first ever Thai restaurant, Royal Thai, has cause to celebrate after 30 years in business.
Tell me the background to Royal Thai?
We officially opened in 1992, people tell me that this place used to sell antique furniture.
I went into business with Peter Tang, we opened China Town on Dee Street a few years later in 1998.
I’m not a chef, but prior to opening up Royal Thai, I worked in a few different restaurants.
What made you take the leap to opening your own business?
We wanted to create something different. There was Indian and Chinese restaurants, but back in those days there wasn’t a Thai restaurant in Aberdeen.
At the time, a lot of people were going to Thailand on holiday and they absolutely loved it.
They loved the culture and they loved the food.
We were young men at the time and it gave us the idea, the inspiration.
We’ve been very busy ever since, although of course we have been impacted by numerous things from the oil crash to Covid.
People are really watching how they spend their money, in comparison to when oil was booming and those working in the oil and gas industry would bring their clients here.
Were you worried as to how a Thai restaurant would be received?
Yes and no. I knew that people would love it, because people always like something different.
Of course these days, people are so much more open to trying something new.
Society in general is far more multicultural, I’ve seen a lot of change in 30 years.
But from the moment we opened, we knew we had to match the palate of people here in the UK.
In Thailand for example, popular dishes include chicken feet or fish with all the bones and head.
But we knew that wouldn’t go down well with people here, so we adapted.
We still use the very best fish, which comes from Peterhead, and excellent quality meat.
What’s the secret to cooking authentic Thai food?
There’s no secret.
My first chef stayed for 21 years, followed by a five year sint by the next two chefs.
We don’t have a high turnover of staff. I have always given the chefs the responsibility and respect to do their own cooking.
I don’t interfere much, I let them be creative.
I think good food is down to the experience of our chefs.
We’re also careful not to make our dishes too spicy in the Uk. Unlike in Thailand, where you’d be gasping for water because you’re just not used to it.
We’ve always had a good reputation, and that’s partly because we are always consistent.
We have four staff in the kitchen and four out working the floor.
What’s your favourite dish on the menu?
No such thing as a favourite dish, all of our food is good.
The steamed fish on our grill, sizzling and seafood menu is excellent.
Our Pad Garee Ta-Lay, seafood medley, has scallops, mussels, calamari and prawns stir fried with celery, onion and peppers in tumeric curry sauce. Then it is drizzled in chilli oil.
The Goong Yarng Yum Ma Muang is a Thai speciality.
It’s grilled king prawns with shredded mango, shallots, chili, lime and a palm sugar dressing with fresh tomatoes and cashew nuts.
Then there’s our starters like Pla Meuk Tord, which is giggling squid hot chili pepper.
Thai food to me means freshness and colour. It’s healthy and it’s simplicity.
Do you think the method of cooking is different?
Yes. Take a stir-fry for example.
30 seconds, and a bit of salt and pepper. Done.
But that is not the Scottish way. The Scottish way is boiling your vegetables for half an hour, so you’re taking away the goodness and the freshness.
Thai food is about freshness, right down to the herbs. Chili, coriander, ginger. All very healthy for you.
Talk me through some of the changes you’ve witnessed over the last 30 years?
Well when we first started out, people were sceptical of our food and the ingredients. That has thankfully changed for the better.
We were the very first Thai restaurant in Aberdeen, and of course other people have since followed suit.
So now we have competition.
There has been so much change in Aberdeen, we are one of the few old restaurants left.
People have come and gone on this street alone, there used to be at least five restaurants in this area.
At the height of oil, people would bring their clients here and I would personally take them out and show them a good time.
So many of our customers have been coming for years. Sometimes we ask after someone’s mum or dad who used to come here, and we find out they have passed away.
That is always very sad.
What keeps you passionate about Royal Thai?
This is my passion, right from when I was a young boy.
I love interacting with people, because so many different people come through this doors.
90% of our customers have been here before, they always come back.
We’ve had famous people of course.
Annie Lennox was once in here. I had no idea who she was, it was my customers who pointed her out.
We’ve had stars from East Enders, Nick Nairn the chef as well.
Everybody gets treated the same, it’s having that respect for your customers.
And finally, will you always serve customers wearing a Tuxedo?
Oh yes. To me, the tuxedo is iconic.
Would you eat somewhere where the staff were dressed scruffy?
I am always dressed to a high standard, it is my trademark.