When Molly Smith, a restaurant owner in Midtown, first learned of a building vacancy in her neighborhood in 2001, she was instantly drawn to one fundamental feature. "There was a kitchen!" she says. And even though the kitchen was less spacious than she might have hoped, the facility was stacked with potential -- the potential to turn out enough exotic cuisine to feed hundreds of customers per day, she hoped.
So began the journey to create Bhan Thai, one of Memphis' most popular Thai eateries. Just weeks before Smith purchased the building, basic renovations were completed by the previous owner, Raji Jallepalli. Jallepalli had opened her own restaurant in the building and died six weeks later, leaving a smaller dining facility than the one Smith planned to create. Smith transformed what had been, at various points in its history, both a residence and a dentist's office, into a fully functioning restaurant. With the untimely death of Jallepalli came a changing of hands and broadening of vision. Smith took what the previous owner had accomplished in terms of modernization and space management and expanded upon it.
"Space was the primary obstacle," Smith says. "Space for seating and space for storage -- that was the biggest challenge we faced."
Because the original house was built around 1912 and had not been fully updated since, there were a number of basic maintenance issues to tend to. Modern wiring had to be installed, as did a full range of contemporary appliances. To raise the potential seating capacity, several rooms were converted from their original uses. Two areas of the house used by Jallepalli as a wine room and an office were both cleared out then filled in with tables. The walls were painted a golden yellow and hung with traditional Thai artwork in intricate, wooden frames. The individual rooms are small, but the consistent use of yellow throughout the restaurant adds a pleasant sense of continuity.
Perhaps the most ingenious addition to the property is the patio -- a winding spread of woodwork that extends from the back of the building and even incorporates a large tree into the design. Tables and chairs are arranged across so customers can mingle and dine, and a stretched overhead awning and outdoor heaters are on hand to contend with the elements. The patio's mix of open air and ambience situated alongside the intimacy of the indoor rooms attract a steady flow of customers from around the city and from such places as Oxford and Little Rock on a regular basis. The combined indoor/outdoor seating capacity reaches nearly 120.
The kitchen, which Smith says is "tiny, but functional" is indeed remarkably small for the number of customers Bhan Thai serves -- up to 300 a day -- but the chef seems content in his surroundings. Smith describes the Bhan Thai facility as a "quaint, unique location" -- one that constantly offers new possibilities for greater efficiency and customer satisfaction. By snatching up the space for Bhan Thai when it became available and negotiating with the kinks of an older-house-turned-restaurant, Molly Smith has fused culinary flair with contemporary renovation.