A glass elevator going up — that’s how you’ll get to Luang Prabang, the third downtown Raleigh restaurant from the owners of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana.
Brother and sister Vansana (“Van”) and Vanvisa Nolintha will open Luang Prabang (pronounced LWAHNG prah-BAHNG) next year on the ninth floor of The Dillon, the mixed-use high rise that has remade Raleigh’s Warehouse District. The Nolinthas named the restaurant after their childhood home in Laos and are joined in the project by Patrick Woodson, their business partner and head brewer in Brewery Bhavana.
“Luang Prabang is a small fishing town, with three beautiful streets, one small mountain and two rivers,” Vansana said. “We wanted to acknowledge the place we came from, the place that has meant so much to us and our understanding of hospitality.”
The Nolinthas and Woodson have planned a restaurant that includes a 5,000-square-foot inside dining room with a cocktail-driven bar and a kitchen fueled by a charcoal grill. There will be an even larger outside terrace bar with a view of downtown Raleigh. Together, the new restaurant will be larger than Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana combined.
“We’re taking the two restaurants and putting them in the sky,” Vansana said.
Luang Prabang is aiming for a fall 2020 opening, the partners said, with construction to begin in January. This will be the first restaurant they’ve built from scratch, with both Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana born from the bones of former bars and restaurants. The chef is Lon Bounsanga, a native of Laos. Jordan Hester will run the beverage program, roles each handled at Brewery Bhavana.
The town Luang Prabang happens to be an intersection of experience for the Nolinthas and Woodson. It’s the town Vansana and Vanvisa each left at age 12, before moving to live with family friends in Greensboro.
For Woodson, he and his wife, Aubrey, spent two years in east Africa with the Peace Corps, then traveled for six months, including a stop in Luang Prabang. At the time, Woodson said, this town on the Mekong River was off the beaten tourist path, but its air seductively aromatic and its streets lovely and generous.
“It was this sleepy town in the mountains,” Woodson said. “I fell in love with it immediately.”
Back in Raleigh in 2014, the Woodsons met Vansana one night having dinner at Bida Manda.
“It’s really rare for Vanvisa and I to meet someone who has been to Luang Prabang,” Vansana said. “A very specific feeling comes from that. It’s the place where my family is, where I woke up for the first 12 years of my life. There’s that common understanding of what that feeling is. ... It feels like someone has touched a part of our soul we can’t explain.”
Vanvisa added, “I can’t believe we’re going to bring Luang Prabang to Raleigh.”
The Brewery Bhavana bond
A friendship quickly formed. They found out they were neighbors at the time, living near Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood. Woodson a brewer, would have them over to sample whatever Belgian-inspired home brew he happened to be working on.
In 2017, that friendship became a business relationship, as the three opened Brewery Bhavana in the former Tir Na Nog space on Moore Square, next door to Bida Manda. The restaurant defied convention, mashing together a taproom, dim sum, book store and flower shop, all in a brightened and sprawling interior.
It has been packed from the start and has collected accolades including Bon Appetit’s 10 Best New Restaurants of the Year. It also was named as one of the world’s most travel-worthy restaurants.
For their third act, something even more ambitious is planned.
With its ninth-floor terrace bar, Luang Prabang will change how Raleigh is able to look at its city. The revamped Union Station is down below. To the east, the middle floors of PNC and BB&T buildings, to the south a horizon of trees.
The Dillon has brought new upscale restaurants Oak Steakhouse, O-Ku Sushi and Barcelona wine bar, as well as large retailer Urban Outfitters, along with homegrown coffee shop Heirloom. Instead of the space going to the highest bidder, the partners said they were eager to put a homegrown project in possibly the most prominent vacant restaurant space in the city.
“What is exciting about this moment is instead of this project going to a national chain, or private events space, this beautiful large space is named for a small town and run by friends who live here,” Vansana said. “We all kind of knew the Warehouse District would be transformed. If it’s going to be transformed, what kind of transformation do we want?”
When Bida Manda opened in 2012 it was one of the country’s first Laotian restaurants, and the Nolinthas said they felt the responsibility of defining this cuisine for an entire country. Now they’re feeling that again, but for a new aspect of Laotian cooking: the night market.
The food of Bida Manda, its curries and noodle soups, are dishes largely eaten in the morning, the Nolinthas said. The food of the new restaurant is inspired by what happens in the evening, they said, when the sun goes down and vendors line the streets cooking over small charcoal grills. There are skewers and bowls and an array of sauces called “jeow” to add seasoning and flavor.
“When we opened Bida Manda and put together the menu we were defining what Laotian restaurant menus would be, what Laotian cooking in America would be,” Vansana said. “I think the challenge and the beautiful opportunity is thinking (about Luang Prabang) and really wanting to do it justice. It’s a responsibility and a privilege to tell a new story of a new cuisine.”
Celebrating their journey
At this point, the Nolinthas have spent most of their lives in the South, their concept of home stretched 8,500 miles wide. In Bida Manda, they built a restaurant longing for their home in Laos, but with Luang Prabang they’re building one celebrating their journey to Raleigh.
“I think we used the word ‘home’ a lot,” Vanvisa said of planning the feeling of the new restaurant. “When we talk of anywhere in the U.S. you could live, where would it be? To me, Raleigh is it. ... We want to really celebrate the fact we can create a life with these different homes.”
Food can be a time machine and a rocket ship, possessing the ability to cut through time and space like nothing else. That feeling, more than any other, the Nolinthas said they hope to bring to the restaurant version of Luang Prabang.
“The spirit of traveling is really what we want to capture here,” Vansana said. “What does it mean to travel well, what does it mean to expand our understanding of one another.”