Restaurateur Charlie Niyomkul, 70, dies from COVID complications

Brought Thai fine dining to Atlanta

Credit: ajc staff

Credit: ajc staff

Supichai “Charlie” Niyomkul developed a passion for the restaurant and hospitality industry early in life that was later equaled by his love of golf.

The two enthusiasms intertwined to boost him into rare territory. He was a defining presence on the Atlanta restaurant landscape and a revered friend of professional golfers, including having catered one Masters golf tournament champions dinner.

Charlie Niyomkul, 70, died April 5 from complications of COVID-19. A prayer ceremony was held at a Wat Buddha Bucha Buddhist temple in Decatur.

The native of Thailand rose from humble beginnings to serving cocktails at Bangkok’s iconic Mandarin Oriental Hotel by his 21st birthday. He emigrated to New York in the early 1970s, where he worked in the industry before landing a job managing a country club, where he became enamored with the links. He later opened a fine-dining Thai restaurant with wife Nantha “Nan” Niyomkul on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

A mid-1990s visit South helped bind his two loves together.

“My dad came to Atlanta to see friends, and they told him the quality of life was good here,” said daughter Deedee Niyomkul.

He recognized that the city needed a fine-dining Thai restaurant, and he realized that he could play golf practically year-round in Georgia’s more benign climate.

The couple opened the now-closed Tamarind Thai Cuisine on Midtown’s 14th street in early 1998. It looked to be an uphill battle in a difficult location with problematic parking.

“Nobody thought my dad was going to make it on a little corner across from two gas stations,” said Deedee Niyomkul.

But everything inside was just right — white-tablecloth dining, stylish décor, an innovative chef-driven take on Thai food — patrons raved about the pineapple chicken and braised beef short ribs. And Charlie Niyomkul had a commitment to service and ability to build relationships that resonated with diners.

“Anytime he would train anybody that came into the restaurant he would say, ‘We don’t have customers here, we have friends and family,’” Deedee Niyomkul said.

One of his former manager’s recounted how his boss took extensive notes to keep track of his guests and their doings.

Pana “Bank” Bhamaraniyam, now out on his own, said Niyomkul was a mentor beyond compare, patient to a fault and teaching him to give 110 percent every day.

“He’d be there at 7 or 8 in the morning to listen to the early phone calls that would come in. Every call, every dish, every cup of coffee counted. He lived for the hospitality business.”

Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution dining critic John Kessler said Niyomkul staked out a lasting impact on Atlanta’s foodie scene. Kessler wrote in an early dining review that Niyomkul’s approach and experience imbued Tamarind “with a level of quality and flair we’ve never encountered in a Thai restaurant in this city.”

The Niyomkuls left that location to open their dream restaurant, Nan Thai Fine Dining, a few blocks away.

Attorney Chris Molen recalled holding a Masters golf party there with Niyomkul helping set the tone by installing a putting green.

With Charlie at the front of the house and planning and vetting food, his wife Nan as head chef and kids Deedee and Eddie helping, the family business grew. They started Tamarind Seed, Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft and Chai Yo Modern Thai, the last two founded by Deedee.

Niyomkul, a golfer with a game in the 80s, became a fixture at the Masters golf tournament and forged a food-links linkage after meeting the then-relatively unknown pro Vijay Singh on a trip back to Thailand. They became fast friends. Through him, the restauranteur met and befriended others on the tour.

The year after Singh slipped on the green jacket at the 2000 Masters tournament, he tapped Niyomkul to cater the traditional Masters Champions Dinner, which the defending champ hosts annually for prior winners.

Spring rolls, chicken satay and panang curry were a departure from standard fare, but the event won widespread and lasting praise.

Former PGA commissioner Tim Fenchem recalls how Niyomkul approached him, wanting to stage an annual dinner for 30 top players and guests at the FedExCup fall tournament at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

“You couldn’t just have a dinner,” he said, “Charlie and Nan were such fantastic people. When a player came to one of those, he went away good friends with them, and that number just multiplied over the years.”

Niyomkul also spent time and energy on such charities as Share Our Strength, a nationwide group dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

Deedee Niyomkul said this past Masters week was poignant — the first in which her father was absent since their arrival in Atlanta . She took care to mark it.

“He was definitively there in spirit. And Friday I had to go hit some golf balls in honor of my dad,” she said.