It’s no secret that a professional kitchen isn’t exactly an oasis of calm. Before he was a TV personality, the late, great Anthony Bourdain provided a degree of insight into the chaos behind the scenes in the modern restaurant in an article for The New Yorker:
“The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew. Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders, they often acquire the characteristics of the poor saps who were press-ganged into the royal navies of Napoleonic times—superstition, a contempt for outsiders, and a loyalty to no flag but their own.”
Bourdain may have been writing almost two decades ago and about New York kitchens, but he could very well have been describing Hanoi’s own New Day restaurant in 2018. Hungry customers pile in and out in their hundreds, waiting staff careen up and down the tiny stairs carrying a huge variety of delicious dishes and the pace seemingly never lets up.
Welcome to a day in the life of one of Hanoi’s busiest restaurants – New Day.
Located in the beating heart of the Old Quarter at 72 May May Street, Hoan Kiem District, New Day has been a fixture in Hanoi’s tourist cuisine scene for about 15 years now. Location definitely helps keep the restaurant busy, but it’s a well-earned reputation for serving up delicious, simple and authentic Vietnamese cuisine that puts asses in seats. And unlike many other eateries in the area, New Day doesn’t have arrangements with hotels or tour companies to bring customers in, the restaurant’s reputation is enough.
Perhaps the biggest thing that sets New Day aside from the plethora of other restaurants in the Old Quarter though is its popularity among locals and tourists. The restaurant is normally packed with Vietnamese clientele at lunchtime and foreigners in the evening, with many of the Vietnamese ordering from a buffet menu (think com binh dan) and most Westerners ordering a la carte.
Local classics like nem rán (spring rolls) and gà rang sả ớt (chicken with chilli and lemongrass) pepper the a la carte menu, while anything served in a clay pot is bound to satisfy. But in a restaurant so bustling it makes the New York Stock Exchange seem like a church, who are the brave souls ensuring your food reaches your table?
Ha Thi Hoa may be slight in stature but don’t let that fool you, it takes a giant to oversee the organised chaos at New Day. She’s been the manager for the past two years, having previously worked in hotels in Hanoi, which was a whole different world to one of the capital’s busiest eateries. “It was very difficult at first,” she said of working in New day. “It’s very crowded and you have to process a lot of information from customers at once.”
Watching her work, you would find it hard to imagine she ever struggled in a busy restaurant. During our quick chat, she alternated between cleaning tables, taking orders from customers and directing her waiting staff, all without missing a beat in our conversation. Hoa explained that in high season for tourism, New Day can serve more than 1,000 customers per day, so training the many staff members properly is a big part of her job. It’s an effort that has certainly paid off, as the waiters and waitresses at New Day are courteous without being overbearing, which is something of a rarity in the Old Quarter.
Mai Thi Luong is one of those waitresses, having worked at New Day for about a year. She also has a one-year-old baby at home, so the bustling restaurant is actually something of an escape from the whirlwind of child-rearing.
While Luong admitted she sometimes struggles with her English (which she says has improved in her year at New Day) and recommending food to customers, she said she wouldn’t change anything about her job in the bustling restaurant “I love working here. The people we serve are friendly and the work isn’t too hard.”
Find New Day at 72 Ma May, Hang Buom, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi.