One such iconic restaurant in the Surin-Bang Tao area is Benny’s Cocktails and Grill, which has gained a reputation for fine food, great cocktails and drinks served in a friendly welcoming ambience… exactly the sort of hide-away in which to ride out present challenges.
I decided to head over there to have a sit-down with the eponymous owner Benedikt “Benny” De Bellis to learn how he had managed to gain his enviable reputation and what his thoughts were about the future of our island.
Benny’s restaurant was inspired by the American bars of London which flourished in the golden age of travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – an unabashed temple to hedonism and good taste serving classic cocktails and fresh-grilled meats in a convivial setting where you can let your hair down and enjoy yourself. It’s the sort of place you might expect to see the Great Gatsby and Papa Hemmingway propping up the bar late at night, holding court.
This may seem strange as Benny was born in Germany and grew up in Puglia in southeast Italy, so I asked him why this type of restaurant?
“I felt that the area was well served with outlets serving Italian cuisine and I wanted to bring a new concept and offering to this corner of Phuket,” he said.
Benny founded his eponymous restaurant and bar in 2015 and by then he was already a well-known and seasoned professional on the Phuket hospitality and restaurant circuit. Following hotel school in Italy, he had spent several years working in major hotels and restaurants in Europe, including the iconic Ritz Hotel in London.
He arrived in Phuket in 2007 from Singapore when his then boss opened a restaurant here and needed a manager. He fell in love with the Phuket lifestyle and went on to work at such stellar island venues as Sean Power’s Supper Club, Opus One in Surin Plaza and then Catch Beach Club from 2012 to 2015.
After enjoying cocktails, Benny and I segued into a delicious supper to talk at length about the fascinating insights which running high-end restaurants in Phuket had given him.
“You develop a sort of sixth-sense for profiling your customers. There’s often a fair amount of posturing and ‘face’ being projected, so when they ask you which wine you’d recommend, you know the right level and price to suggest!”
I asked him about various different types of customer he’d regularly encountered: “There’s the businessman, usually in property, often trying to impress a client or prospect, and then there’s the party animals hell-bent on a good time while they’re here in the tropics, and of course the long term expats and local Thais are a classic type. In all of them there’s a fair bit of acting and posturing going on, and so you could liken these up-market restaurants to theatre sets!”
Of course, the world has now totally changed post-COVID and so I asked Benny about his perspectives on the future, both personal and for Phuket as a whole.
“Benny’s seems to be doing OK and we are surviving financially and I have been able to keep all our terrific team of staff on. I think we have benefited from a strong local following and good word-of-mouth which has kept our domestic business flowing.
“In future, I think it’s vital for Phuket to recalibrate its tourist targeting and strategies to higher-end F.I.T.’s [free independent travellers], rather than the mass market, low-yield model which had become our island’s default survival mode pre-COVID,” Benny noted.
“Also adopting a longer-term plan and execution of efficient infrastructure such as an effective mass transit system are vital to the island’s continuing success,” he added.
Benny’s thoughts and ideas about Phuket’s future are undeniably very wise, but their implementation may be a long way off with the virus spreading worldwide. So, if you are in need of a warm welcoming home-away-from-home in which to enjoy great cuisine, fun times and a boost to your mental resilience, I heartily suggest calling in at Benny’s for yourself.