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By Kate Volkman
It's common for diners at Swatdee Thai Restaurant to remark on the warm welcome and feeling of family they experience when they walk through the door.
"It's like you're walking into their home," says Lynne Maltz, who has been a patron for almost 20 years. "It's very unpretentious, so I always feel comfortable no matter the time of day or what I'm wearing."
Maltz's lunch companion Dolly Totes likes the atmosphere, too. "It's very woodsy and warm," says Totes. "And clean," Maltz jumps in. "And he's here. James is always here."
That's James Pong Thep Sawatdee. He and his family are the owners of Swatdee Thai Restaurant, at 4166 24th Street near Diamond Street.
"Sawatdee" is Thai for "greetings." "It's a very good meaning," James Sawatdee says. "Before we opened, I had a lot of lists of names for the restaurant, but then a couple of my friends said, 'Why don't you use your last name, because your last name has a lot of meaning.'"
Sawatdee agreed, but decided to remove the first "a" when spelling the restaurant's name. "I saved money with only one 'a' on the sign!" he laughs. "It's true, though--one letter can cost you money. It's better this way--[Swatdee is] easier for people to pronounce."
Sawatdee opened the restaurant 20 years ago at the suggestion of his mother-in-law. She had watched him work for years in several other San Francisco restaurants, and since she had experience running her own restaurant back in Thailand, one day she said, "'Hey, you want to open a restaurant?' I said, 'Okay, let's do it!'" Sawatdee recalls. "It was my mother-in-law, my sister, another guy, and me. It was a family business; it still is."
Sawatdee's mother-in-law was the cook for the first five to six years, using her own special recipes and ingredients. Then his wife's aunt took over, and now his sister-in-law runs the kitchen.
After the first five years, Sawatdee opened a second location in San Mateo. But when his sister decided she wanted to open her own Thai restaurant--she's the chef and owner of Lemongrass on Russian Hill--he sold it. His cousin owns the Cha-Am restaurants in SOMA, Berkeley, and Vallejo.
Cha-Am, two hours from Bangkok, is the city in Thailand from where the Sawatdee family hails. James immigrated to the United States in 1972 at the age of 22, to take English at the Berkeley Adult School. Opting to stay in San Francisco, he worked as a dishwasher, busboy, cook, and waiter at Front Room Pizza on California Street, and then waited tables at two high-end French restaurants in the late '70s and early '80s. He married his wife, Rita, in 1979, and opened Swatdee eight years later.
"When we opened, there were only 10 Thai restaurants in the city. Now there are more than 110," Sawatdee says.
"The first day, business was incredible. It was April 17, 1987, Good Friday. My mother-in-law is Catholic, and she said, 'Good Friday--it's not good to open a business.' I said, 'Let's try.' And then, boom! We sat 150 people. We opened at 4:30 and went to 10:30 non-stop.
"Every Friday and Saturday, it was busy, very busy. I'd get nervous because my mother-in-law was doing all the cooking and I wanted to take it easy on her and not push her too much. We'd have three or four orders at the same time, plus takeout. We had a lot of people helping her, but she wanted to do it.
"We did very well for the first 15 years. But after September 11, everything peaked out. People don't go out anymore; we do a lot of takeout and delivery. Almost half of our income is from deliveries now. Our customers used to be a lot of singles and couples, and now it's a lot of families, but still, they're all neighbors."
Neighbors like Ron Shelly, an employee at Streetlight Records on 24th Street. He takes his lunch hour at Swatdee just about every Tuesday and Thursday, and favors the cashew chicken and spicy tofu dishes. He says, "I like spicy food, I like Thai food, and I like Justin, too."
Justin Vang is the friendly, Harry Potter glasseswearing waiter/manager whose sweet smile welcomes regulars like Shelly and first-timers like Richard and Carolyn Counihan.
"We're visiting from Seattle, and our friend who lives in Noe told us to try this place. It was delicious," Carolyn says, as she kisses her fingertips in that gesture one uses to express perfection.
The Counihans and Shelly are three among relatively few diners at Swatdee this mostly foggy Thursday lunchtime. Vang says, "It's usually not that busy at lunch, but you just never know. Yesterday it was really busy--they all came in at noon and left by 1:00. It seems we're more busy on cold and wet days, but you can't predict it."
Swatdee is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, but for dinner only on Saturday and Sunday. Sawatdee says, "We used to be open for lunch on Saturdays, but I said forget it! We never made any money. Thai food takes a lot of preparation, because curry has to cook three to four hours ahead of time; you can't just do order by order."
There's a lull in the kitchen, too, as Sawatdee's sister-in-law, Sirisom Binsared, chops lemongrass for soup, one of her helpers thin-slices beef for satay, and the dishwasher finishes the lunch dishes. On the radio Bette Midler purrs, "God is watching us," while in the front of the house John Mayer sings, "Waiting on the world to change."
Sawatdee's 17-year-old daughter, Melissa, and 12-year-old son, Jaric, take turns working at the restaurant most Friday nights. They earn their keep as cashier, and by pouring water and sodas. Sawatdee says, "It's good for my daughter to work a little bit so she doesn't have too much time to talk on the telephone." Melissa confesses, and her brother nods in agreement, "I'm a typical shopaholic; my brother's the responsible one in the family."
Sawatdee strives to buy good quality food and sell it at a good price. Most items on his menu are about $6 to $7. "We serve Thai-Thai food, not Thai-American," he says. "Maybe we make it a little bit American in that we don't make it too hot. But some Americans, now that they've been to Thailand, can take a lot of heat. And they feel comfortable with Thai people. Thai people are happy."
He's happy, too. He laughs as he tells the story: "Four to five months ago, a friend offered to buy my business. So I talked with my wife. My wife asked me, 'What are you going to do if you sell your business?' I said, 'Maybe I open another one.' She said, 'Why you sell it then?'"