During the first several weeks of the Bay Area’s shelter in place, Nyum Bai, the nationally acclaimed Cambodian restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, did what so many other local restaurants tried to do: It pivoted to limited hours and an abbreviated takeout menu and, quite simply, hoped for the best.
Chef-owner Nite Yun tells Eater SF that the takeout business went okay at first, but as the weeks went by, she started to question whether it was worth it to keep the restaurant’s doors open in such a provisional, not fully thought-out way. “The longer I was there, every day I walked in the shop, it just felt very depressing and sad,” she says. “Our customers dwindled day by day because everyone was, I think, too scared to come out.”
Last week, Yun decided to shut down the restaurant completely for the time being, “to decompress and come up with a new plan.” As she tells Eater SF, that new plan will most likely entail reopening in a couple of months as quite a different kind of restaurant: Nyum Bai will shift to fast-casual service, and serve a menu focused on takeout-friendly Cambodian street foods instead of the family-style home cooking that had become the restaurant’s claim to fame.
All in all, it’s quite a change for a restaurant whose rise in the Bay Area food world has been meteoric over the past three or four years, going from a little-known pop-up to a restaurant that received a James Beard nomination and was listed on multiple best new restaurant lists for the entire country after opening in 2018. Yun says the turning point was when she heard Governor Gavin Newsom speak last week on what he imagined the new reality for California restaurants would be like when they eventually reopen — a new reality that might include servers in masks and gloves, and dining rooms cleared out to half capacity. As Yun first told the Mercury News, shrinking the dining capacity at her already-tiny Fruitvale restaurant down by half — to just 12 or 13 seats — wouldn’t be a financially viable option if she wanted to still operate as a full-service restaurant.
The tentative outline of the new plan looks something like this: Nyum Bai would convert the covered “garage” section of its outdoor patio into the the main counter where customers would put in their orders. Yun imagines a display of grab-and-go food options there as well, along with a pastry case and a shelf where the restaurant would stock pantry items like marinades and hot sauce available for purchase. Assuming the public health guidelines permit them to, customers will still be able to sit down and enjoy their meal with a cold beer or a nice glass of sake. But fundamentally, it’ll be a much more quick-service model.
“Things will not be the same, that’s for sure,” Yun says. “The way we eat out, the way people mingle and gather will definitely be different.” She imagines it’ll be quite some time before dining out is going to return to any sense of normalcy — and so, for the foreseeable future, she thinks fast-casual is going to be the way to go.
The idea, though, isn’t to present some lesser, scaled-down version of the restaurant that’ll always suffer in comparison to the old Nyum Bai. That’s part of the reason why Yun says that regardless of when the shelter in place lifts, she doesn’t imagine reopening the restaurant any earlier than June. She wants to take the time to make sure the design of the updated garage kiosk matches the aesthetic of the main dining room, and she wants to introduce a whole bunch of new dishes that customers will be excited to try.
Highlights, Yun says, will include snacky street foods like fermented Cambodian sausages and Cambodian-style pork buns. She wants to introduce some cold noodle dishes, including a fish chowder noodle dish that she’s especially excited about. There will be more rice plates on the menu. There will be stuffed chicken wings. And longtime fans of the restaurant don’t need to worry: Yun promises that the kuy teav Phnom Penh — the classic Cambodian noodle soup that first propelled Nyum Bai to stardom — will never leave the menu.
In spite of everything, Yun says she’s optimistic about the future. “Nyum Bai will remain open when this is over,” she says. “We’re not going anywhere.”