Johan Davidsson sets out to create new nightlife experiences, as Bangkok bounces back

Who can better share insights and an update on how Bangkok’s famous bar and nightlife sector is bouncing back than club maestro Johan Davidsson!?
Following Covid – a period of several years of closures that all but erased the entire scene! – Johan is himself also back full time in Bangkok along with his family, already gaining significant results with a series of re-openings.

He has now returned to a role as Group General Manager of bars and restaurants for his previous employer during over 15 years, Fico, and has successfully restarted three of their previous popular “waterholes”, plus a rejuvenated Opera Italian Restaurant (where Fico took over ownership and re-launched it post Covid). And there’s a lot more in store for 2023, including a total refurbishment awaiting Le Fenix hotel and its rooftop bar Nest.

Johan Davidsson posing at Nest, holding up his previous front cover story in ScandAsia.
Johan Davidsson posing at Nest, holding up his previous front cover story in ScandAsia. Photo: Dennis Thern.

We reunite there, some 14 years later since his previous feature in ScandAsia. Back then one of the hottest nightlife experiences was Johan’s very own ‘Club Crawl’ event, which was a bar tour gathering that every fortnight visited the then super trio of venues along Sukhumvit soi 11; Nest, Bed Supperclub and Qbar. Today this famous side street has transformed into something quite different, while Johan holds something in store though for its future.

Sweden: tried and tested

Johan has also recently reunited both with Bangkok and also – for the second time – with his wife and two kids. For those glad to have Johan back in action within Bangkok’s entertainment scene this is surely good news, while he is himself somewhat disappointment about the outcome of their attempt to build a life in Sweden.

Soon after the arrival of Covid-19 Johan saw the perfect opportunity to try out moving to Sweden – something they had contemplated many times.

“We took the chance – as we felt we could kill two birds with one stone – there were no longer any suitable jobs in Thailand, and after 18 years here I felt like it was time to try out living in Sweden – and to really compare with how much one really loves Thailand,” says Johan.

As a consequence the family had to be separated for six months – since that was the time it took to arrange the Swedish visa for his wife. Meanwhile, Johan went back to his hometown Halmstad and immediately got a job at ‘Larrys’, the city’s biggest restaurant and entertainment venue, and where he quickly excelled and contributed to beating the sales records three times during four months, by becoming a nightclub etc. – until Covid once more forced the venue to close down.

“At Larrys they were happy just doing well with their luncheons and satisfied with just having guests coming for drinks in the evenings. But there were many things that I felt could be done so we managed to increase the sales after 10 pm with 80 percent.”
However, on the personal front things did not work out that well – concerning Swedish school, where the two children got zero extra support to be able to learn in the Swedish language.

“The school was a big disappointment; my son went from being best in class when he started to being in the bottom – within a year. From loving school, to hating it. So this is one of the biggest reasons why we decided to move back to Thailand.”

Johan says that the children were super happy when they returned: ‘Now we’re moving back home!’

Lady in Chinese dress, in Bangkok's nightlife. Photo: Dennis Thern.
Lady in Chinese dress, in Bangkok’s nightlife. Photo: Dennis Thern.
In the footsteps of Swedish fine dining

“The response has been great among guests,” he comments on the re-openings since in 2022. In the Opera complex our other well-known brand Iron Fairies will also start ‘12 Chairs Chef Table’, where we will offer fantastic menus and have guest Michelin chefs throughout the year.”

He also wants to follow in the footsteps of the arrival to Bangkok of the Swedish fine dining brand Frantzén. “I think it will open up for more Swedish chefs here and we have in fact invited some Swedish chefs already to our chefs table, and where I would prefer to work with Michelin star chefs. So we are hoping to bring in some large names.”

As for additional projects it sounds like 2023 is going to be a busy year for the Swede. “Fico owns many buildings in Thailand, so we will mostly open up new places in those and avoid rentals. And they are buildings you would only dream of being available twenty years ago but right now they are! So there is a real opportunity within real estate at the moment and setting up one’s own bars – even if it’s still a bit early,” he adds.

All about delivering experiences

“But I think the whole city of Bangkok will be booming during this year concerning bars and nightlife – there are lots of opportunities now.”

Overall, Johans likens the scene to a race to market. “All places that have survived Covid are incredibly strong now. And then you have many people who have been working on their ideas, so one can see activity all over the city.”

Johan Davidsson at Nest rooftop bar in Bangkok
Johan Davidsson at Nest rooftop bar in Bangkok. Photo: Dennis Thern.

Johan is also seeing that the scene is being helped by more music festivals: “Such events bring lots of artists that perform at many places. So the volume of international guest artists is increasing. So I can foresee that the nightlife will become better than ever before!”

This is also helped by the fact that the audience as well as the scene keeps raising the bar – a development that Johan has been part of setting the stage for.

“With Club Crawl we started out before people really took notice here in Thailand and it was perhaps in a way also easier back then. Competition is fierce now. We can easily name ten bars with superb bartenders. We have for instance Tropic City, which is a favourite bar for me, operated by Swedish guys, and ranked 24 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list!”

“The Swedes at Tropic City also worked with bartenders Ben and Daniel Sorum from Flow Cocktail, Rocket Coffeebar etc. and these bars are now taking things to the next level, bringing in the next generation. So I feel we have played our part there and it will only continue.”

“But to best in the region or in the city, it’s no longer O.K to be good just on Bangkok terms, but one must do benchmarking with Kuala Lumpur, Singapore etc. Seriously, you won’t reach far with a Kamikaze drink anymore! Now it has to really be good! And talking of F&B; in the old days it was about having good food, good drinks, good service and entertainment. But now one sells an experience, as it’s no longer about having a DJ in a bar – people couldn’t care less – but now they come because you offer them an experience.”

I think this fits me perfectly as we have always worked on having bars that are more experience-focused, with the likes of Maggie Choo’s and The Iron Fairies – venues that are a bit like walking into another world. But one must really offer something experience-based and one must think ten steps further now. Thankfully our company is unique and we have always been forerunners.”

“With Gaggan as another forerunner, Bangkok has also really shown that people from Bangkok travel to all parts of the world, and people from around the whole of Asia travel here. If you have a chef coming that has a reputation you can count on people from Hong Kong and Singapore. People travel throughout the region, and they could even travel from Europe for such a chef experience! And Thais are now getting their own known chefs. There’s a gigantic market for food travel,” Johan continues.

Ladies in Bangkok nightlife
Ladies in extravagant dresses i Bangkok’s nightlife. Photo: Dennis Thern.

Tropical palms in the city

Another ingredient within Bangkok’s entertainment scene is pool parties – mainly hosted by some of downtown’s five star hotels. And here Johan predicts that Bangkok will also get beach clubs going forward.

“We started with outdoor parties some ten years ago. Then the pool parties arrived – a market that has been doing well now again with Westin, W Hotel and So Bangkok that also has had a kind of monopoly on this so far. But there are many new hotels planning that they too should be able to host parties. So now you are seeing parties in all kinds of hotels that you thought would never have it. I think it will continue and think more and more tourists coming to Thailand want to have a tropical palm experience in the middle of the city, so I think there is a large market for that.”

It is not really for Thais though; who will never be out in the sun, he adds. “It would be too much to ask for, but perhaps, sometime into the future!”

Sophisticated Thais heading for Ekkamai

Sukhumvit soi 11 has also changed dramatically when it comes to Thais as guests. “Today, as things look, many of my Thai friends would not come here. It offers nothing any sophisticated Thai person wants. Even if we were to open the most luxurious venue in the entire country it’s always going to be for tourists, expats and middle class Thais here. It will never become upper class Thai as I can see it.”

And yet, Johan aims to build up the “upper soi 11” as a premium version. “We want to stake on Nest and the other places up here that will continue to be world class. We have lived well on our good reputation, nice guests, our staff and our drinks. But in today’s Bangkok that’s not enough so even being very satisfied about the results the venue stills deserves a facelift. We hope to keep the name and the values. But it will become much more design-driven. The whole building will undergo a transformation and we’ll come back strong!”

Johan Davidsson on the street Sukhumvit soi 11, outside Fenix hotel
Johan Davidsson on the side street Sukhumvit soi 11, outside Fenix hotel. Photo: Dennis Thern.

Meanwhile, Johan is seeing signs that Soi Thonglor is turning into what soi 11 used to be ten years ago. “I think tourists are finding their way there; it shows more Thainess. Guests behave well, and the bars are on a very high level. And I sincerely hope that Thonglor – from having been an artsy, cool place where one opened bars – is now heading for mainstream. And when the tourists enter the Thais will move towards Soi Ekkamai and Phra Khanong – which will then become the ‘new Thonglor’. There is also a spread happening so that the monopoly on international clubs that soi 11 used to have is now widening, with openings along the main Sukhumvit road from soi 11 and all the way to Thonglor. Along it, the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre will be one of the sub-centres.”

The ‘Club Crawl’ landscape is very different in 2023 in many ways. For instance, back then the quality clubs on soi 11 charged a door fee that party-goers could avoid by paying a low fee to attend the frequently held club crawl events instead.

“I think it’s probably not possible to do the same thing again – it’s too spread out now. But we might do something similar in the future, in one way or the other.”

Asked to give his list of recommendations for an all-nighter of dining and drinking in the capital Johan picks: “Kong Kong Korean BBQ offers everything you can eat, Korean buffet, for around 700 baht. I would start a night there with friends. Then, from 9 pm to midnight I would choose some nice place where to enjoy great drinks. Try Tapioka-based cocktails for something Thai! At Havana Social Club: dance to some Latin beats with Qbar vibe, feel a bit like Fidel Castro and drink mojitos! Or opt for Maggie Choo’s for cocktails, and hang in one of our secret vaults or just in a sofa. Last, I would choose a nightclub. For people who want to enjoy big name artists I would opt for Spaceplus Bangkok – like a festival happening every night with 2000 people on a big room dance floor. For something more intimate I would choose Sing Sing Theatre or maybe Chow Cafe & Bar to party until dawn…”

Fireshow with bottle: Johan Davidsson
Fireshow with bottle during Club Crawl: Johan Davidsson. Photo: Dennis Thern.




About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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