Closure of Royal Thai Cuisine in Newport Beach marks end of local dynasty

After 36 years, Royal Thai Cuisine in Newport Beach is closing down. The last in a chain of family-run restaurants started in 1978, the location was known for a 1-ton statue stolen in 1992 but later recovered.
(Don Leach/ Staff Photographer)

Orange County foodies and fans of Newport Beach’s Royal Thai Cuisine are saddened by the end of an era, and a dynasty, as owners of the family-operated business recently announced the restaurant’s closure after nearly four decades.

Mimi Dang, daughter of owner Sam Tilakamonkul, aka Sam Tila, confirmed the news last week. Tila opened the first Royal Thai Cuisine location with seven brothers in the late 1970s using their mother’s home recipes and served as executive chef.

“There were plans to celebrate this [occasion] with our friends and family who have helped us along the way. But then COVID-19 hit,” Dang said Friday by email. “As we socially distanced, we quietly and tearfully turned in our keys and reflected on the memories.”

Shortly after arriving to the Los Angeles area from their native Thailand, the Tila brothers first opened Bangkok Market, thought to be the city’s first Thai wholesale grocery store, on Melrose Avenue in 1972.

Royal Thai Cuisine, a staple restaurant in Newport Beach, recently closed after 36 years of service.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Known for once hard-to-find items, such as curry paste, kefir lime leaves, forbidden rice and lemongrass, the market closed in November, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The first Royal Thai Cuisine restaurant opened on Pico Boulevard in 1978, serving a mostly American clientele. In the years that followed, family members opened numerous locations in Laguna and Manhattan beaches, Carlsbad, La Jolla and San Diego (with a satellite kitchen on the UC San Diego campus).

The Newport Beach restaurant, opened in 1984, was the last Royal Thai Cuisine to be owned and operated by the Tilakamonkul family.

It made headlines in 1992 when a 6-foot tall, 1-ton teak elephant statue was stolen from chains that anchored it to the brick pavement near the entrance to the restaurant and carried off. A 22-year-old man was later arrested after photos of him posing with the statue surfaced, and the pachyderm was returned (minus one tusk) to the establishment.

Dang said her father became a community figure, sponsoring philanthropic events and being recognized by the Southern California Restaurant Writers Assn. as a Gold Award winner many times over for the restaurant’s authentic dishes and signature cocktail selection.

In 2019, Royal Thai Cuisine was awarded “Best Thai Food” as part of the L.A. Times’ Best of Times OC contest.

Dang thanked the loyal patrons of the restaurant and the many family members who played a role in the success of the family-operated establishment over the years.

“We can’t close without thanking you, the people who have supported Royal Thai Cuisine the past four decades, as well as the entire Tilakamonkul family for all their hard work and dedication to the family business,” she wrote. “We wish you much success on your next adventure.”

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