From chicken livers to RVA’s first Thai restaurant, a look at the man behind Beauregard’s Thai Room

40 years ago, the owner of Beauregard’s Thai Room came to America with no cooking experience. This year he celebrates 20 years of owning Richmond’s first Thai restaurant.

Thai Room sign
  • Who: David Roygulchareon
  • What: Richmond’s first Thai restaurant celebrates 20 years
  • When: Opened on Mother’s Day, 1993
  • Where: 103 E. Cary Street
  • Why: To give Richmond it’s first taste of Thai.
  • Dishes: Lunch items include: Mandarin Chicken Salad with grilled chicken breast and mandarin oranges served over a bed of greens with cranberry sauce and raspberry dressing ($8.50) and Crying Tiger Beef with slices of grilled marinated beef served over greens with Thai sticky rice ($9.95). Dinner items include: Thai Cellophane Noodle with noodles made from green beans and peas mixed with egg and tamarind ($9.95), and Gang Nur with red curry, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, basil leaves, and coconut milk ($12.50).

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David Roygulchareon honed his cooking skills back when a 5 lbs. bucket of chicken livers cost just $2.50. That was in New York City in the late 1970s, a few years after Roygulchareon–owner of Beauregard’s Thai Room–emigrated from Bangkok, Thailand.

There were other bizarre ingredients Roygulchareon prepared and served: calf brain, calf liver, calf kidney.

“We had to do that all the time,” said Roygulchareon, 62, from behind Beauregard’s downstairs bar. He said NYC restaurants didn’t have time to dawdle or rest on any culinary laurels–customers demanded new and exciting menu items regularly. “We had to change something new all the time.”

Roygulchareon looks ten years younger than his actual age. And while he’s perfectly understandable, even as songs by The Clash and Duran Duran drown him out at the bar, Roygulchareon’s a bit self-conscious about his English (more on that later).

When asked why he uprooted himself from his homeland and traveled to a foreign city with no prospects and no plans, Roygulchareon said, “You came here to try and get a better life, better education…I learned everything here.”

Coming to America

Roygulchareon is the first born in a family of 10 children raised near Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), a Buddhist temple in Thailand’s capital. His mother and father were tailors, a profession Roygulchareon inherited to help support his nine younger siblings, albeit at the expense of a formal education. “My education is not high because I had to help my family,” Roygulchareon said. He eventually finished school by taking night classes following the days spent assisting his father.

In 1973, when Roygulchareon was in his early 20s, he told his parents he wanted to move to America. “They gave me a one-way ticket and a $400 bank check” and wished him well.

After settling in New York City with a friend, Roygulchareon became a stock boy at a small delicatessen on 45th Street and 9th Avenue. He worked from 7:00 PM – 7:00 AM at $1.89 per hour, sending $50 from his earnings back home each month. During the day he took English classes.

Roygulchareon soon started busing tables at the Taft Hotel. “Anytime you had a Broadway show–Friday and Saturday nights–it was crazy,” he said. While the hotel endures, the restaurant didn’t–Roygulchareon left after two years.

His work ethic took him from the floor of one restaurant to the kitchen of another. While working at a restaurant on 82nd & 3rd, he learned French cuisine, in particular desserts like crème caramel. While working there, he also got a kitchen job at Marvin Gardens, on the other side of Central Park at 82nd & Broadway. From 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM, Roygulchareon worked at the French restaurant making $15 – $17 French-inspired lunch dishes before heading to Marvin Gardens to work that night. When Marvin Gardens’ owner, Martin Gutin, discovered Roygulchareon’s dual employment, he gave the cook an ultimatum: just work for me or don’t work here at all.

Gutin valued Roygulchareon. The owner went so far as to see to it that someone booked and paid for vacations Roygulchareon took with his wife each year–places like Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

But while Roygulchareon’s hard work earned him accolades from his employers, it also indirectly affected his English. Roygulchareon’s theory: people like his managers, kitchen and wait staff, and vendors avoided correcting his grammar–which would help him learn–because they were afraid it’d upset him.”They don’t want to embarrass you if your English is not good,” he said. As a result, he said his English hasn’t improved much in the 40 years he’s live here. Something he regrets.

Not only did Roygulchareon struggle with language in the Marvin Gardens kitchen, early on he sometimes struggled with cooking. He rarely cooked while living in Bangkok, and he made it into the kitchen through hard work and dependability, not by completing culinary school.

One of the people who indirectly taught him how to cook was Julia Child. Roygulchareon routinely used her recipes for guidance and inspiration, and she helped him develop his own sense of cooking. Roygulchareon said this gradual learning ultimately benefited him. “If you learn by yourself, it takes longer, but you know” the ins-and-outs of cooking, he said.

For nearly 15 years, Roygulchareon honed his cooking at Marvin Gardens until the restaurant closed in 1992.

“Then I came down here.”

Thai’d Down

Roygulchareon’s friend and manager at Marvin Gardens (a Richmond native) asked Roygulchareon to visit Richmond to do restaurant recon in hopes he’d agree to help start one in the city. Roygulchareon said that Richmond’s restaurant scene in the early 1990s was the opposite of what it is today: not nearly as many options and not nearly as good. That presented an opportunity. So he, his friend, and another partner decided to bring Roygulchareon’s continental dishes to Richmond. On Sunday, May 9, 1993 (Mother’s Day) P.G.T. Beauregard’s1 opened at 103 E. Cary Street.2

While it may not seem large on the outside, the restaurant’s interior can accommodate roughly 200 people. Originally, Beauregard’s was segmented: the upstairs was an upscale dining room, while the downstairs was more casual.

On either side of the restaurant’s downstairs bar are two patios: a quaint, secluded one along E. Cary Street, and a larger one out back (arguably the best restaurant patio in town) that often hosts private parties and even weddings.

Roygulchareon brought his background in continental cuisine to the new restaurant, but he also added something to it. “We put a little bit of Thai on the first menu,” he said. He soon found out that Richmonders had been traveling as far as D.C. to eat Thai food before the in-town option arrived.

Beauregard’s Thai dishes grew so popular that the owners turned the upstairs into a separate restaurant, The Thai Room, in early 1994. In doing so, Roygulchareon helped create what is likely Richmond’s first Thai restaurant.3 The popularity of the upstairs Thai Room led the owners to merge the two restaurants into Beauregard’s Thai Room Restaurant later that year.

Judging by the number of Thai restaurants now in Richmond, it’s clear Thai food has only grown in popularity since. “I think it’s more healthy,” Roygulchareon said about the food. “Chinese food is a little more greasy” in comparison. He also said that whereas Indian curry is often a bit dry and pungent, Thai curry is “fresh, wet” and more palatable. All reasons, he said, why Thai food remains popular.

This year, Beauregard’s Thai Room celebrates its 20th anniversary. Roygulchareon said he’s noticed the city’s restaurant scene change in that time. “In Richmond now, there are a lot of good restaurants,” he said. “I think nowadays people are smarter,” about where they choose to eat. Richmonders are still choosing Beauregard’s even after 20 years, and that speaks volumes about its food. Roygulchareon said menu items haven’t changed much in recent years. Instead, it’s full of perennial favorites approached with consistent quality.

Roygulchareon’s work ethic hasn’t changed either. The 62-year-old still opens and closes most days. He’s worked long hours since arriving in America 40 years ago, and he said it’s hard to imagine a life without them. Maybe one day he’ll retire, but the feeling he still gets after the restaurant closes, when customers leave a bit happier than when they arrived, makes it hard for him to say goodbye.

“I really enjoy when I have a good night, a busy night,” he said. “I feel on top of the world.”

Having lived in Bangkok, NYC, and Richmond for significant portions of his life, I asked him which of those he calls home. He considered the question for a moment before answering: Richmond. From tailoring in Bangkok as a child, to learning to cook in the kitchens of New York, his life has led him here. “I love Richmond,” he said. “I’m happy I’m here.”

Beauregard’s Thai Room is located at 103 E. Cary Street.

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Footnotes

  1. Named after the famous Confederate general. Roygulchareon said his partners came up with the name while he was on vacation in Bangkok. 
  2. Originally the Munford Home, built circa 1870. 
  3. He said the city’s second Thai restaurant is Thai Diner at 8059 W. Broad, which used to be an ice cream parlor. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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