The new, modern Mai's (it's bigger): Anna Tran reveals the rebuilding plans forMidtown icon
Would the restaurant come back? When? Where?
After three months of assessing the situation, Mai's recently announced it is ready to begin the process of rebuilding in the original space on Milam St. Now, Anna Tran — the third generation involved in running the family restaurant — talks exclusively to CultureMap about the changes in store for the new Mai's — and what will remain the same.
"I would say the restaurant will be 90 percent revamped," Tran says. "All that's really left are the exterior walls, and even the exterior will be changing. We're adding a wrap-around of stucco so it will look very different. Inside there were always two floors, but the top floor was exclusively office space. We are going to get rid of half of that so half will be upstairs seating.
"We're expanding seating from 107 before to about 211, so pretty much doubling capacity. The second floor will be open daily for seating but will also give us more options for private parties."
Another new feature will be a central bar area, with a full liquor license (in the past Mai's just served wine and beer) and bar seating.
"When you go out to eat, it's really a social event . You don't see a lot of Vietnamese places with a full bar, but you do see that with sushi, how the bar scene really becomes a destination, and we want to say 'Why not Vietnamese?' Especially with our late night crowd, they can come in before going out or leave the clubs early if they get hungry and have a few more drinks here. Why not?"
Working with Dang La Architecture, Tran envisions a space that's dark, warm and cozy.
"I'm modern and (owner) Mai (Nguyen, the daughter of the original owners) is old-school, so we've had a lot of compromise," Tran says. "The outdated neon lights will be gone — instead of the restaurant being so bright all the time with lights and the beige walls, I want dim light and a cozy atmosphere. We're still working on a color palette, but it's going to be richer with lots of chocolate brown, wood and earth tones."
No more swimming fish
Another notable Mai's feature that won't be returning? The aquariums.
"I know the families really liked them because they entertained the kids, but they took up a lot of space and were really high-maintenance," Tran says.
The menu is also being revamped — Mai's 200 dishes are being reduced and the family is experimenting with new dishes and having smaller portions available. Tran says the end result will be a menu with "at least" 100 dishes.
"We know which are the favorites and which ones people come back for, and we aren't touching those," Tran assures. "We aren't changing any of our existing dishes, we just want to concentrate on what we are really great at."
With all the changes, one thing is staying absolutely the same: The location of Mai's front door.
"Mai is really into feng shui, and when the restaurant opened my grandmother hired a feng shui expert to decide where the best spot was for the entrance. Now Mai won't let it move even a centimeter because it's been such good fortune over the years. We went though all these drawings with the architects and it was like, 'This will work if we move the door a couple feet to the right,' but she refused."
Tran says with luck and good weather, the family hopes to have a presentable exterior by August and to open just before Christmas.
"The hard part is over," Tran says. "What it did was allow us to step outside the box. We're all creatures of habit and think, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' There were things we wanted to update but we never wanted to close for even a day. Now that we had to close, it's given us an opportunity to think about what we really want Mai's to be now and in the future."