Remembering Tamarind founder Charlie Niyomkul, who never met a stranger

The Thai restaurateur died earlier this month at age 70

From left: Jeda Niyomkul, DeeDee Niyomkul, Aran Downes, Charlie Niyomkul, Nan Niyomkul, Deklan Downes, Jedi Niyomkul

The founder of Tamarind Restaurant Group, Supichai “Charlie” Niyomkul, died on April 5 at age 70 due to complications from Covid-19. He is remembered for his endless smile, his dedication to his family, and the popular Thai restaurants he leaves behind.

Widely credited for introducing Thai fine dining to Atlanta, Niyomkul immigrated to the U.S. in 1971, working his way from bartender to server and even riverboat captain in New York City. He and his wife, Nantha “Nan” Niyomkul, opened their first restaurant, Tamarind Thai Cuisine, nearly 20 years later on the Upper East Side, attracting celebrity regulars like Brooke Shields and Sidney Poitier.

After visiting friends in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, the Niyomkuls decided to move their family—including children Eddie and DeeDee—South, opening Tamarind across from a gas station on 14th Street. It became known for its signature pineapple chicken dish served in a hallowed-out pineapple.

“He was a pioneer in Midtown—there wasn’t even a Starbucks there at the time,” daughter DeeDee Niyomkul says. “You’d see a line around the block during lunchtime.”

Xavier Salomon, executive chef at the Montage Los Cabos, was working at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, at the time when chef Jean Banchet invited him to dinner at Tamarind.

“Charlie sat with us at the table. He was full of life, so proud of his country. We became very good friends,” Salomon says. “He was tireless—an example to follow. Morning, day, and night he was there. It was his life.”

Charlie Niyomkul

The penultimate host, Niyomkul never met a stranger. When pro golfer Vijay Singh and his wife, Ardena, visited Atlanta before the Masters more than 30 years ago, they stumbled upon Tamarind and instantly connected over Charlie’s love of golf and the Singhs’ Asian heritage.

“Charlie made everyone in the restaurant feel important,” Ardena Singh says. “He had a genuine warmth.”

The Singhs enjoyed the Niyomkuls’ company—and their food—so much that they invited them to cater their annual Tournament Players Club party. As word spread about the unique food, including grilled Thai lamb chops, attendance grew from 20 to 200 guests. The Niyomkuls were even invited to set the menu for the Masters Champions Dinner.

The consummate restaurateur, Charlie opened Nan Thai Fine Dining in 2003 and moved Tamarind to Colony Square the following year. (Tamarind has since closed.)

“I admired his business sense, as well as his huge love for Nan and his children,” says A Legendary Event founder Tony Conway, who befriended Charlie in 1994. The two worked together on numerous charitable fundraisers benefiting Meals on Wheels and Share Our Strength. “He was always happy, always smiling,” Conway says.

Nan and Charlie Niyomkul

A family man, Charlie didn’t let his business get in the way of his relationships. When his children were young, he picked them up from school, attended their sports games, and cooked them dinner while Nan was at work. Later, he developed a close bond with his now 5-year-old grandson, Deklan Downes, teaching him to putt as soon as he could hold a club.

“He was a very hands-on dad and showed me the ins and outs of hospitality,” DeeDee says. She went on to open two of her own restaurants, Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft and Chai Yo Modern Thai, and is currently taking on some of her father’s responsibilities at Nan and the parent company.

“My dad was the presence. He personified the restaurant and who we are as a hospitality group,” DeeDee says.

Charlie never lost his love of his home country, returning year after year and often bringing friends from Atlanta with him.

“He helped me discover [Thailand] from north to south. It was a life-changing experience,” Salomon says. “I opened this Thai restaurant in Montage Los Cabos because of him. I’m forever grateful.”

At the time of his death, Charlie was planning to move Nan across the street from its current location and modernize the decor. DeeDee will continue with his plans in the next couple years.

“It was my dad’s dream,” she says.