WILMINGTON — When Café Chinois debuted in the late spring, owner Solange “Niki” Thompson — who also runs Indochine and Indochine Express — announced she would be expanding the restaurant right as the first order of Vietnamese crepes went out. This week she revealed the expansion is complete. Café Chinois went from seating 40 to 70 customers.
Located in Fulton Station in the Pine Valley area, the unassuming strip mall harbors a secret hideaway of 1,500 square feet, filled to the brim with Asian art and artifacts. Thompson secured Chinois’ neighboring space — the former Coastal Carolina Driving School, which moved a few doors down — to begin renovations three months ago. She depended once again on the help of her friend and interior designer Denis Castro to transform the additional dining area.
“He knows my idea and my vision,” Thompson said. “So he took whatever I had from my house, my personal collection, and dedicated a corner to my children, my family, my parents.”
One nook showcases findings from Thompson’s father, who was an archaeologist, which displays “some of his work that he did in the cave.” Another highlights Thompson’s childhood collection of Japanese dolls that she said is already resonating with some diners.
“A customer came in yesterday and she said, ‘You know, I had dolls like this when I was a child,’” Thompson said. “I wanted to bring that connection from my family to my customers.”
Thompson’s international art collection also spills over in the space, as do one-of-a-kind hand-cut wooden screens, and the animated purple, teal, lime green and red from the main dining area.
“It’s a happy place,” Thompson said.
Thompson is most renowned for opening her flagship restaurant Indochine on Market Street in 2001. She didn’t launch a second eatery until December 2020, when Indochine Express debuted in Monkey Junction — a few miles away from Café Chinois.
Chinois, she said, brings a finer dining Asian establishment to the southern part of the county. She purchased it last fall from the former Southern Thai restaurateur. Thompson said part of the agreement came with her vow to keep its staff and some of its specialty items, which she did. So far, she said, customers have responded kindly.
“The Peking duck with kumquat sauce, Vietnamese-style bass, Korean bulgogi — they all really sell well,” Thompson said.
Still, with the opening of Express and Chinois, operations at the flagship Market Street location haven’t slowed. The restaurateur said a line creeps out the door every day at 4 p.m. like clockwork.
“I feel so guilty,” Thompson noted of customers who have to wait. “I wish I had some solution, but that would have to be a bigger kitchen and hiring more people at Indochine. And it’s very difficult to find good help — though, my staff and crew are wonderful.”
Thompson runs all three restaurants with the help of her daughter, Marie Bartsch, and director of operations, Kathy Long. In fact, she said her children worked for Long years ago at downtown’s former hotspot Caffé Phoenix.
“She has been such a great family friend and an important part of our success here,” Thompson said.
Already, Thompson is evolving Café Chinois’ output once again. She plans on adding tea time this fall, from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., and envisions serving one of many specialty teas, cakes and dim sum.
She also is working on recipes to offer more gluten-free options — both savory and sweet. “We get that request a lot there,” she said.
Lunch will also get its own Bento Box in due time, according to Thompson.
As for the launch of a fourth restaurant, well, the 30-year restaurant veteran isn’t saying yes or no quite yet: “It would just have to be the right location.”
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