Bill Blakeman was one of the very first customers to walk in the door.
Back in October 1983, when The Emerald of Siam opened in Richland, there were no other restaurants in the Tri-Cities dedicated to Thai cuisine.
Blakeman had lived in Thailand for a year while serving in the military, and he missed the mouth-watering flavors he’d tasted there. So, he brought his young family to the Emerald – which had taken over a former drugstore and soda fountain space in the Uptown Shopping Center – as soon as he got the chance. He’s been a loyal customer ever since.
In fact, over the last 40 years – Emerald is celebrating its milestone birthday this month – Blakeman has become one of the many people who’ve transformed from customer to something more, as Emerald itself has morphed from an eatery to a place unlike any other in the Tri-Cities.
At the Emerald, you can dig into savory green curry chicken or a crispy spring roll while listening to world-class live music or taking in an art show – all while feeling like part of the family.
“It’s more than a restaurant,” said Blakeman, who lives in Pasco. “You can go in there and hear jazz, blues, anything. They’ve become an extension of my family. I feel at home when I’m there.”
That’s what Emerald founder Ravadi Quinn intended.
She opened the restaurant not long after she and her husband and children moved to the Tri-Cities. She’s a social person and wanted a place to share the tastes and culture of her homeland.
“Eating food – it’s like meditation. You need to enjoy it,” said Quinn, who’s authored cookbooks and poetry books and put on cooking classes and cultural classes locally over the years. “The Emerald is a family place, it’s warm. That’s how I was raised: around food, you need to be happy.”
Quinn’s journey to the Tri-Cities and the Emerald started in Thailand, where she was born and raised. She met her husband when he came to the Southeast Asian country to work at the U.S. embassy during the Vietnam War. He was on his own with three young children, and Quinn became the family’s governess. In a twist straight out of “The Sound of Music,” they eventually married. Along came two more kids, Dara and Billy, who now co-own the Emerald after Quinn retired in 2011.
From the start, Quinn envisioned the Emerald as a safe, inviting place where people could enjoy new flavors and learn to see the world differently. She regularly welcomed school groups to the restaurant, teaching children about life in a country more than 7,000 miles away. “It’s something that I’m really proud of. Being from a country with so much beauty, I need to tell people about it. Children can learn that some things are the same and also to see the beauty of differences,” she said.
Quinn, whose most recent book, “The Voice of...Silence,” is a collection of spiritual poetry, now divides her time between the Tri-Cities and Thailand. She’ll be giving away copies of the book during Emerald’s anniversary celebration, which runs Oct. 20-21 and features a special buffet, poetry readings by Quinn, Thai dance and special musical guests including Nick Drummond, Whalien, Cockaphonix, Three Rivers Saxtette, SIRSY, Midnight Snacks and a family jam with guests.
Live music has been a staple of the Emerald for years, but it became a centerpiece when Dara Quinn came on board. The accomplished keyboardist and former touring musician put her music career on hold to move back to the Tri-Cities and help run the Emerald after her mom retired.
Letting the restaurant go wasn’t an option; it was a deeply ingrained part of her family, she said.
So, she infused it with her musical passion. That’s meant the Emerald has become one of the premier live music venues in the Tri-Cities, drawing national and international touring acts.
It’s also become a haven for local musicians – from students in school jazz bands to fledgling alternative bands to professional jazz artists. They’ve all found a place to shine on the Emerald’s stage.
“I call it the ‘musical soul’ of the Tri-Cities,” said Cindy McKay of Richland, a folk and Americana guitarist and singer who’s played regularly at the Emerald for years. “Dara and Ravadi have always valued the arts and opened doors and have been nothing but encouraging to musicians, especially local musicians. They’ve always opened their doors to young folks. That’s part of the ‘home’ feel there.”
Mary Lou Gnoza of Richland, an American standards singer – think Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney – who’s also been a regular Emerald performer for years, said it’s a place where “you feel very welcomed, you feel very accepted.” The eclectic mix of performers adds to the charm, she said.
“You have young rock musicians who play there, and you have oldies but goodies like me. We enjoy one another’s company; we enjoy one another’s music,” Gnoza said.
For Dara Quinn, the live music is an extension of what her mother aimed to do with the Emerald.
“This place is a cultural hub. First with Mom and her Thai culture, bringing it to people. And then when I took over with my brother, putting in the live music and the art,” she said. “It’s always been a place for people to come explore new things and show their gifts.”
It hasn’t always been easy to run the restaurant, from weathering recessions to the Covid-19 pandemic to protests, threats and vandalism this past spring over an all-ages drag brunch.
But those who love the Emerald have stepped up in support, Dara Quinn said.
“We’ve definitely been tested. We thank our customers for being loyal, even during hard times. During the Covid shutdown, our takeout was insane. The support from the community (during the spring protests and threats) was really special. They came out in droves to support us,” she said. “Love is powerful.”
For Katrina Greenfield, the Emerald is an easy place to love.
She lives in Canada now, but she’s a longtime Quinn family friend who grew up in the Tri-Cities. She’s logged many hours in Emerald booths over the years.
“I haven’t found a Pad Thai that is matched anywhere else. And the spring rolls – I’ve never found spring rolls as good anywhere else,” she said. But, of course, it’s not just about the food.
Like many others, Greenfield said a big part of what makes the Emerald special is the Quinns and the sense of home and acceptance they’ve cultivated. The sense of family.
In 40 years, “we’ve seen generations of the same family come in. Babies are now bringing their kids here. We’ve had weddings here, proposals, receptions. Everything,” Dara Quinn said.
That’s been true in Greenfield’s family. She ate there growing up, and now her own son eats there.
Cindy McKay, the folk and Americana musician, had her first date with her now-husband there.
For Bill Blakeman, one of the first-ever customers, the Emerald has been the backdrop for many of his family’s most important moments, from birthday parties to a wedding rehearsal dinner.
He’s even spent holidays with the Quinns.
If you drop by the Emerald on a Monday night, you’re likely to see Blakeman, eating chicken fried rice and perhaps getting on stage to play piano as part of the weekly open mic.
He sees the importance of the Emerald in the community – that it’s a cultural hub, a musical haven, a beacon of acceptance and love. And he sees that on a smaller scale, too, in his own life.
“Ravadi shares her poetry. Her message of love is out there. Dara is like a daughter, too. I’m really proud of her. I’m proud of the decisions she’s made, the chances she’s taken,” he said.
When he walks in the doors, he feels good. He feels seen. He belongs.
“It just feels good to be known and be part of something,” he said.
Go to: emeraldofsiam.com.
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