As an unpaid stagiaire at Spago in Beverly Hills in 2018, Tuệ Nguyễn spent most shifts shucking peas and dicing onions from noon until 9 p.m. Though she was technically at the bottom of the kitchen brigade and charged with endless mind-numbing tasks, Nguyễn was eager to cook professionally after two years learning in a culinary school classroom. But as the internship progressed and the realities of kitchen culture and hierarchies sank in, the 20-year-old cook began to second-guess her chosen path, which was already gravely disappointing to her parents and required living out of a car for nearly a year.
“I started to realize how toxic that environment was and how unhappy it made me,” she says. Nguyễn’s dedication was tested the day the restaurant’s head chef pulled her aside. “I honestly don’t even remember his face, his name; I just remember him telling me, ‘I don’t see your potential.’” The chef’s words knocked Nguyễn off her axis. She immediately quit, leaving her knives and restaurant kitchen dreams behind. “That’s pretty much the last time I even had the thought of cooking professionally,” she says.
In the five years since departing from Spago, Nguyễn has blazed a culinary trail all her own. With social media as her medium and Vietnamese food as her message, Nguyễn, better known by her online moniker, Tway Da Bae, has garnered a fanbase of more than 1 million across YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and inspired countless cooks with her approachable recipes and effervescent personality. Now she’s opening her first restaurant in partnership with the H.Wood Group. Đi Đi, which debuts on Thursday, July 20 in West Hollywood, promises to be a love letter to Vietnam and its dynamic metropolises, foodways, culture, and citizens. “You’re going to be able to get bò kho in WeHo,” says Nguyễn, her voice fluttering. “That’s crazy!”
The fast-rising social media influencer came across the radar of H.Wood Group co-founders John Terzian and Brian Toll in the summer of 2021 when their restaurant Petite Taqueria hosted Nguyễn’s very first food pop-up. “We really didn’t know what to expect, whether that was going to be 30 people, 50 people, 100 people,” says Toll. “It was madness. People were begging for tickets. We were at full capacity two nights in a row.”
After witnessing the sway of Tway, Terzian and Toll officially partnered with Nguyễn to take over the Petite Taqueria space on La Cienega when the restaurant closed in 2022. “I didn’t really have to pitch the vision because I am the vision,” Nguyễn says.
For their joint venture, Nguyễn is handling the restaurant’s culinary approach and some of its marketing given her sizeable online audience, while H.Wood Group is charged with operations, including managing the restaurant’s nearly three dozen employees, handling payroll (hourly wage for front-of-house employees ranges between $16 and $25 plus tips, while line cooks earn $18 to $20 per hour), and offering benefits such as medical, dental, vision, and life insurance after 60 days of employment. Toll sees the possibility of replicating Đi Đi “all over the world” if the West Hollywood restaurant proves successful.
The restaurant’s name, Đi Đi, is Nguyễn’s way of sharing her mother tongue. “I really want to familiarize people with Vietnamese phrasing, Vietnamese words,” she says. “I say ‘đi’ a lot, like ‘đi ăn’ (go eat), ‘đi chơi’ (go play), ‘đi đi’ (let’s go). To have a Vietnamese restaurant with a Vietnamese name that has the accents on it and everything meant everything to me.” Flanking the restaurant’s logo and exterior is a pair of menacing tigers, a nod to the Vietnamese zodiac sign that she and her parents share.
With the opening of Đi Đi, Nguyễn joins an exclusive group of social media content creators who have parlayed their online success into real-life food businesses. Just last year, wildly popular (and equally controversial) YouTuber David Dobrik opened a pizza parlor on the Sunset Strip, while TikToker Dylan Lemay launched Catch’n Ice Cream on Bleecker Street in New York City.
The two-story, 3,000-square-foot La Cienega space has been completely overhauled for Đi Đi. Designed by Terzian and John Sofio of Built Inc., the 90-seat dining room is inspired by Vietnamese food and culture. “We wanted to match Tuệ’s food and presentations,” Terzian says. “We use a ton of colorful palettes. The room is a mix of floral patterns and rich reds and greens.”
The restaurant’s encaustic cement tile flooring reminds Nguyễn of her grandfather’s home in Vũng Tàu, where she lived until age 8 when she immigrated to the U.S. with her parents. Đi Đi’s wallpapered ceilings hearken to the fabrics and textures of a traditional áo dài. “I want people to feel like when they’re stepping from off of La Cienega Boulevard into Đi Đi — it’s a whole new world, it’s a vibe,” says Nguyễn. “The energy of Saigon is so different and I just wanted to bring that to Đi Đi.”
The menu reflects Nguyễn’s desire to expand diners’ views of Vietnamese food beyond well-known dishes like phở and bánh mì. Expect to find several of Nguyễn’s signature dishes served at Đi Đi, including honey-glazed shrimp and Vietnamese coffee creme brulee. “It’s Vietnamese food, yes, but it’s also my version of Vietnamese food,” she says. “It’s Tway-nized Vietnamese food — it’s all of my experiences combined.”
Starters include fish sauce wings, shaking beef, and a Vietnamese Caesar salad. Lemongrass chile oil noodles, whole fried fish, Vietnamese beef stew, two kinds of fried rice, and more headline the entrees. The phở feeds two and its recipe comes from Nguyễn’s stepfather, Kevin, who personally taught the staff how to prepare it. The dessert lineup features Nguyễn’s take on chè Thái and a hollow sesame-studded doughnut (bánh tiêu) filled with coconut custard. “From the start, I made it very clear that I did not want to compromise anything,” says Nguyễn. “It’s really gonna be like, ‘Take it or leave it.’ These are the flavors I grew up eating and I’m proud of them and if you don’t like them, Cheesecake Factory is probably like 15 minutes away.”
The menu’s communal spirit comes from Nguyễn’s formative years in Vietnam, where her family gathered twice daily to share lunch and dinner. “Whenever I go out, there is no such thing as you getting your own plate,” she says. “And that’s how I want it to be at Đi Đi.” To accompany the food is a slate of cocktails, beer, wine, and nonalcoholic beverages. While the restaurant won’t likely open for lunch, daytime takeout and delivery will launch soon.
“Success to me is being free and being happy and doing what it is that makes you feel alive,” says Nguyễn. “And that’s honestly why I went down the path of what I felt was exciting to me even though I didn’t know that this was going to be the result of my decision.”
While it’s too soon to say how diners will connect with Nguyễn’s cooking, the chef’s mother and “biggest critic” has already given her seal of approval. “That made me feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulder because if she feels good about it, I feel great about it,” Nguyễn says. As only someone raised by Vietnamese parents would know, that might be as high a praise as any to gather a few friends and say, “Let’s go!”
Đi Đi is located at 755 N. La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90069. The restaurant is open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Reservations are available here.