The first sign was the cluster of tuk tuks near the entrance, and the drivers who had learned to time their naps with the eating habits of expats. Inside the gate, shoulder-high fans in the gardened area reminded us that, for some, life in the tropics demands a breeze.
But it was not until we entered the villa itself that it began to dawn on us that we were leaving Phnom Penh behind. The community noticeboard at the bottom of the stairway startled us with offers for counselling on “transitional stress”, mentoring on travel writing, a Kiwi weight loss program, “trigger point therapy”, and far too much nonsense about the world’s longest lasting fad: yoga.
By the time we reached the second floor we felt like we had exited the Kingdom. The only reminders of Cambodia were the waiters, dressed in black from neck to toe, and a few photographs of rural folk.
We enjoyed the high ceilings, the distance between tables, and the veranda where we could smoke in peace. The menu – with its frappes, Mediterranean pasta, pita bread sandwiches, “glutten free” brownies and “soup of the week” – could have been faxed in from the suburbs of Toronto and Berlin. It jumped all over the map, but skipped Cambodia, except for a slice of Kampot Ham and Fish Amok.
The waiters were alert, but far too indulgent. They let us order chicken nuggets from the Just for Kids section, and refrained from giggling at our response to the invitation to “Create Your Own Salad!” It starts with a base of mixed greens, and then gives a choice of four of 11 toppings and one of five types of dressing. We requested croutons, croutons, croutons and croutons, with Thousand Island dressing to see how the waiters would react. They didn’t.
Perhaps, like many Cambodians, they’ve been so bombarded with unreasonable demands from foreigners that they no longer recognise the zany ones.
The sushi roll was as bland as Korean kimbap – without sesame seeds – but the cheeseburger was worth a return trip. The menu lists only seven cocktails but 11 types of coffee, which appears to be the main draw. The “beans are roasted in Italy and ground fresh when you order”, the menu reads. Who cares?
We noticed that many customers, mainly young women, were having lunch with their laptops: typing away between sips of latte and nibbles of baguettes. They seemed distracted and puzzled, like they were in a quandary over a Facebook status update or halfway into a tweet. A few tables were noticeably livelier, with groups and couples who seemed to be enjoying each others company. They stood out.
We concluded they were not there for the food, though it was in no way a disincentive. Café Living Room is essentially a bar without alcohol: a place to lounge about.
It does, however, have wine tasting occasionally, and two drinks for the price of one between 5pm and 7pm. The wine is inexpensive and comes in a chilled glass. Perhaps the venue is trying to attract people who drink. If it is, we suggest repainting the stairwell: the current shade of green is extremely off-putting to people who live with hangovers.
The Living Room began as a social enterprise, and it still attracts people who have convinced themselves that they can help Cambodia by going to restaurants that market themselves as “ethical” places to dine. Staff get paid for overtime and one day off a week.
Last year, however, the Living Room became a private company, according to its manager. It still hires staff trained by NGOs like Hagar and Friends, and the menu continues to tell customers that the people serving them had been disadvantaged youths.
To us, the waiters seemed to have got past that. We also thought it was tacky to keep reminding them of this, especially when the restaurant is saving the cost of having to train its own staff from scratch.
The problem the waiters and kitchen staff face now is that there is no service charge added on to the bill, and few ethical diners remember to tip.