Stopping by Gerbies on Street 51 for a weekday lunch, you’ll find yourself competing with the crowds. Office workers grab sandwiches from the downstairs fridge, solo diners read the paper at the tables upstairs, and relaxed meetings taking place on the small balcony outside.
It often takes new restaurants in Phnom Penh a few months before the staff-to-customer ratio tips in the direction of profit. So why does Gerbies, barely older than the New Year, already have the feel of a local “go to”?
It’s not that there’s anything revolutionary going on here. The cafe’s design is inoffensively functional – cushioned benches and wood laminate surfaces abound, organised around a muted colour scheme of browns and beiges. Put simply, it looks like a local branch of an imported high-street chain. (The wall decorations are in fact pirated posters from up-market UK takeaway joint Pret a Manger.)
The menu consists of equally familiar fare: a selection of sandwiches, soups and salads, either made to order or from the shelf (although ready-made options are limited). The food is all fresh, although calorie counters please note that that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Garlic prawns and avocado make a generous, rich topping for thick buttered toast ($6.25), and the tuna panini ($4) oozes satisfyingly with cheese – molten in the middle, crispy on the sides. If you’re feeling guilty about portions, assuage your conscience by tucking into the simple bowl of lettuce leaves and salad dressing that accompany each order.
The warm salads are generous, although they’ve got none of the fancy “deli” twists of herbs and spices that you might expect given the price point. The $5.90 lardon and mushroom salad consisted of exactly that, plus some courgettes and the same lettuce and dressing you get served as a side. The soup was a hearty, though slightly tepid, bean broth served with the excellent Maison Kayser bread that the cafe uses elsewhere on the menu.
Overall, the food is good but not outstanding given the prices. And despite their website’s promise that speed is the core objective, service at Gerbies doesn’t exactly come at a gallop, with “grab and go” options also limited.
But such nit-picking doesn’t alter the strength of the basic premise here. Straightforward snack venues are, strangely, in relatively short supply in BKK1, where salad bars for the most part remain the steamed tofu laden stalking ground of the health food obsessed, and most cafes draw out the process of grabbing a quick bite by choosing to wait tables rather than take orders at the counter.
If you work around Wat Langka, you’ve probably already overcome the indignation of spending more than $5 for your lunch. The next time you’re mooching around trying to decide what you feel like, I bet you’ll end up plumping for Gerbies.
Gerbies is located at #78 Street 51.