It seems not a day goes by without a sign going up for a new café in Phnom Penh. With four, at the last count, opening this month on Street 51 alone, Julius Thiemann and Poppy McPherson took a taster trip to some of the newest spots to sort the good from the mediocre and ask the owners how they think their project will survive in an increasingly heated market.
Easy ambience jazz plays at the newly opened Kiriya coffee house on street 51.
It’s fittingly soulless. White walls, plain white tables and marble floors make the place feel big and empty.
“Everything can be painted on white, it stands for the possible contribution of our costumers to Cambodia,” explains Yokoi Tomoyuki, the Tri Asia Group CEO.
But the plainness recalls a school canteen. Sadly, there’s no greasy fish and chips, or sausage burgers here - though there is an appealing collection of tartlets and flaky pastry that taste of fresh butter.
The freshly brewed black coffee, imported from Japan, is delightfully strong and at $2.25 for a small cup the price is average for coffee houses on street 51.
Despite the competition on 51 Tomoyuki believes his coffee house will be the most successful in Phnom Penh within three years and is positioning the brand (with the tagline “best coffee from Japan for Khmers”) towards the growing market of coffee-drinking Cambodians.
The new branch of True Coffee on street 51 seems to be shooting for a New York loft meets Living Homes catalogue look: it wants to be modern and spacious but still a place to hang-out.
Red bricks and steel beams contrast with neo-antique chandeliers, sofas and wooden tables in a pleasing fashion.
The branch of the Thai franchise is the third to open in Cambodia – but it’s success is hard to pin on its coffee. Directly bought from farmers in Western Thailand, according to the manager, for what it is (not much) it’s quite pricy.
Without the initial 30 per cent discount (the offer ends in December) it will be $3 for a very small cup of black coffee. The food selection is standard for a coffee shop: doughnuts, cream cakes, croissants, packs of crisps and a few hearty sandwiches.
One might wonder how the coffee house will be able to compete with all the other establishments on Street 51. “We have a very large parking lot so that’s convenient for customer,” branch manager Chun says.
Tucked away from the pavement on street 29, Café Republic is almost too quiet.
“How did you find this place?” entreats Wong Sina, the manager of the branch and its sole customer on a Tuesday afternoon.
Like all the best revelations, this one was elicited from a friend on a tipsy evening.
“I don’t like to tell people about my places, in case the hordes come and spoil them,” she whined, poking the ice with her straw. One more mojito and she soon waxed lyrical on its charms. Such as?
“They come for the Italian coffee,” according to Sina.
Unlikely: it’s Lavazza – so nothing special, just an agreeable cup of coffee. The real draw of the place is its uniquely serene setting: at the bottom of a hotel, with a garden where white dollhouse chairs sit in dappled shade beside a big blue pool. Customers have free access if they buy a drink.
At $1.90 for a regular Americano, it’s reasonable. “We know places like Brown have a strong brand, but we have a nice place,” said Sina – and he’s right – just keep it hush.
Photographs by Alexander Crook/7days
To contact the reporters on this story: Poppy McPherson and Julius Thiemann at [email protected]