Situated within view of Russian Market, The Gypsies has the feel of a nicer-than-average backpacker hangout. It has a pool table, fairy lights, bucket chair seating and acoustic guitars hanging from the walls.
There’s no door, meaning that customers sitting at the near end of its wooden bar are almost out on the street – a design decision that Spanish owner William Sanz says was an intentional ploy.
“Sometimes you feel embarrassed to open the door and come in alone, but here you don’t even have to open the door – you just come and sit here,” he said on Tuesday, wandering around the bar as he mimicked the thought process of his customers.
He described the bar’s typical client as someone who stops in for one beer and ends up staying all night, presumably waylaid more often than not by Sanz himself. The 36-year-old, who has worked in security, VIP relations at Ibiza clubs and as a boxer before moving to Phnom Penh, is an irrepressibly chatty host.
The first thing he wants to point out is that there are several better Spanish restaurants in town than The Gypsies. He explains that his menu – a selection of tapas featuring huevos rotos (broken eggs), Spanish omelette and hand cut patatas bravas – is made for people who think: “Oh my god, I’ve been here for three hours – I should eat something!” There was supposed to a rotation of daily dishes, but Sanz is currently too short-staffed to make the idea work.
In fact, he has no staff besides himself – a situation he admits is probably untenable in the long run. The drinks menu is good value, and includes Spanish classics such as sangria and kalimoxto – a guilty fusion of red wine and coke.
As well as staffing the bar solo, Sanz also designed and converted the two-storey shophouse with just the help of a few friends. He’s done a fine job, using old wood reclaimed from the previous interior to make the tables, with the bar top and hefty tree trunk sink continuing the theme. “I want to have the real bar of Spain,” he says of the design.
A friend, who dropped by to assist Sanz with translating his stream-of-consciousness Spanish to English, said he had succeeded: “I feel like I’m at home here.”
Sanz opened in Russian Market because he believed the address would be a honey trap for tourists. But much to his initial confusion, it’s not been holiday makers propping themselves up on his stools.
“Tourists go to the Russian Market in a bus, go inside and then go back to their bus,” he said. “The only tourists in this area are those who travel alone, and they don’t have a lot of money to spend – they just eat in the street like me when I travel.”
But, Sanz said, Russian Market’s expat community has more than compensated for the missing demographic.
“When you open a restaurant in Spain, you spend six months sitting like this,” he said, leaning back and twiddling his thumbs comically.
“Here I opened, and the next day it was full. The expats are all happy with this bar because in this neighbourhood you don’t have a place to eat something at nine at night, to drink a beer.”
Sanz’s plans for Phnom Penh extend beyond the bar. Underneath The Gypsies’ skull-and-roses logo by the door, the bar advertises itself as a “motorcycle club”. Bikes have always been a passion of Sanz’s, and he plans to arrange group ride-outs for local enthusiasts.
But, for now, he’s too busy manning his solo operation to make concrete plans. He stares out wistfully at his own ride – a camouflage green Honda 600 that he has customised beyond recognition.
“So far, I’ve only used it to go to the market to buy bananas and potatoes.”
The Gypsies is located at #59 Street 450.