A new republic, united by hedonism

Drinking is the priority at new bar Raqia Republic – the food will come later.
Drinking is the priority at new bar Raqia Republic – the food will come later. Scott Rotzoll

A new republic, united by hedonism

UPDATE: Raqia Republic is under new ownership and in a new location, at 5Eo Street 102. It is now an upscale lounge and night club with an extensive food menu and frequent live music. 

Sasha Ilic and Bozo Popovic, the Yugoslavian owners of new Phnom Penh gastro-bar Raqia Republic, believe happiness is a choice. The men hold strong to the philosophy, and hedonism, they insist, is the guiding principle of their upscale Street 172 establishment. “Classic hedonism,” amends Popovic. 

“It is very simple,” whispers the beefy, pony-tailed Popovic through a cloud of vanilla-flavoured tobacco smoke. “I love the easy life.” And so it is with his new establishment: eat, drink, be merry, toast to the Old Country. “Ziveli!” To life. 

Epicurean leanings seem to link the seemingly mismatched pair. Popovic, a native of Zagreb and a decade older than 27-year-old Ilic, describes himself as a man of fine things. He smokes from an Italian river-wood pipe loaded with Danish tobacco which he lights with matches from a Paraguayan matchbox.

He is a motorcycle enthusiast (mostly Harleys). He owns three vineyards in Croatia, acquired from his grandfather, as well as two restaurants and another bar there.

Raqia Republic, his first venture outside Eastern Europe, sells his family’s wine, called Panonia ($28-$300 a bottle, $3 a glass for house), in bulk. Approximately 1,176 bottles line towering shelves near the entrance, says Illic, though the superb “organic” variety sits behind the bar, he adds. 

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Bozo Popovic and Sasha Ilic believe life is meant to be enjoyed. Scott Rotzoll

Popovic first visited Cambodia three years ago on the recommendation of a Slavic friend here (one of 13 countrymen in the Kingdom, they say, naming each one). Popovic took well to it and returned each year before finally opening the new gastro-bar. 

“The energy here is so much positive,” opined the Croat this week with a warm, after-wine smile, his soft voice barely audible over the Gypsy jangle of a Saban Bajramovic recording wafting through the narrow space. The restaurant is adorned with stone walls, a long bar, a few tables and a big, blood-red curtain at the back.

Ilic, a political science graduate student, jazz fan and the more verbose of the pair, explained his business partner’s Cambodian origin story more succinctly. “It comes down to this – Bozo hates winter,” he teased. 

Raqia Republic, which opened last weekend, is the first bar in the country to specialise in raqia (also spelled rakia), a potent fruit brandy ubiquitous throughout the Balkans, sweet and mildly throat-burning.

They import five varieties from Croatia: honey, plum, pear, apricot and quince, and plan to produce a mango batch here in the future. A small glass costs $3.

Raqia is a drink for all occasions, explains Ilic, “for weddings and funerals”, sipped in the morning and more gratuitously in the evening. It brings people together, he says, and enlivens the spirit. Popovic and Ilic hope to successfully transfer raqia’s bonding powers here.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The new upscale gastro-bar gets its name from the Balkans’ favourite tipple, a fruit brandy called raqia. Scott Rotzoll

Their target market, they say, is all who appreciate a fine drink in tasteful surrounds. “Everyone’s united under the raqia flag,” joked Ilic, though he added that patrons were expected to behave themselves – the Republic lies just outside the raucous confines of Street 51. 

While the Republic currently offers only libations, in a few months there will be Balkan meals on hand. The proposed menu of mostly meats and pastries sounds enticing – rib racks, roast lamb, buredzik, a meat pie.

The goal is to keep recipes as genuine as possible, stressed the pair. To that end, Popovic will fly to Zagreb soon to pick up a sac, a shallow iron pot used in the Old Country to bake dough or meat under charcoal. Meat will be sourced from a Slav who runs a ranch in Sihanoukville. 

“We are a meat-based region,” explained Ilic, who is from Serbia. He added that animal flesh is not much messed with in Balkan cooking. “Meat needs to taste good by itself,” he said.  

But that is for a later date, maybe two months down the road, they estimate. For now, it is only drinks – spirits, wine, beer, raqia – and hedonism. As Popovic put it himself, “This place was made for hedonism.”  

Raqia Republic is located at,#8 Street 172. Tel: 077 388 491. 

MOST VIEWED

  • Angkor Wat named as the top landmark for the second year

    Travel website TripAdvisor has named Cambodia’s ancient wonder Angkor Wat as the top landmark in the world for the second year running in their Travelers’ Choice Award 2018, an achievement Cambodian tourism operators expect will attract more tourists to the Kingdom. The website uses traveller

  • New US bill ‘is a violation of Cambodian independence’

    After a US congressmen introduced bipartisan legislation that will enact sanctions on Cambodian officials responsible for “undermining democracy” in the Kingdom, government officials and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on Sunday said they regarded the potential action as the “violation of independence and sovereignty

  • Ministry’s plan for net sparks fears

    The government has ordered all domestic and international internet traffic in the Kingdom to pass through a Data Management Centre (DMC) that has been newly created by the state-owned Telecom Cambodia, in a move some have claimed is an attempt to censor government critics. Spokesman

  • Hun Sen detractors ‘will die’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday said those who curse or insult him would eventually die without a plot of land to bury their bodies after being killed by lightning, suffering the same fate as those who recently died in Thmar Baing district in Koh