New kid on the block in Phnom Penh

Thu, 5 July 2012

Two of the men behind some of Phnom Penh’s most popular restaurants have teamed up to open Deco, a stylish new addition to the capital’s finer dining options.

Britons Robin Ainge and Caspar von Hofmannsthal, who have been responsible for Rubies on Street 240 and the stylish and internationally-renowned Japanese-influenced Yumi, have spent months working on Deco, transforming a run-down house in BKK 1 into a wonderfully sophisticated bar and restaurant.

The house, formerly used by the German Embassy, was styled on the work of Cambodia’s most famous architect.

“The building is apparently a copy of a Vann Molyvann, and it uses a lot of his trademarks and motifs,” says Ainge. “We believe it was built in the late sixties – at least the septic tank seems to date from back then.”

Finding the property was a long process for the pair. “We spent months going around looking at places,” von Hofmannsthal said. “We used several estate agents to do the hard graft. We weren’t too bothered about the location, to be honest. We mainly wanted somewhere that would work best for the concept.”

When they finally found the site, they knew it was right for them. “I had a eureka moment when I first saw the place: it looked right, it fit right, it had the kitchen out the back where we wanted it, plenty of space upstairs, a garden, it was on a good corner site – it ticked most of the boxes. We jumped at it. Sites like this don’t hang around too long. We were pretty lucky - there are always people looking for sites like this,” von Hofmannsthal said.

Work on converting the site started in January, and initially involved knocking down dozens of interior walls.

“There were lots of rooms in it. The main ground floor dining room had five rooms in it, two bathrooms, it was all subdivided and crammed in,” Ainge said.

The long lease the pair had meant that there were few restrictions on what they could do with the place. “We spoke to the landlords beforehand and told them what we wanted to do, and we showed them the plans. The owner didn’t really seem to mind what we did. They have about 20 properties in town, so as long as they get the rent every month, they really don’t care,” von Hofmannsthal.

Ainge said that the key issue was having a good contractor. “It was fairly smooth, actually. The guys we used, Advance, were really really good; they told us everything they were doing, how long they thought it would take, realistically, so the building work was actually one of the easier parts.” Leaving it to the contractors mean that conflict was kept to a minimum during the potentially stressful building phase.

“We had a really good experience with the contractors. There were occasionally some raised voices, and I think some contractors left earlier than had been anticipated, but we didn’t really have much to do with that.”

The pair initially feared that red tape would become an issue when it came to the remodeling and opening the restaurant, but that turned out not to be the case.

“It was a bit weird – our landlady is quite well connected, so we talked to them, and asked, ‘do we need to speak to the sangkat?’ and she said ‘no don’t worry, we’ll take care of it’. And they did.”

Von Hofmannsthal, who runs the kitchen at Deco, says Phnom Penh is changing rapidly, and for the better. “Even in the three and a half years since I’ve been here – the old school lifestyle businesses, where people come in and open up a small bar or a restaurant – they didn’t really put that much effort into it, it was enough to basically keep them fed and with a roof above their head –because of that there’s so many of those small restaurants, and you just know they don’t make any money.”

After working for some of the top restaurants in London, von Hofmannsthal said he wanted to apply some of the principles here that had learned there.

“We just wanted to create somewhere that moved things forward and was a bit more professional, and I think that even though there’s millions of restaurants in town, it’s really good when professionals come in and start pushing things forward.”

Deco, which formally opened this week, is just the start for the pair. “We’re looking at maybe doing a Yumi in Siem Reap, and also looking at possibilities in Myanmar.”

Ainge says things have never looked better for Phnom Penh. “We’re definitely optimistic about the future of Cambodia. From a business perspective it’s only going to grow, certainly in this sector it’s looking pretty rosy. These are exciting times.”