Walking up two floors, with no signs of life apart from a few stray neighborhood cats, you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. Past the first floor hairdressers, around the corner and up a darkly lit staircase, then you open the door….
And you have arrived.
It’s the very definition of a speakeasy.
I could be talking about prohibition bars in New York City in 1932. But I’m in Toul Tom Poung, Phnom Penh, and it’s 2017. The liquor isn’t illegal, but the cocktails pack a similar punch and the location is hidden.
So what is a speakeasy exactly? We hear it a lot in Phnom Penh but it can seem a bit undefined, a word perhaps losing its true meaning. According to a U.S. newspaper from 1889, “Unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as ‘speak-easies’.” They were so-called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors. The threat was real in the prohibition era, when Al Capone was running the show – it was reputed that he was the most powerful man in America, even more powerful than the President at the time.
These days the bars are of course legal, but the secretive aspect remains. Picture the look on out-of-towners’ faces when you bring them to one – your street cred will instantly increase tenfold.
Modern takes on the speakeasy in Phnom Penh like Bar Sito and Battbong are certainly popular; covert doors reveal loud music, immaculate leather couches, and fancy drinks. But I like the ones that are quieter, somewhere to have conversation with that special someone, like Nissai Bar.
“My vision of the bar was of coming into someone’s lounge room, arriving like you’ve never left,” says the owner (who prefers to remain in the shadows, just like his bar). With Khmer album art of Ros Sereysothea and Sin Sisamouth from Cambodia’s musical heyday adorning the walls, you’re transported to another time, but not to another place – this is New Khmer front and center and proud of it. Throw into the mix a balcony view to die for, looking over Toul Tom Poung Market (doesn’t everything in this city look better at night?); Nissai shines.
Now to the name. Meaning “destiny”, it speaks to the owner’s destiny of coming to Cambodia six years ago (he’s Khmer Canadian), plus the destiny of all his customers coming from around the world to live, work, and play in Phnom Penh. “It’s destiny,” he says.
In a similar vein, in that they’re also in Toul Tom Poung and up a nondescript staircase, Nathan Headlam and Brendon McCarthy of wildly popular Street 450 bar Long after Dark have just launched ‘Sundown Social Club’ nearby, on Street 440.
Catering to a clientele up high, where a lot of Phnom Penh’s action is heading these days – it’s an open air room with a view. And as the name suggests, it has both beers and sunsets on tap. We spoke to Headlam to get the lowdown on Sundown.
“This time we’re going for a Miami, Florida feel with 1980s-inspired drinks to match.” You quickly realize that this is a very different offering to Long After Dark.
When walking up the stairs up to the rooftop you’re instantly struck by the huge vertical garden against the bar’s back wall, with white, baby blue, and dusky pink being the main color themes. “It’s something for everyone,” Headlam says. And he’s not wrong. Take the retractable roof – all of a sudden I feel like I need a membership to a Yacht Club.
Their magic touch for creating high quality booze with delish nibbles carries on in Sundown, where you can sip on 80s Tiki-inspired drinks during the splendid hour where day becomes night. It’s that stunning sunset over Toul Tom Poung market that people will flock to. You could easily be in Miami (or Ibiza for that matter), but look outward and the rusted roofs of the market look like floating villages – you’re in amongst the hustle and bustle for sure.
In order to feel comfortable in an environment, I think you need good drinks and good company. But it’s the spaces that define and shape a night. Whether it’s hunkering down in a bespoke couch with an atmosphere that feels like home, or a tropical rooftop that delivers beautiful sunsets, it’ll win me over every time.
Cheers and happy drinking kids, but sssshh… don’t tell too many people.
Street 163 corner 450 (2/F) Toul Tom Poung
Sundown Social Club
Street 440, (Between Street 155 and 163) Toul Tom Poung
BY: Arron Goldman