Last night I met a friend for dinner and drinks before heading back up to the riverside to climb on the night bus (third two-way trip!). He took to Phnom Penh’s own closest analogue to Belden Alley in San Francisco: a bricolage of tiny two-story bars, cafes, and restaurants, all charging twice as much as their counterparts in Boeng Keng Kang and Sisowat Quay. He chose one whose name I can’t remember, but its theme was metal. The fixtures were distressed slate-grey sheet metal, benches with black cushions, barstools covered in wood cut from signboards. There was a motorcycle suspended in chains from the high ceiling above the loft.
The bar was probably called Moto or something, but my friend explained to me that the name and color scheme didn’t matter. This bar and all the other establishments in the alley, eight or more altogether, were all the brainchild of the same landlord developer, who had started with Bar Sito a mile across town. He had sold them off as secret franchises to different owners. The bars all had different concept design – Moto’s garage ambience, a pub called Portsmouth with amber lamps and leather booths, one place all wicker attempting to be French, a cerveceria with wall-to-wall bookshelves – but the same food and cocktail menu. They also seemed to share a kitchen, since our order (“Ozzy” burgers, hamburgers with fried egg and beetroot, and bloody marys in metal mugs) was brought to us from outside.
So this landlord devised a box set of modular restaurants in an attempt to draw several times more custom. I asked if the standardized menu wouldn’t tip off the customers, but my friend said that it didn’t matter: the illusion of choice was preserved, and the alley was its own enclosed venue. And it seemed to be working – Portsmouth and Moto and Juicy Mercy and so on were all lively on a Friday evening, surcharge notwithstanding.