As Phnom Penh’s traffic roared nearby on a recent late afternoon, George and William Norbert-Munns were busy decorating. Amid piles of rubble and cement bags, the brothers mapped their vision for the dark, compact space — solid timber banquette seating, chocolate-hued walls, large windows — that would transform it into a sleek gastro pub.
When that pub, Meat & Drink, starts serving sandwiches and pints on Feb. 20, it will be the fourth foray of George, 30, and William, 35, into the culinary scene of the Cambodian capital.
In October 2012 the two, originally from New Zealand, opened their speakeasy-inspired Bar.Sito (32 Street 240 ½; 855-77-960-413). “Sito” is now one of the city’s liveliest and most beautifully designed cocktail bars. Six months later they opened Public House (30 Street 240 ½; 855-17-770-754), an upmarket English fish ’n’ chips-style pub with sea-green clapboard walls. Seibur (9 Street 308; 855-17-770-754), a 14-seat “aperitivo room,” opened last August.
Starting so many ventures so quickly would seem impossible — or just plain naïve — in most cities. But Phnom Penh is having a development boom. High-rise apartment buildings, skyscrapers, infrastructure improvements and a relatively open environment for small, foreign-owned businesses have lured mostly young, ambitious entrepreneurs and chefs from all over the world. They are opening places with impressive drink lists and sophisticated cuisine that has never before been offered in Phnom Penh (Latin-Asian tapas, fancy pub fare, farm-to-table bistro cuisine), while maintaining the city’s laid-back charm.
“There were so many holes in the market for something a little different, a little exotic,” said George Norbert-Munns, a former product designer. Until recently, the main options in Phnom Penh were Asian, of course, and hit-and-miss French restaurants (due to the city’s colonial past), with a few burger and pizza joints mixed in. After-hours choices were largely limited to hotel bars and grungy watering holes serving dollar drafts.
But now, venues pop up weekly offering a level of style surprising to most travelers, given the city’s war-torn history.
“When I first came as a tourist in 2009, I saw the potential,” said Antonio Lopez de Haro, 29, a Venezuelan who at the time was living in Singapore, where he opened the Raw Kitchen Bar (now closed). “There wasn’t much attention to detail, not much professionalism, in every sense.”
In 2011 he and a compatriot, Gisela Salazar, 30, opened Tepui (45 Sisowath Quay; 855-23-991-514; tepui.asia), one of the first bar and restaurants in Phnom Penh to successfully merge atmosphere with inventive cuisine and quality service. It’s housed in a stunning 1903 French colonial villa with carved latticed woodwork and soaring ceilings hung with colorful paper lanterns.
In the kitchen, Ms. Salazar melds Asian techniques with South American ingredients, like a salmon sashimi with mango vinaigrette and lime-chile sorbet.
In 2012, the pair opened Gastrobar Botanico (9b Street 29; 855-17-873-101), a leafy, outdoor spot for lunch and espresso. Mr. Lopez de Haro is also a partner in Bar.Sito.
Deco restaurant (46 Street 352; 855-17-577-327; decophnompenh.com), run by Rob Ainge, a 33-year-old Englishman, takes its cues from Art Deco style, with fanned wall sconces and curved wooden armchairs. In a renovated villa in the Boeung Keng Kang neighborhood, which is popular with expatriates, Deco exudes a salonlike charm while delivering classic cocktails (old-fashioneds, Negronis) and modern European fare, like whiskey-cured salmon and duck with watermelon, mint and plum.
Of the new culinary entrants, Common Tiger (20 Street 294; 855-23-212-917) pushes the palate the farthest. Timothy Bruyns, 32, a South African chef, artfully reimagines Cambodian flavors with his molecular gastronomy-inspired fare, like a peanut-lime crusted sea bass with jasmine rice disks. The plating of a mushroom crème brûlée brings a small garden to mind.
On a recent evening at Duck (49 Sothearos Boulevard; 855-89-823-704;the-duck.net), a minimalist urban-chic bistro typical of cities like Bangkok and Singapore, tables were filled with expatriates lingering over glistening glasses of red wine and Cambodians toting Louis Vuitton bags photographing the homemade pastas and imported steaks.
Duck’s chef and owner, Dah Lee, 53, ran 16 restaurants and bars in Australia and his native New Zealand before moving to Phnom Penh in 2012. His second venture, a kitschy noodle and dumpling house called Mama Wong, is to open this month.
“Cambodia has the feel of Thailand 25 years ago, when everyone had to go there,” Mr. Lee said. “There’s so much buzz and excitement here, but it doesn’t have the mad, cramped feeling of Ho Chi Minh City or early Hong Kong.”