Walking into The Bodleian is meant to be like stepping back in time: to a 1930s New York or Paris cocktail lounge. Beyond its imposing black façade, visitors first encounter a dimly lit entrance hall, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and music drifting out from the bar.
“When people first come in, they’re supposed to have this feeling of being transported to a different place,” says Nicole Chiang, one of the owners of The Bodleian. She points out the twin doors on each side of the lobby: handle-less and blending into the walls.
“They have to follow the music to find the door to the bar . . . This creates a sense of mystery and discovery.”
The space and vibe evokes images of men in suit jackets smoking and “flappers” dancing to swing music. The Bodleian, a Boeung Keng Kang I bar that opened in April, attracts a less raucous modern equivalent: professionals looking for a place to relax and mingle, away from the pressures of their work.
Chiang opened The Bodleian with three fellow Singaporeans, who requested anonymity. They wanted to create a whiskey bar to have a place for people to meet and to get to know each other.
“Four of us do business here,” she says, “and we found there was a lack of places to meet and network with people. So basically, we built this place for ourselves.”
Conceptualised as a modern take on a 1930s gentlemen’s club, The Bodleian is outfitted with custom-made sofas, tables and chairs. The string of paintings along the walls were commissioned by the owners, specifically to fit in with their vision of a space for inspiring conversation.
A particularly interesting one is Midnight at The Bodleian, an image of various influential figures from a range of fields — art, music, politics, sports, and so on — with former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, scientist Albert Einstein, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, musician David Bowie, boxer Muhammad Ali, and others enjoying themselves in the bar.
“We commissioned it specifically [for The Bodleian], and it reflects the spirit of the place as a platform for conversations and inspiration,” Chiang says
The Bodleian is named after Oxford University’s famous library, though none of the owners have a personal connection to the English institution.
While the food and drinks are a little on the pricey side, that is probably to be expected with the setting and décor. The Bodleian has four signature cocktails, including The Lover – with local rice wine, coconut juice and triple sec, the gin-based Bittersweet Romance, and Mr Big, with bourbon, ginger and lime. Each costs from $7-$8. They also have a food menu consisting of classic bar grub and some Japanese bites, served tapas-style.
A Wagyudon – beef bowl served with rice – goes for $9.50, and a Charcuterie Platter costs $15.50. A cheaper alternative is the Chilled Somen – thin white Japanese noodles – for $5. While cigar smoking is welcome, patrons do need to bring their own.
As the night passes, the rooms fill up. Far from the Wild West street life atmosphere of Phnom Penh, The Bodleian may be a sign, for better or for worse, of changing demographics in the city – or at least a departure from the city’s plethora of casual watering holes.
As one inscription on a mirror inside reads: “The only way to do anything is to do it LIKE A BOSS”.