From Dusk till Dawn

From the moody interior of Long After Dark to the neon stylings of Sundown Social Club, I discover the design ethos behind some of Phnom Penh's best-looking bars

“I met my business partner and good mate Nathan Headlam in Melbourne a number of years ago,” says expat Australian Brendan McCarthy, as we sip on a locally brewed craft beer at his Phnom Penh rooftop hangout, Sundown Social Club. “Nathan was there studying and I was pursuing a music career, while we were co-managing a venue called The Penny Black in Brunswick. We formed some loose plans early on in our friendship to one day put a hospitality venture together, never expecting it to be in a place like Phnom Penh.” Headlam came to the city in late 2014 and after the first year noticed some interesting possible opportunities within the market. After some initial research he called on McCarthy to come and help expand on his ideas. “I came to Phnom Penh in late 2015, which was when we signed the lease on our first venue, Long After Dark. Four months later we opened and the rest, as they say, is history!”

Long After Dark, opened in April 2016, saw the pair convert an old 1960s Cambodian house in the city’s hip Tuol Tompoung district into an old world speakeasy and whisky bar, featuring reclaimed wood features throughout, including the bar top, stools, tables, and booths. “Original elements of the existing property played into our hands well from a design standpoint,” explains McCarthy. “The site layout was a great foundation to build on, while the warm tones accentuated the aesthetic we wanted.”

Almost a year later to the day, they launched sister bar Sundown Social Club, with a very different design ethos in mind. Whereas Long After Dark—as the name implies—was all about late night shadows, their new venue was a third floor, neon-lit rooftop bar overlooking the city's tourist-famous Russian Market. “We made it deliberately open to the elements, to help engage with the vibrancy and frenetic atmosphere of the action below,” recalls McCarthy. “It is a tropical urban oasis featuring pastel colours and a neon flamingo light as a bar centre piece—think Miami Vice meets Cambodia! We provide shelter with a retractable roof which, when opened in the afternoon, creates a spacious and light filled environment for supping on tiki-style cocktails.”

After another 17 months came Juniper Gin Bar, their second rooftop spot, though this time located on Riverside, and featuring sweeping, panoramic views of both the city and the Tonlé Sap river, with both north and south facing decks. “We didn't want to clutter up the space with any unnecessary design elements, as the 360 degree views of the Phnom Penh landscape already have a very spacious feel to them,” McCarthy says. “All the roofing framework and decorative elements are deliberately set high so that they focus the eye on the expansive surrounding views as much as the venue itself.” Ultimately, they were drawn to the elegant nature of gin itself (in a sense it's the perfect sister venue to Long After Dark, both play very heavily off the main spirit found in each venue: whisky and gin), with striking gold and white colouring contrasting perfectly with the purple and orange sunsets Phnom Penh is known for.