Is the iconic Elephant Bar at Raffles Hotel Le Royal still the world’s best bar? We sent Jake Stewart to find out
Leading drinks writer Jake Stewart takes a closer look at the legendary Elephant Bar in Cambodia and discusses whether or not it can still be regarded among the world’s elite.
There’re hotel bars and there’re hotel bars. And then there’s The Elephant Bar – the number one must-snap on the agenda of any Instagammer or visitor to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. No place oozes elegance, nostalgia and panache like the bar in Raffles Hotel Le Royal.
Wicker chairs and leather sofas bask behind high French windows and arched colonnades in true colonial style. Built in 1929 as the east wing of Hotel Le Royal, this room has long hosted the rich and the royal, jokers and knaves. You get the impression that if this bar could talk, oh what tales it might tell.
As the Elephant Bar’s keepers juggle behind the sturdy oak bar, you can almost catch a passing glimpse of Charlie Chaplin and his entourage, who frolicked here in 1936, or the shadow of Somerset Maugham, pensively pacing the squeaky panelled floor.
But perhaps the most myth-inspiring of all visitors was Jacqueline Kennedy, who visited Cambodia in 1967 at the invitation of King Sihanouk, and in whose honor a signature cocktail was created – the Femme Fatale, a concoction of champagne, cognac and creme fraise. Legend has it that a wine glass still visible in a display case just behind the Elephant Bar was the glass Kennedy drank from. Check out that smudge of pink lipstick left behind on the rim, or so the story goes, by the former US First Lady.
Savoring a Femme Fatale in the Elephant Bar today conjures the same magic for tourists as the Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in Raffles Singapore. No coincidence then that Raffles was brought in, again at the invitation of King Sihanouk, to take over Le Royal in 1997, along with its sister heritage property, the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, in Siem Reap. (Incidentally, the Grand Hotel also sports an Elephant Bar, some would say even more legendary than its Phnom Penh sister)
If the fruity flavour of the Femme Fatale doesn’t take you back to the 60s and 70s, then surely a Negroni will. One part gin, one part Vermouth, one part Campari, and served with a slither of orange peel dancing precariously on the rim, the Negroni is the sundowner of the moment, the successor to the gin n’tonic of bygone times.
The Elephant Bar stocks no less than 100 brands of gin, arguably the largest collection in the country, and its menu lists a “Ginventory” of “Gin-fusions” from Earl Grey Tea Gin to Kaffir Gin to Kampot Pepper Gin.
In fact, word on the street is that a local gin distillery, Seekers, is currently working on a unique concoction of local ingredients – which could be anything from lemongrass and pomelo to pandan leaves and galangal – that will be perfected, blended and bottled as “Elephant Bar Gin” in the very near future. Better keep an eye out for that one.
And if you’re spoilt for choice at The Elephant Bar, you could always ask head bartender Pisai what he would recommend. With a dance through your taste buds, the dashing Pisai can separate the “delicate, fruity and refreshing” from the “full body and dry”. Though chances are he’ll quietly introduce you to his personal masterpiece, the Rose Martini.
But it’s not all imbibery and skullduggery at the Elephant Bar; the place also serves up a lovely Afternoon Tea. And in the evening, you can order meats from a grill station or a selection of tapas. You might also catch sight of Cambodia’s Princess Sita, who works as an ambassador for Raffles. She usually pops into the hotel two or three times a week.
Something else to look out for, though it doesn’t happen often, is sabrage. The noble art of sabrage, or slicing the cork out of a champagne bottle with a sword, is the pursuit of an Illuminati-like fraternity dating back to the Napoleonic wars, and the Elephant Bar is one of their dens. If you are in the mood to order champagne, you may be invited to take a quick lesson before attempting the ceremonial swish with a champagne saber, and you too will be certified into the brotherhood.
A night of champagne and cocktails at The Elephant Bar might ultimately cost a pretty penny. But then again, they do run a half-price Happy Hour every evening from 4pm until 9pm, so redemption may be within sight.
Le Royal commemorates its 90th anniversary this year. So if you just happen to be in Phnom Penh, surely you can find at least one sly reason to celebrate in style at The Elephant Bar?
Open daily from 12 noon till 12 midnight (Happy Hour daily 4pm – 9pm), The Elephant Bar is situated inside Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Tel: (855) 23 981 888. To book a table or for more information, visit raffles.com.