At Pyongyang Restaurant, it's not about the food
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On Monivong Boulevard in downtown Phnom Penh, there is an unassuming, unadvertised-in-English restaurant simply labeled “Pyongyang.” A privacy fence covers the front of it, and you must walk into an awning-covered side alley to enter. Several large and harsh-looking men keep an eye on the door. Photography is strictly forbidden unless explicitly approved.
It is one of several North Korean government-run restaurants scattered around Asia, with siblings in Bangkok, Pattaya, Vientiane, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta and parts of China and Russia. The décor is gaudy: brightly lit, gold-colored drapes, polished floors, wood paneling and giant oil paintings of idyllic natural landscapes. The entire restaurant is situated in one large banquet room that might accommodate 300 diners. It is spacious enough to give the impression that it had been built for much larger crowds, but empty enough on this particular night to remind me in an eerie way that no such crowds were there.
I was the only Westerner dining, with the remaining patrons being a mixture of Koreans and Chinese. One man in very decorated military attire occupied a table with some businessmen. I counted only three women among the diners.
The most obvious difference between the menu here and one in Seoul was that dog was displayed prominently and unapologetically, and translated into several languages. It came both as a meat dish and in the more common form, a stew. Western ingredients like cheese and Spam, which have worked their way into South Korean cuisine, were absent. All of the other staples of Korean food were there: kimchi stew, fish and glass noodles. Naengmyeon looked to be a popular order among the other patrons. Many of the side dishes were also available as an entree.
I had galbi stew and kimchi bokkeumbap, which I deemed fine but not outstanding in comparison to their South Korean equivalents. Tea was complimentary. Obviously no South Korean brands like Hite or OB beer were sold, but there was local Angkor beer and a soju that was apparently domestic to North Korea. I was caught off-guard by the offering of Pepsi, a famous American product. Overall, the food did not earn its price of about $7-$13 per entree, triple that of most food elsewhere in Phnom Penh.
It was clear, however, the men were not there for the food. While it was thoroughly average Korean fare, the cuisine was really an afterthought.
The real cost of the meal, I suspect, was for the talent and attention of the all-female staff. Every waitress doubled as a performer. Various members spoke various languages: Korean, Chinese, Khmer, Japanese and English. They sang and played a variety of instruments and styles, ranging from patriotic North Korean songs to instrumental rock music to saccharine Chinese love songs like “The Moon Represents My Heart” by Teresa Teng. They also did multiple costume changes (taking turns performing and serving food) and performed elaborately choreographed North Korean dances. Of course, hanbok figured heavily into the wardrobe, in both the traditional style and more modern interpretations. Admittedly, the women were impressively talented; the rock performance in particular left me imagining the academy, somewhere in Pyongyang, where teenage girls are sent to learn bass, guitar and drums with the intention of one day playing in one of these restaurants.
But there was no way to ignore that the waitresses were also stunningly gorgeous. I recalled the blog of a defector who wrote that as a child in a North Korean school, she was shown depictions of Americans as hook-nosed werewolves. I suspect most Western tourists came there simply to gawk, or perhaps even mock, and the staff did not seem thrilled by my presence. Despite making my order in Korean, I was met only with terse but polite replies in English. Our waitress seemed to be the go-to English speaker on staff, a designation she didn’t appear to relish. She very reluctantly took a photograph with me, but only after my friend repeated my request nicely in Mandarin.
The other male patrons seemed to get more of their money’s worth, with the women spending most of their time mingling, smiling and serving alcohol to the increasingly inebriated businessmen after the performance. For their part, the servers were very tolerant of what bordered on harassment, despite having done nothing to encourage it.
I couldn’t help but think that the restaurant could hardly be earning enough money to make it a worthwhile venture in itself for the North Korean government. I didn’t think my kimchi fried rice was going to fund any nuclear programs or I wouldn’t have gone in the first place. In theory, it could exist simply as a diplomatic symbol. However, North Korean researcher Bertil Lintner has linked ventures like this one to Bureau 39, a wing of the Korean Worker’s Party responsible for laundering money from various, more illegal, ventures which might include human and weapons trafficking. Still, like most theories on North Korea, it will probably just remain speculation.
While it was ultimately an impressive show, I couldn’t shake off the vibe of its Potemkin facade. I visited for a glimpse, however artificial, of North Korea, and I left with more questions than answers. Who exactly were the other patrons? What was the venue’s real function? Obviously I won’t get those answers, but I never expected to. To onlookers, that is how North Korea fascinates: with its frustrating unknowability. In that regard, Pyongyang Restaurant doesn’t disappoint.
Locations like these seem to come and go, so try to confirm with a local before planning a visit.
Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh
400 Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh
012-533-798 (English), 012-277-452 (Korean)
Pyongyang Restaurant in Siem Reap
National Road, No. 6, Svay Dangkom commune, Siem Reap
012-565-990 (Korean only)