The fortunes of Robert de Cozier, who died recently, rose and fell with Patpong.
Friends and customers knew him best as Bobby Dee, Bangkok’s most colourful restaurant tycoon. At the peak of its success, Bobby’s empire stretched from the Surawong-Silom financial centre to Sukhumvit Soi 18. He ran Bobby’s Arms, Roberto’s and Cafe de Paris, serving expatriates, businessmen and celebrities.
From the 1970s to the ’90s, a who’s who of Bangkok dined in Patpong, the city’s infamous red-light district, often with their families and frequently at one of Bobby’s premises. Good food, a casual ambience and an attentive staff were his trademarks.
“There weren’t many places around here when I started a hot dog stand in the late ’60s,” de Cozier recalled in an interview with The Nation years ago.
“There was Mizu’s, Nick’s, Neil’s and By Otto – just a handful aside from the hotel restaurants.”
Being in the right place at the right time gave him an unfair advantage over rivals. As his business grew, he cultivating a large and loyal following, among them worldly customers who raised the standards of his chain.
De Cozier took his restaurants seriously, waking each day before 5am to shop for supplies at markets, just as any conscientious French chef would do.
As Patpong fast became Bangkok’s premier night-time destination, Bobby’s Arms shared the limelight with its parades of characters and slew of enticing bars, lounges and massage parlours.
Both Patpong and de Cozier’s eateries featured as top attractions on tourist maps distributed around the world.
As quickly as success came, however, much of the glitter was fading before the turn of the millennium. Patpong had exhausted its patrons with its highly congested night bazaar and touts preying on tourists, extorting money in seedy upstairs bars.
Many bar owners doubled prices for drinks and the company of their dancers.
After a good 25-year run, de Cozier too was feeling the tide ebbing. The number of customers fell each year as raucous nightlife shifted to Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy, which offered more for less.
Even so, neither matched Patpong for cuisine – they never have found an operator like Bobby.
By the time of his death, his world had vanished. Still, Bobby’s footprints are solidly implanted in the memories of residents and visitors who once thought Patpong was the happiest place on Earth.
True to his street-tough character, de Cozier refused to go down without a fight. Five years ago, he tried to make a comeback with a long-bar coffee corner on Silom near Soi Thaniya.
Once a self-made millionaire, he was convinced he could do it all over again. Start small, don’t overcharge and give good value.
Fate was less kind the second time around, though. After a good start, the street extortionists appeared for protection money.
Where de Cozier had been protected by the security afforded on the side streets of Patpong and Silom Soi 4, privately owned by influential families, this time he was operating “off the reservation”.
In his best French, he told the thugs who claimed to be legal enforcers to bugger off. But deep inside, he knew time was running out. Some weeks later, his last outlet was gone.
Truth be told, de Cozier knew life was never going to be easy, nor fair.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he used to say, as if accounting for his gruff manner. He always tried to improve himself. He was an avaricious reader of everything from newspapers to magazines.
“I always had to work hard – and I mean really hard,” he said. It never got easier for him. The coffee machine still needed fixing and the help would occasionally fail to show up. Some customers were impossible to please.
Yet de Cozier managed to plough on, an expert on fine wines and Western kitchens.
He started working in Bangkok managing the Manohra Hotel, which opened on Surwong Road in 1966. The hotel had advertised for management staff, his application was accepted and he flew in from Hong Kong.
“My condition for accepting the job was that I got Sundays off, one day a week when I didn’t have to report in,” he said. “Hotel work with the same people 24 hours a day can drive anyone crazy.
“On my off day, I woke up late, had a leisurely brunch at the Oriental Hotel and grab a stack of reading material to read at poolside.
“Those were some of the best times I ever had. I was happy doing that.”
When the hotel owners pressed for longer hours, meaning he had to give up Sundays by the pool, he quit.
“But I wanted to stay on in Bangkok. My first venture was a hotdog stand in Patpong 2, which became a huge hit.”
In the early ’70s, Patpong was mostly offices for airlines and news agencies. The entertainment venues for American troops on R&R from Vietnam were still mainly along New Petchaburi Road.
With the fall of Saigon in 1975, Thailand’s war economy came to an end and a new economy was emerging, with factories built by Japanese companies driving a fresh wave of investments.
De Cozier opened Bobby’s Arms in March 1975, two months before a North Vietnamese tank smashed down the gates of the US Embassy in Saigon, ending decades of war.
Having so many outlets and even a catering service for international schools, he and his handful of managers and kitchen staff carried on every day, welcoming each turn of the calendar with Christmas dinners and New Year’s specials.
A live band played at Bobby’s Arms, whose entrance was off the Patpong car park, and no one ever seemed to mind the foul smell and broken steps they had to navigate getting inside.
As he aged, de Cozier’s impish looks hiding the passing years were draped by a long silvery mane. It was rather his puffy face, red from hypertension, that gave away his true condition.
After many decades, this remarkable one-man show, who’d been so hands-on with everything, seemed ready to ride off into the sunset.
His arrivals on any scene were invariably unannounced, and so would his departures be, save for that cheeky wink he’d give when there was nothing more to say.