The sconce on the stained wall at the back of Coliseum Café’s dining area hasn’t lit up for a while now. But the lamp’s faulty nature isn’t reason enough to warrant a brand new replacement - not when the item in question is a relic that’s almost a century old.
The Western colonial-themed restaurant has been operating since 1921 and in many ways, its dated interior mirrors just that. Antiquated furniture adorns the old mosaic tiled floor, accentuating nostalgia in this quaint venue along the bustling Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur.
At one point during our conversation, the restaurant’s operation manager Jufri Kenneth Abdullah lifts up the tablecloth to reveal the aged wooden surface of the table we are seated at.
“For your information, this is 100 years old. This is the same table used back in the restaurant’s early days, ” he reveals, “and so is that coat hanger, ceiling fan and bar top.”
He adds that the bar section of the restaurant - once off-limits to the fairer sex - resembles the original arrangements in the 1950s. Framed advertisements from the 1920s and 1930s still hang above the area today.
The reason for preserving the café the way it was is history, he says.
It’s an incredibly practical logic when you consider that Coliseum Café has weathered many significant milestones in the country.
The restaurant stood tall throughout the British colonial rule, the Japanese occupation, Malaya’s independence, the formation of Malaysia and, if you want to put things in a more modern context, the millennium.
“In the early days, Coliseum was more of an exclusive dining place. You had to be in proper attire - coat and tie - to dine in. These days, people can just come in shorts and T-shirts, ” Jufri Kenneth says.
According to him, the restaurant used to be a favourite haunt among the British colonial crowd when it first opened. By the 1950s, planters and tin miners reportedly gathered on Friday evenings to discuss anti-communist strategies.
“Today, we place ourselves as a casual family dining restaurant, ” stresses Jufri Kenneth.
Coliseum Café has withstood the test of time. In 2013, the restaurant opened its second outlet at Plaza 33 in Petaling Jaya and was recognised by the Malaysia Book of Records as the “Longest Operating Western Colonial-Themed Restaurant”. They also added a third outlet at Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur. In 2014, the venue celebrated its 93rd anniversary in the local culinary scene.
Reportedly started by a group of business partners from Hainan Island in China, the restaurant has seen its fair share of famous diners, including the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Acclaimed cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, endearingly known as Lat, even left behind caricatures of customers who have dined at the venue.
Of course, the food is a big part of the draw.
“What you see here are all retained from the past, ” Jufri Kenneth says of the menu.
The perennial favourites, he says, are the baked crabmeat, homemade oxtail soup, Hainanese fried noodles and “anything that has to do with sizzling”. Of course, one can’t possibly disregard the Hainanese chicken chop - an aspect that’s as ubiquitous as the old Hainanese cooks who prepared them in the past.
Although it primarily catered to the British when it first opened, Jufri Kenneth is an ardent believer in Coliseum Café being a thoroughly Malaysian restaurant today.
“The Hainanese brought their own style of cooking, the Indians brought the spices and some Malay cooking influences make the food served here Malaysian cuisine.
“Dining at Coliseum is actually a walk down memory lane. My father used to bring me here when I was a boy. Back then, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was known as Batu Road and it was a two-way street.
After a brief pause, he adds: “I bring my kids here and eventually, I’m sure they will bring theirs too.”