Grand plans for KL's grand dame of restaurants

SINGAPORE - It was 1985 and waiter Mohan Narayanan was wrapping up his lunch shift at the Coliseum Cafe.

In strode an elderly gentleman, neatly dressed in shirt and pants, with his wife in tow. Their eyes met. His heart skipped a beat. It was former Malaysian prime minister Hussein Onn.

"He was quiet and polite, and ordered fish and chips," said Mr Mohan, now 55, and the captain of the restaurant. "We shook hands before he left. I'm very proud that famous people come."

Such is the draw of Malaysia's oldest colonial-themed restaurant, which operates in the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Besides the late Tun Hussein, cartoonist Lat is also a well-known regular, whose sketches line the bar's wall. Former Malaysian Indian Congress president Samy Vellu used to visit a few times a week, always ordering tomato soup, chicken cutlet and orange juice, said Mr Mohan.

The institution has been operating since 1921, first as a place frequented by British military officers, tin miners and planters, then as a popular watering hole for expatriates, senior civil servants and lawyers. Now its clientele is mostly families and tourists, who would read about it in travel guides.

"You can't find this atmosphere anywhere else in Kuala Lumpur," said Frenchman Foulques de Villaret, 66, who has been living in Malaysia and frequenting the place since the 1980s.

But the grande dame, located in a two-storey shophouse, could be going through its most radical changes in the coming years, after being taken over by new owners in 2011. It is already branching out to other locations, and may even be taken overseas.

These are the plans of businessman Low Ching Hoe, 66.

In 2011, he led a group of investors to buy over the Coliseum Cafe, after he heard news that its longtime owners - the family of Cycle & Carriage tycoon Chua Cheng Bok - were looking to sell it. "The Coliseum is a powerful brand. There's a lot of potential and I felt we could do more with it," he said.

After investing an initial RM1 million (S$400,000), the first thing Mr Low did was refurbish the place, as some customers had pointed out that it was looking worn. So it got a new coat of paint. Tattered tablecloths were replaced. A new air-conditioning system was put in.

The menu was also streamlined from a whopping 900 items to just 100, comprising its renowned local-style Western cuisine, such as Hainanese chicken chop, sizzling steak and oxtail soup.

To "maintain the heritage look", little else was touched. The place still boasts ceiling fans - which require a manual push to start - swing doors and hat-and-coat stands where British officers would, in the past, sling their rifles. The management also kept the retro mosaic tiles in the restaurant and the black-and-white photos and old newspaper clippings in the bar.

"We don't want to do too much renovation, because its environment is its main attraction," said Mr Low. "But we want to make this place more comfortable and we want to introduce the Coliseum to younger customers." He said these little tweaks have helped the company grow its revenue, from around RM1.8 million a year in the past, to RM3 million last year.

When The Sunday Times visited last Thursday, it was crowded at lunchtime, even though this was the Muslim fasting month.

The bigger change in store is an expansion of the brand. This month, the Coliseum opened its first branch, a 3,800 sq ft outlet in Petaling Jaya which replicates the decor and menu of the original.

Next in line is an outlet at the popular Mid-Valley shopping mall, possibly by the end of this year. Mr Low said the investors are also considering regional expansion, with Singapore as a potential destination because Singaporeans "might be more familiar with the brand".

But for old-timers like retiree Ong Wee Chong, 60, who was sipping red wine at the lounge of the old Coliseum Cafe, ambience and history cannot be replicated.

"It's good that they want to expand but I'll still come back here," said Mr Ong, who has been visiting the place since the 1980s. "You can't replace the original."

chengwee@sph.com.sg