My favorite place to eat in Kuala Lumpur, hands down, is the legendary Coliseum Café. It’s legendary because it’s been in business since 1921, they serve excellent food, and a variety of famous personalities — Somerset Maugham being one — have dined there, or drank the night away in the adjoining bar.
On the food front, the Coliseum is best known for their sizzling steaks. They also serve a variety of other Western dishes, Malay cuisine, seafood, and pasta. One of my favorite appetizers is the chunks of fried bean curd accompanied by a spicy dip. I used to always order a Tiger draught beer with my meal, but upon my last visit I was dismayed to discover they’ve changed the brand of beer on tap.
Judging from the beer switch and other changes, it seems that the Coliseum has changed owners or is under new management this past year. The basic décor —– or lack of it, which I find comforting — has not changed at all, but now you can’t miss the tie-wearing “management types” shuffling around the premises, grim looks plastered on their faces, as if they are determined to find the slightest signs of irregularity. In addition to the stiff-looking dudes, the menus now have a much slicker look, complete with “specials” glaringly listed, and there are posted signs encouraging diners to use a certain brand of credit card. It also appears that the old crew of long-serving waiters has been culled. A few of the waiters that I’d seen working there in recent years had obviously been at the Coliseum for several decades, but I didn’t see many of those guys around this time. One sweet old fellow would always ask me, after I had finished my meal, if I “would like some pudding.” There wasn’t any “pudding” listed on the menu, but that was his charming way of referring to the dessert options. I didn’t see him anywhere in the restaurant during my two visits last month, which made me feel a bit sad. If he and the other old-timers have been sacked or have retired, that’s a damn shame. They are as much a part of the atmosphere, and the appeal, of the Coliseum as the food.
Besides the absence of veteran waiters, the biggest shock upon my recent visit was seeing waitresses working at the Coliseum! Call the police, there are women working! I certainly have nothing against females waiting tables — in many cases, they do their job better than most guys do — but to my knowledge there were never any waitresses working at the Coliseum during the past 90 years, so this is a big, big change. It’s akin to the New York Yankees hiring a female manager. Historic. One young woman, however, who wasn’t dressed in any sort of uniform, walked around the room along with the management cretins one night and attempted to take my plate away — not once but twice — before I had even finished my meal. I was tempted to stab the oblivious hussy with my fork. If there’s food remaining on the plate, missy, I ain’t finished yet!
The Coliseum also doubles as a hotel, boasting a few very basic fan rooms upstairs. I talked to a Belgian couple at my bookshop in a Bangkok a few months back, who had stayed there recently. In fact, they had gone there specifically because that’s where they stayed on their honeymoon … thirty years ago! They were thrilled that the Coliseum was still in business, serving tasty meals and offering affordable accommodation. I’m in full agreement that the food at the Coliseum is still quite delicious and they serve generous portions, but the recent changes, no matter how subtle, strike me as a cause for concern. I just hope they don’t tinker too much with the basics that have endeared the restaurant to so many diners over the year. If, for example, when I dine there the next time, and I see a sign trumpeting the fact that they now have wi-fi, or are offering “live entertainment” each evening, I think that will be the last straw. Bring back the pudding man!