Malaysia's iconic Coliseum restaurant may come to Singapore

Owners of Malaysia's oldest colonial-themed restaurant are seeking the right partner here in Singapore. ST VIDEO: SHANNON TEOH
The bar at the original Coliseum outlet retains an old-world charm.
The bar at the original Coliseum outlet retains an old-world charm.ST PHOTO: SHANNON TEOH

Owners of Malaysia's oldest colonial-themed restaurant are seeking the right partner here

A doorman ushers you in from out of the sun's glare, where you are greeted by a row of wooden hooks on a wall, which, in another climate would fit coats and scarves.

At Coliseum Cafe & Grill Room, in the heart of muggy Kuala Lumpur, you would, at most, hang the hat that has taken the brunt of the sunlight off your head.

Rewind 60 years or more, and there would have been gun belts belonging to British officers, tin miners and planters accompanying your headgear.

The restaurant is thankfully gun-free today as, more importantly, is the bar. But the other elements of its colonial history, dating back 95 years now - the dark wood decor, the menu and even staff members now in their 70s - are mostly preserved, despite a change of ownership in 2011.

After the two countries split, Malaysia's oldest colonial-themed restaurant has drawn Singaporean tourists to join its local patrons - first expatriates, senior civil servants and lawyers, and now traders and office workers who have taken over Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, once known as Batu Road, on which it sits.

KEEPING A CULTURAL ICON ALIVE

A lot of American brands, you have to pay royalties. Coliseum also has a very good story of over 90 years. It doesn't belong to me, history belongs to the country.

MR LOW CHING HOE, 69, on Coliseum's long and unique heritage.

But Singaporeans could soon have a taste of the Coliseum on their own shores, as the new owners seek out a partner to take the iconic brand abroad.

It was precisely Coliseum's unique heritage that led managing director Low Ching Hoe to rustle up a band of investors when he heard the business was up for sale.

"A lot of American brands, you have to pay royalties. Coliseum also has a very good story of over 90 years. It doesn't belong to me, history belongs to the country," the 69-year-old told The Sunday Times.

Most KL-ites will tell you of numerous luminaries walking into the restaurant casually without the pomp of normal protocol, including the country's founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman, but would struggle to tell you how exactly they came to such knowledge. Such is the legend of the Coliseum.

But photographs on the restaurant's walls and Facebook page are proof that luminaries such as cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, popularly known as "Lat", AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes and top politicians - including several former prime ministers, not least Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad - have patronised the landmark.

"They walk in, it's old-school. It's memory lane for them; probably I wasn't even born then (when they first came)," said bartender Peter Lim, 52.

Since Mr Low took over, he has been slowly expanding the business, adding three other outlets in the Klang Valley. And even though the Coliseum has had offers to go further afield, the new owners are careful to protect the brand.

The offers have come from China, Indonesia and Singapore, where both Raffles Hotel and Genting's Resorts World Sentosa have approached Mr Low to open an outlet since 2013.

He has already incorporated a company in Singapore, and with a choice of location to set up shop, all he needs now is the right partner down south.

"A few were interested in a joint venture, but nothing has been concluded. We are waiting for the right people with the passion and vision. There's no point to do one outlet (for the sake of it)," Mr Low said.

By retaining favourites like the Hainanese chicken chop, oxtail soup and sizzling steaks on the menu, the new management initially doubled the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman outlet's revenue to about RM3 million (S$1 million) monthly, after an initial investment of RM1.5 million.

With three branches now in Plaza 33 in Petaling Jaya, The Gardens Mall in Mid Valley, and Sunway Pyramid, they are close to breaching the eight-figure mark.

But diners repeatedly told The Sunday Times they preferred the original restaurant, even if only for the sake of nostalgia.

"When it all comes together, it brings out the dining experience. I do feel that it tastes better. Is it all in the mind? Highly likely," admits bank officer Goh Yat Hwa, 36, who has been eating here for 30 years.

To overcome doubts about authenticity, Mr Low has placed his longest-serving staff members - who have been around since the 1970s - as "brand ambassadors" across his outlets.

"They are assets. I put one at each outlet, to stand outside like KFC's Colonel Sanders," he said.

WATCH THE VIDEO

For more on the historic Coliseum Cafe, go to http://str.sg/4GAt.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Iconic Coliseum may come to Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe