The mother of them all. Sri Lanka’s first Chinese restaurant opened its doors in 1942 and stands as one of the oldest continuously functioning restaurants in Colombo.
In its now slightly dark and faintly grubby dining rooms some of the classics of Sri Lankan Chinese food including (they claim) hot butter cuttlefish and devilled prawns first appeared on customer’s plates. They’ve been feeding people for generations and the tale of the original immigrant owners, whose descendents still run the place, is pretty gripping.
While it started as an innovator (there really was no other Chinese restaurant in Colombo in 1942) Chinese Dragon has survived by offering Sri Lankan-Chinese classics at value prices. When Flower Drum, Flower Lounge, Orient Hong Kong, Peach Valley and other Chinese challengers emerged onto the scene Chinese Dragon stayed competitive with a sharp pricing policy. But times change and after years catering to the bargain segment of Colombo’s Chinese food loving populace the last few years has seen an attempt to go up market. The old colonial premise is now air-conditioned and their new China Doll Pan-Asian food delivery service has attracted a host of higher end consumers.
The problem with these upgrades is that the original good value premise has been eroded. A simple meal for three - hot butter cuttlefish (Rs. 750), Prawns in Thai Chilli Sauce (Rs. 700), Kankun (Rs. 400), Fried Rice (Rs. 450), and a few lime sodas (Rs. 250 each) now comes to over Rs. 3000 (remember the old ++). This may not be extortionate by Colombo standards but it’s no longer cheap, and at that level of pricing Chinese Dragon’s faded interior just doesn’t cut it. The food is also struggling to keep pace with the times. While the China Doll service is excellent, the offerings at the original Milagiriya Street restaurant aren’t particularly memorable. Chinese Dragon may have invented hot butter cuttlefish but if its current version of the classic is anything to go by the dish was clearly perfected elsewhere.
There are still some hits on the menu, belly pork (Rs. 500) is good value as is the garlic fish. Some of the rice dishes aren’t bad either but generally the food needs either an over haul or a revaluation.
Immortal it maybe but without a bit of a revamp people will begin to lose faith in even the god- father of Chinese food.