Restaurants in Colombo come and go. They spring up amidst a flurry of hype, fawning press features and breakfast table chatter, then fall into rapid decline.
Service standards plummet, kitchen staff are poached, and the amount of chocolate in the ganache grows ever smaller. Within a matter of months, the few remaining patrons find themselves clustering together for company. The establishment in question is now heading for an inevitable closure.
Any regular of Colombo’s dining scene has seen the same pattern repeated several dozen times. But amidst the closures, changes, re-brandings and re-openings are restaurants that defy the dictates of time.
Firm dining rocks in a sea of culinary change – these are Colombo’s Restaurant Immortals. They opened before you were born and will in all likelihood be feeding your grandchildren.
The Age Of Immortals
Most of these Immortals came into being in the 80s, when dining out at a venue that wasn’t a hotel or Members’ Club established itself as a concept in the city.
In 1982, Flower Drum sauntered onto Thurstan Road, bringing Sri Lanka virulently red sweet and sour sauce, soggy chow mein, takeaway boxes and the novelty of tabletop soy sauce bottles. Just a year later, Sakura blossomed off Galle Road, offering such exotica as sashimi and tempura to an audience that first encountered television in 1979.
This was another world, when eating out in Colombo meant either Chinese Dragon, Beach Wadiya, Flower Drum, Sakura, or Saras (now departed). Everything from birthdays to anniversaries and corporate functions were celebrated at what were then the dizzy heights of sophistication.
If the lovingly maintained guestbooks at the Beach Wadiya are anything to go by, even British royalty have engaged in a light seafood luncheon on its scuffed golden sand.
As the synth-pop 80s became the Spice Girl 90s, others would join the ranks of the Immortals and become unchanging staples of the dining circuit. Siam House and the Cricket Club Café would become the Colombo archetypes for Thai and generic “”western”” food.
The Hallmarks Of An Immortal
Despite the difference in era and cuisine offered, the Immortals tend to have rather a lot in common. Unstylishly uniformed but faithful staff who remember patrons for years on end. Large colonial premises snapped up before land prices were calculated in tens of millions of rupees. Vast menus offering not a few things done well, but everything done OK. Parking also seems to be a crucial part of success.
But the key to becoming an Immortal lies in the consistent dining experience. You know your sweet and sour fish will taste exactly like it did 15 years ago. The portions won’t have greatly diminished and the waiter you’ve known since you were two feet tall will still smile in recognition.
Somehow they’ll put extra peanut oil in the fried rice even though you’ve been telling them you’re allergic for 20 years, but you know what to expect, how to adjust the air conditioner yourself and where to find the best table in the house.
It is a familiar and even sought-after mediocrity that keeps patrons coming back. None of these establishments ever reached the heights of culinary refinement, but they also never ploughed the depths of tastelessness and poor value.
It’s just the incredibly comforting sensation of entering a space you’ve known all your life and knowing that Olwyn, the octogenerian proprietor of the Beach Wadiya, will still be sitting at the same table.
The cutting edge of dining they will never be, but they are an essential part of the Colombo diner’s repertoire. YAMU suggests that any serious Colombo diner visit at least one of the Immortals per month. On a good night, the right combination of the favourites you’ve chosen over the years can be really excellent, and despite offering Chinese, Japanese or Thai food, there is something deeply Sri Lankan about all of them. They could only ever exist here.
Which is why we know there will always be a place for the Immortals. May they live forever.
Our list of Immortals is as follows: