Colbar, officially Café Colbar, is neither a hipster café nor a trendy bar. Indeed the only coffee offering on its no nonsense menu is the decidedly unglamourous “Nescafe”, costing just $2. And the Colbar doesn’t serve any alcohol beyond just beers and cider either.
A non air-conditioned eatery reminiscent of the kampong restaurants of old (“kampong” means “village” in the local vernacular) and ensconced in the bohemian Wessex Estate, Colbar is a quaint and nostalgic hideaway, serving food that is a holdover from our time under British rule.
Once described as something of a “glorified tin shed locked in a time warp” by TimeOut, what this place really is though, is an institution.
Colbar Eating House, as it was originally called was opened by a Mr and Mrs Lim in 1953, making it 62 years old this year. Located in the Portsdown area which was a British army barracks site in the 1900s, the eating house once served as a canteen for the huge military complex. Colbar stands for “colonial bar” in fact.
What’s interesting is that Colbar was originally located on the small wonderfully named road called Jalan Hang Jebat. In 2003 due to the construction of a flyover to link the AYE (Ayer Rajah Expressway) to Queensway, Colbar and a couple of neighbouring shops were earmarked for destruction. A petition to save Colbar surprisingly succeeded and the eating house won a reprieve. The authorities however relocated Colbar to its current Whitchurch Road site about 300m away, and the owners and fans painstakingly recreated the original establishment piece by piece.
The nosh Colbar has been dishing out all these years has apparently not changed much either – a mishmash of simple local favourites alongside a curious offering of localised Western food; specifically Hainanese-styled British fare. The early Chinese cooks for the British were mostly immigrants from Hainan in China, and were taught by the British to cook British staples. Over time their dishes evolved into what might be considered an early form of Singaporean fusion cuisine.
When I was working in the Alexandra Road area Colbar provided a nice escape from the humdrum of office life during lunch. Housed in a standalone building surrounded by lovely tall trees, the Colbar is a retreat from modern Singapore. On balmy afternoons and weekends the cafe is popular with expat wives, with or without their families, enjoying the tranquil surrounds. And after office hours the Colbar’s small selection of bottled beers and ciders is particularly good for a wind down with colleagues.
I still visit Colbar occasionally, usually when I want friends and visitors to experience a different side of Singapore. Truth be told the food at Colbar is mediocre at best though, and service while efficient is delivered perfunctorily.
A favourite on Colbar’s menu of local and “Western” dishes is its Chinese style chicken curry rice, and pseudo-British menu gems include “Ox liver chips and peas”, “Ox Liver Sandwich”, “Chicken Merry Land”, “Boiler Prawn and Chips”, “Spaghetti on toast” and other odd-sounding delights. I usually stick to the local safe bets however such as fried hor fun (flat broad rice noodles), or fried bee hoon (thin rice stick noodles).
What the Colbar lacks in food and service it more than makes up for in ambiance though. Sitting amid the lush foliage with cicadas chirping in the background, Colbar is a wonderful rustic escape and a great stopover if you are in the Alexandra Road area, especially if you’re exploring the lovely Black and White bungalows in the neighbourhood.
9A Whitchurch Road
Open: Tues to Sun, 11am – 10pm (closed on Mondays)
HOW MUCH TIME
A quick meal can be had in under 45 minutes, but far better to enjoy a leisurely meal in the relaxing setting, with friends and family or just a good book.
- Many of the immigrants who came over from the Chinese island of Hainan in the late 1800s-1900s ended up as cooks, either in the British military camps in Singapore and Malaysia or in the homes of wealthy colonials. The earlier Chinese immigrants who came from Fujian, Canton and other regions had snared the good jobs, leaving the late-comer Hainanese with little choice but to serve as cooks.
- The original Jalan Hang Jebat still exists today, just off Portsdown Avenue. A road which time seems to have forgotten, there is a small cluster of old colonial terrace houses lining the leafy road. Built to house the British officers in the early 1900s, the houses are now owned and rented out by the Singapore government (Singapore Land Authority).
- At the end of Jalan Hang Jebat is a small mosque, the Masjid Hang Jebat. Built in 1952, the zinc-roofed mosque also appears seemingly untouched by time.
- Hang Jebat was a revered warrior and one of 5 legendary heros in Malay history and culture from the 1500s. Hailing from the Malaysian town of Malacca (or Melaka), he and another well-known hero Hang Tuah were famous besties.
- There is free parking along the road and in the Wessex Estate parking lot.