Throwback charm in JB cafes

There's a heavy dose of nostalgic charm among cafes in the heart of old Johor Baru.  Good food and modern service are all part of the package ...

Facade of Hua Mui Restaurant
Over the years, many traditional businesses on Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in the heart of old Johor Baru closed or moved to the suburbs and only a handful of traders remain.

As young entrepreneurs opened chic cafes and boutiques next to traditional businesses in these restored and repurposed pre-war shops, they created a destination with a throwback charm which is attracting visitors who enjoy a taste of nostalgia with a touch of modernity.

Every day a throng of visitors are browsing and dining in Johor Baru’s heritage quarter in search of a unique experience in a blend of nostalgia-with-a-cool-hipster vibe.  Here are ten cool cafes in old JB that believe in sharing good food and are keeping customers coming back for more!

Hua Mui remains popular with both locals and visitors to JB
Ask anyone who grew up in JB about Hua Mui restaurant and they will say that this landmark double-storey kopitiam at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby is a must-go destination.  It’s a Hainanese coffee-shop opened in 1946 and originally run by the Chiang family.  

Their early clientele must have been mainly European government officers, their friends and families.  

Cooled by natural ventilation through wide open doors and windows on two sides of the building, the colonial charm in Hua Mui continues to be a magnet that still draws retirees, government officers, lawyers and bankers and even tourists today.
Facade of It Roo Cafe

Opened in 1961 at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Pahang, this cosy café can be a tad claustrophobic but there is also an outdoor section.  

In 2003, It Roo Cafe earned the enviable reputation for serving the Best Chicken Chop in Town.  

This classic Hainanese dish is made with a tender, boneless chicken thigh either fried or grilled, topped with own-recipe mushroom or black-pepper sauce, and served with a side of fried potatoes wedges and coleslaw.  

Fans of potatoes will enjoy the fluffy flavour of the wedges, which are cut and fried from fresh potatoes.

Air-conditioned and open-air sections of Roost
Repurposed & Recycled Salad Bar
The creator of Roost Juice Bar took this fresh fruit concept a step further at Roost Repurposed & Recycled Salad Bar at the corner of Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Trus.  

As its name describes, the furnishing in this double-storey café are handmade from recycled materials.  From lampshades, shelves, tables, chairs to benches, each item was creatively repurposed into attractive and useful furnishings here. This creative environment makes Roost a popular chill-out destination for talks and art & craft events.

A quaint cafe in an indoor garden at
Flowers in the Window

Flowers in the Window is a quaint café-florist designed in a garden concept.  This prewar shophouse at Jalan Dhoby retains its colonial charm even after renovation with a skylight for natural light to pour inside and bathe the foliage in a fresh and verdant sheen.  

Its gray façade festooned with ferns hints of a charming indoor garden where diners can enjoy a menu that features fresh ingredients that are combined into light, healthy meals and creatively presented in vibrant colours.  

Look out for weekly specials in a menu of light meals, drinks and freshly-baked English cakes where you can savour the taste of fresh herbs and flowers!

Indoor and outdoor seating at Eh He Art Cafe

Situated at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Eh He Art Café is where diners can enjoy an interesting kopitiam menu and works of art.  

Open from 7am, there’s something for everyone from traditional local breakfasts like kopi and kaya toast, nasi lemak, mee siam or sausage with scrambled eggs, to hot favourites like Hainanese chicken rice, a range of noodles and unique recipes for rice and pasta.  

On scorching hot days, its thirst-quenching cold pressed juices and traditional iced cendol, just hits the spot!

Whitewashed facade of Replacement Lodge & Kitchen
This whitewashed building of Replacement Lodge & Kitchen stands out quite obviously at Jalan Dhoby and you can’t miss its wide glass-paneled window which cheers up the café with natural light.  

Popular for its big breakfasts and brunch menu as well as a range of freshly-made churros, be sure to make a reservation or risk being disappointed as space is limited.  

Meal portions are generous and the churros come with interesting dips like peanut butter, gula Melaka (palm sugar) and even salted egg yolk!  They are also rather serious about serving good coffee.

Go check out the recently refurbished Chaiwalla & Co!
When Chaiwalla & Co opened at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in late 2012, it was the first container café in the city.  It initially wanted to serve only takeaways but as its popularity increased, tables and chairs were provided for customers to sit down to savour their drinks and snacks.  

The menu offers Vietnamese coffee, Taiwanese black tea and Thai milk tea with choices of flavours and toppings to customise drinks to your preferred sweetness.  

Delicious drinks and homemade cakes and pastries are savoured in a cool alfresco setting.

Sangkaya ice-cream parlour at Jalan Dhoby

The Sangkaya outlet at Jalan Dhoby offers welcome respite from our tropical heat with a range of cool, coconut treats.  

This ice-cream parlour is where the goodness of coconuts is celebrated in its premium coconut ice-cream served with fresh coconut flesh or in a snack on freshly-made Belgian waffle.  

Delicious artisanal coconut ice-cream may be served in half a coconut shell, in a cone or cup.  

Its cendol, served in a tall tumbler, is made with coconut ice-cream, topped with cubes of grass jelly, gula Melaka (palm sugar), shredded coconut flesh and the all-important slivers of cendol. 

The dining hall in Fork & Dagger is upstairs
There is nothing cloak and dagger about Fork & Dagger at Jalan Dhoby as this café serves a menu of popular local stir-fried rice and noodle dishes along with a range of salads, pasta and western favourites.  Among the popular picks is Kway Teow Goreng Agora and their signature Malaysian style fried rice.  

This is also where you can taste Popia Pisang, a deep-fried fresh banana wrapped in popia skin.  They even have a couple table dedicated to “Mr & Mrs” and don’t miss their ancient dumb waiter (operated by rope and pulley) that sends food up from the kitchen!

Facade of Drums Cafe seen from Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
The Drums Café is inspired by the 24 Festive Drums, a proudly Johor-born art of drumming.  With entrances on Jalan Ibrahim and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, this is a comfortable chill-out space for good coffee, cakes and a small menu of local favourites.  

Decorated in the drum theme, it has interesting information on the 24 Festive Drums and a wall art installation that reads, gu or drum, created from 1,500 drumsticks.  

When read from its Jalan Ibrahim entrance, the Chinese characters painted on a series of drums, suspended from the ceiling, speak of the 24 seasons – the inspiration for this unique art of drumming.

Note: In the true spirit of sharing, these cafés serve menus made with ingredients from halal sources and are free from alcohol.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 10 November 2016

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