Tourists and locals alike often take a trip down memory lane in Kota, the capital’s old quarter.
Although many of the old buildings are somewhat dilapidated due to years of neglect, a walk across Fatahillah Square offers an idea of what life was like during the 300 years of Dutch occupation.
The second oldest building on the historic square is Cafe Batavia, which was erected at the beginning of the 19th century. Originally the residence and office of the Dutch governors, and later on used as a warehouse, the Grand Salon was added to the second floor in the 1930s and Cafe Batavia, a restaurant, bar and coffee house was born.
After undergoing massive renovations at the start of the ’90s, Cafe Batavia has now returned to its former grandeur and elegance.
The first thing that strikes the visitor upon entering Cafe Batavia is the unique ambience of the place. It invokes memories of long-gone times, a whiff of the past, and it’s almost as if time has stood still here.
The ground floor features a lounge with sofas, a bar and a stage for live music entertainment.
“From Tuesday to Saturday, we have live music here,” said Nita Rositam, a marketing and communications representative for the restaurant. “Our bands play jazz, pop and sometimes Latin music.”
A carpeted staircase leads to the second floor, which is constructed entirely of elegant Javanese teak wood.
People can sit at the so-called Winston Churchill bar — Cafe Batavia was named “The World’s Best Bar” by Newsweek International in 1996 after all — or on comfortable sofas.
However, the jewel of this place is definitely the Grand Salon, that serves as the main dining area and has room for 150 guests.
“Many people use this place for functions, weddings, private parties and gatherings,” Nita said.
“And many tourists come here. Up until several years ago, it was mostly foreigners who came to Cafe Batavia, but this has changed in recent years. Maybe the locals have heard about it and want to see it as well.”
Ceiling fans provide a refreshing breeze at the Grand Salon and swing and jazz music play over the speakers.
Through large windows, guests can get a view of Fatahillah Square and its museums, visitors, street vendors selling bracelets, postcards or refreshments, and tourists bicycling in the area.
Sitting on a cushioned chair, it truly feels like traveling back in the past and getting a glimpse of Jakarta’s history. You can picture Dutch men gathering here, smoking cigars and drinking brandy while chatting about their lives in the tropics.
The restaurant serves Western and Chinese food, and also has a fine selection of Australian wines.
“The food you can maybe get in other restaurants, but that’s not why people come here. They come for the atmosphere, which is very unique,” Nita said.
An impressive collection of framed photographs and paintings adorns the walls of Cafe Batavia, which, according to Nita, all belong to the owner of the cafe. Vintage photographs of celebrities and royals, in black and white and color, all look down on diners.
The collection even extends to the restrooms, where a young Katherine Hepburn, several nude models and other film stars watch silently from their perch.
According to an urban legend, there is also a ghost that roams the restrooms.
“Several guests have said that they saw someone there, a Dutch lady,” Nita said.
“Is it true or not? I don’t know, but it might just be,” she added with a smile.
Ghosts aside, Cafe Batavia is a rare remnant of the colonial past, and even though it is located far from the hubbub of Central Jakarta, it is definitely worth the journey.