Seventeen years ago, when Australian Graham James bought an empty colonial building in Taman Fatahillah, there were no private commercial enterprises in the area. And 17 years on, that has hardly changed, save for a pool hall next door, a low-end disco and street vendors. That fact aside, the building that James spent two years converting into a restaurant and bar has become a landmark synonymous with the area and a must-see for visitors to Jakarta — Café Batavia.
Sitting in one of his establishment’s large leather lounge chairs and surrounded by the vaguely art-deco appointments he hand-picked himself, James, who lives in Bali and only visits Jakarta every few weeks, looks relaxed as he discusses his establishment.
“After all that time, I’m the only one doing business here and I must say after that amount of time, it does get a little lonely,” he says, the walls around him adorned with photographs of everything and everyone from Elle Macpherson to World War II Spitfire fighter planes and vintage European art photography.
It’s a 200-year-old building set in about 1937. One can easily imagine Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman having a dry martini at the upstairs bar. James says he wanted the feeling of a grand European café before World War II. “You won’t find any plastic in here, except for the reservation plates. There is nothing here that you wouldn’t find in the 1930s.”
As an electronic coffee grinder behind the bar whirs into action, James smiles. “I guess you just caught me lying.”
When he found the building, he says, it was falling down.
“Everybody thought I was stupid for buying this run-down property with nothing happening around it.” But for James, Café Batavia always was and still is a “passion project.”
“I did expect when I opened this place in 1993 there would be more happening now. If I had six bars close by, I would double my income,” he says, adding that he doesn’t mind so much anymore.
“I don’t need the money. I just need something to keep my mind busy,” he says. James does that by, among other things, being the honorary consul to the Czech Republic in Bali (don’t ask).
It was a long road for James to wealth and the Café B. After arriving in Bali in 1971 at the age of 25, he soon ran out of money. He came to Jakarta looking for work and found a job as an English teacher.
“The school fired me on the first day because I didn’t turn up, so I ended up starting my own,” he says. Now he owns language schools across the country.
When James acquired the building that houses Café Batavia in 1990, it was the only freehold property in Taman Fatahillah, so the process of purchasing and renovating it was relatively simple.
“I fell in love with it, I love this sort of architecture,” James says, cradling a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Australian Riesling in the other.
After purchasing the building, he had to decide what to do with his crumbling museum piece. “A restaurant seemed the logical option, the only thing that would do well here. But even two weeks out from opening we weren’t sure what type of food we were going to serve. I’m not a restaurateur; I just own it. Standing out front and shaking people’s hands? I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
Fifteen years on, James says the restaurant is everything he thought it would become. “It is the most famous restaurant in town,” he says of his place, which once made Newsweek magazine’s list of the world’s best bars for two years running. “If you are going to bring a business partner to Jakarta, you come here.”
He has thought about expanding his operation by buying some of the small buildings next door to the café to convert into apartments, but he was deterred by red tape.
“There has been some talk about creating a one-stop shop for investors and developers for the area, which would be really positive,” James says. “As it stands, it can be quite a headache. When I started up there was no trouble, but now it would likely be a different story.”
So how can Café Batavia get some commercial company?
“The whole area needs to be walking room. Get rid of all traffic and get people coming here at night,” James says. “Going to bars, having an experience. There also needs to be some incentive for people to come into these buildings and renovate.”
“Look at that,” he says, pointing out the window to a run-down building next door. “Who wants to fix that? That’s a huge job. So they need something to help people out. We need something like the Rocks in Sydney, but that takes time,” James says, referring to the Australian city’s historic district. He dismisses questions about whether such an undertaking — the Rocks has a string of 5-star hotels, shopping and cultural attractions — is too ambitious for Jakarta.
“Absolutely not. The buildings are here, they are not being used. The government could just lease them out for free or very little for 50 years,” James says. “At the end of that, you hand them back and they would have beautifully restored buildings.” Photo: Afriadi Hikmal, JG