Cricket Club Cafe | Colombo
Amidst a wealth of competition, there are not too many restaurants & bars across the world that stand as proud alone in their home or are as synonymous with the term ‘exceptional’, as Cricket Club Café (CCC), Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Since Gabby & James Whight from Melbourne (AUS) opened CCC in 1996, there has never been a ‘dry wicket’. CCC quickly became the go-to place for tourists, expatriates, cricket lovers, loathers, or otherwise, and continues to be the must-see restaurant that many plan to go (as they should), albeit with just one night in Colombo.
Those thinking it is just another ‘sports bar’ filled with giant screens and wait-staff wearing cliché black & white striped referee shirts are sorely mistaken. Though themed by the colonial art of cricket, and with screens showing live or replayed cricket matches, CCC is not a loud, brash, cheesy party-hard place you may expect of a ‘sports bar’.
With style and decorum, CCC is more a gallery of the games’ greats and museum of their wares, than a restaurant. That said, they serve cracking good food and cold beer, making it the place for an always fun & affordable ‘balanced feed’.
When visiting a foreign country, many not so much embrace local cuisine as they are often limited to little else. If you look hard enough though, you will always find a taste of home or a convenience such as burgers or pizza. When in Colombo, CCC has all the global flavours and convenience you want.
Along with Sri Lankan cuisine to cater for the locals or visitors that, like me, love Sri Lanka food, CCC offer that broad range of burgers, pastas, wraps, pies, salads, meats, seafood, and an ever-popular mixed grill. In keeping with the cricket theme, all menu items are named after famous cricketers from the worldwide game and yesteryear.
Being Australian may be the influence, but Gabby & James serve the coldest beer in Sri Lanka, an unattainable task by most other ‘Guvnors’ in the country. And of course, when you have cold beer, among other wide selection of beverages from Brand Ambassador Glenn McGrath's Hardy's Wines to luscious summery cocktails, you have a cool base on which to build a great experience.
A visit to CCC at any time of day or night, from breakfast to bedtime is an exceptional experience. Relaxed, unassuming, and making you sublimely welcome the moment you enter. When you can either sit down with a cold beer and watch a game or grab a beer and peruse the gallery of treasures, you know you are in a special place. I don’t think you can ever spend ‘too long’ in CCC, no matter how often you gaze and amaze at the memories.
Much reason to linger is the great people-focussed service by the happy Sri Lankan servers, all of whom show a genuine love for their job. Equally as Gabby & James have welcomed new and familiar faces through the years and cricket tours. You are never pushed to leave. Such service helps ‘pass time’ when during exceptionally busy times, you may wait longer; something the best of restaurants can suffer every day. Grab a beer and browse!
Originally in Colombo 3, the former ‘corner block’ plantation house, with its horseshoe driveway and grand entrance, provided the same charm and warmth that you feel when walking into grandma’s home. You knew it would be an ‘unique place’ with polished brass cricket bats as door handles welcoming your arrival.
The entrance hall led people to the main bar, filled with wooden barrel tables, and a bar with drinks menu & specials written on a ‘cricket scoreboard’ on the back wall. Each room off the hallway, all different sizes just as they are at grandma’s, was a separate dining room catering for varying sized groups and individuals. Otherwise, you could sit in the garden by the signpost pointing to the great cricket grounds of the world.
No matter which room you ate or drank, the walls adorned memorabilia you’d expect of a cricket themed restaurant, and not just vanity photos with celebrity international cricketers that visit CCC. The nostalgia going back to the 1930’s reminds us that the game was played long-before Sri Lanka was a Test Cricket nation; the great Australian Sir Donald Bradman’s name featuring on several pieces.
Short of having one beer as a non-obligatory entrance fee, many visit CCC to walk the walls of cricket history ‘papered’ with cricket bats, cricket balls, signed playing shirts, gloves, scorecards, newspaper features and clippings, and of course photographs, both personal and significant.
Without so much as a sniff of a 'Border Burger', you could spend hours admiring the ever-growing collection. Each visiting cricket team gifting new pieces of fame and infamy to be framed and fancied by others. Its just as well CCC moved in 2016 to a ‘bigger pavilion’ with bigger walls and more of them!
With the landowner of the original CCC deciding to fashion the block into an apartment tower, Gabby and James 'retired hurt' and a Sri Lankan dining and imbibing institution was at risk of pulling stumps. Word of ‘wickets tumbling’ travelled quickly. A cricket loving philanthropist came to the rescue to build Gabby & James a new three-level home for CCC, and much closer to where many tourists and visiting cricketers stay.
CCC was playing on, but there was fear Australia’s Test Cricket Tour to Sri Lanka 2016 would be played without CCC with building and importantly licensing behind schedule. The opening tour game at P Saravanamuttu Oval was played whilst Gabby & James worked overtime with their paint brushes. When the 3rd Test at Sinhalese Sports Club was played, and with cement still wet, CCC opened its new doors; metaphorically speaking as there were no doors (yet)!
The tall, imposing, balconied façade of the new Cricket Club Cafe, just yards back from Flower Road, announces itself as bigger, better, and there for many cricket tours to come. Built in a traditional Sri Lankan style, you are greeted by a stunning open-air courtyard filled with warm lights and palm trees, and which is the relaxed main bar.
The courtyard is where large groups like our Cricket Tours to Sri Lanka, a few mates standing at the bar, or quiet tables for two can hunker down to watch a day’s play, or signature events such as the AFL Australian Rules Grand Final. High walls surround you behind which house varying sized ambient dining rooms on several floors, and which display the treasures that make Cricket Club Cafe one of the world’s best cricket museum & gallery!
The grand opening could not have been better timed. From Melbourne, the Australia Cricket Team touring builds great excitement in Gabby & James and of course weeks of investment by the team, support staff, and supporters that come with.
It would have been heart-breaking for everyone on our 2016 Cricket Tour for the Cricket Club Café to be closed, and no more heart-breaking than for Gabby & James knowing the Australian Cricket Team only tour Sri Lanka every 5-7 years. Not the missed business, but the chance to see the Australia team and support staff who Gabby & James have known since 1999. Everyone is special in their eyes, no matter how many years are between drinks.
If there are two people that deserve every success in their passionate endeavour, Gabby & James are them. It is not only that they’ve created a wonderful restaurant that deserves a long inning, but more so they are two wonderful people. Their hard-to-hide stress of ‘not opening’ were tempered by the warm smiles they always wear, and none warmer than my seeing them in July 2016, the first time since our 2011 Cricket Tour. They're always genuinely pleased to see me (I think), as I'm genuinely pleased to walk through their door and see them, as I have for more than 20 years.
My first visit to CCC was on Australia’s Cricket Tour of Sri Lanka 1999. Most nights, the Australian Cricket Team took place in the backroom bar. With more than 200 Test Matches under my belt since 1995, this regular shoulder to shoulder interaction with the Australia Team was what pushed me to continue following them around the world.
Exposure through cricket touring saw me feature in several cricket documentaries and match replays. If one of ‘my documentaries’ was not showing on TV when I walked in to CCC, the guys would put one on, and on a loop no less until I went home. This harks back to the staff their knowing their clientele even if Gabby & James are absent.
With the attraction of CCC to all visiting cricketers, you can almost guarantee a cricket superstar will be there when an international team is in town. When following your cricket team to Sri Lanka you can turn up at CCC and hope to catch a glimpse of your nation’s cricketing elite.
Saying this, let’s not pretend that following cricket in 2020 is the same as it was 20 years ago. Across the sporting world, exposure to the general-public has diluted. The curse of social media and the risk it imposes on players who can be accidentally or even deliberately captured in a misinterpreted social post sadly keeps them away.
In 1999 Steve Waugh came to me in the stands of P Saravanamuttu Oval and invited me to CCC because ‘all the boys were going tonight’. This was not because Steve wanted to have a beer with me, it was just how things were before social media buggered it. Aside the address, the one thing that hasn’t changed at Cricket Club Cafe since those halcyon days of 1999 is that the beer is still thankfully cold!
"Thank You Gabby & James for your endless hospitality, generosity, and kindness!" Luke