Cover Story
Built to Last
Grace Lim 
Wong drew inspiration from the Pacific Northwest for the first ABC restaurant

When one strikes up a conversation with Andrew Wong, it is not long before the topic gravitates towards food. A passionate foodie, Wong is the brains behind Acme Bar and Coffee (ABC), a casual dining joint that has been charming urbanites with its chic atmosphere and fusion food.

Since ABC is known for satisfying cravings, I ask Wong about his favourite food. “Nasi lemak!” he replies immediately. “I’m always on the hunt for the perfect one. After travelling (overseas), I always crave for sambal. I would also miss a hot bowl of pan mee, the hand-torn type instead of the flat noodle version.”

“In fact, just last week I was wondering where to go for pan mee and remembered this old aunty in Changkat Bukit Bintang who still makes hand-torn pan mee. She would always scold me because it meant more work for her,” he chuckles.


The Paviliion Elite outlet is inspired by a typical home in New Orleans

With this in mind, Wong set up ABC as the place to go for a hearty meal. “Comfort food is something you can eat without thinking too much about it or feel like you need a manual before taking a bite. I do enjoy the sophisticated techniques of fine dining, but we’re not about that at ABC. That doesn’t mean our food is simple; we just find a way to make it look easy to enjoy. For example, our Shoestring Fries are dusted with parmesan and paprika. Our food is accessible but there is a lot of thought that goes into crafting them.”


Wong’s great eye for detail stems from his background in architecture and interior design. The energetic 53-year-old is not an architect or a designer though; he takes care of branding for his former employer, architectural firm Quirk & Associates, which he joined in 2004. His role is to create compelling narratives around design concepts.

Wong works closely with founder and principal designer Brian Quirk on various hotel, restaurant and boutique projects, most recently Sky Avenue in Genting Highlands. After a while, they started toying with the idea of opening their own restaurant. A visit to the US six years ago accelerated their plan.

“I visit Oregon often as I have family there,” Wong says. “There is this warehouse district called the Pearl District where a lot of the warehouses are converted into restaurants and bars, and I liked the idea of designing a restaurant with the same look.”

Inspired, Wong and Quirk got down to some serious work and opened the first ABC at Troika KLCC in 2012. “This first outlet was very much inspired by the Pacific Northwest, and I took a lot of the design cues and styling from Portland. A lot of people don’t want to admit to the whole hipster warehouse-style movement – think high ceilings and industry-looking dining spaces – because it’s everywhere now, but when we were designing our first outlet, that’s exactly what we wanted,” he says.

The food was an instant hit too, propelled by the chunky beef pie, grilled lamb shoulder, and salmon rice bowl. The sizzling brownies served in a hot pan and topped with a generous dollop of ice cream was a huge crowd favourite too.

Another outlet opened in Bangsar in 2014, but Wong decided to do things a little differently, calling it Acme South. Devised as a Texan barbecue restaurant, the interior boasts a lot of brickwork and has a muted atmosphere. “Malaysians are accustomed to having barbecues with plenty of sauce but the Texan style serves the barbecue with the sauce on the side. We brined and smoked the meats for up to 14 hours. The food was good but it wasn’t popular with the locals.”

Acme South was rebranded as ABC, and things took a turn for the better. Last year, the ABC family grew even bigger with the addition of two outlets – one in Pavilion Elite and another in Genting Highlands’ Sky Avenue. The former took design cues from New Orleans while the latter features a combination of all the best elements of existing ABC restaurants.

“The Pavilion Elite outlet is designed according to a typical home in New Orleans, with a dining room, a patio, a salon, a terrace, and a private room that can comfortably seat 20 people,” Wong says.

With four outlets, Wong admits that it is definitely more work but he relishes every task. “What I really love about the business is that you’re always on your toes. As with fashion, it changes every single season and there’s always something new. And because this restaurant is mine, I get to do what I want. It’s exciting because you get to make things happen. It’s also challenging to create a new menu with 12-14 new dishes every quarter of the year, and then refining it. Then there is all the running around the outlets to make sure they are running smoothly… But I love it!” he exclaims.


Wong constantly tells his staff that people patronise the place for the experience 

His favourite part of the job is coming up with new dishes and working with his kitchen team. He believes he has a good rapport with them. “We’re constantly experimenting with flavours,” he enthuses. “For instance, the upcoming Christmas menu will feature a lot more local flavours. In fact, there will be nasi lemak but with our spin on it. We use pandan rice and lumek fish, and we’ve also created our own sambal.”


Ultimately, Wong just wants every diner to be happy. He laughs when he recalls receiving advice from a good friend, a veteran in the F&B industry of over 30 years. “When I consulted with her, she asked if I was kidding because designing and opening a restaurant are two very different things. It was very good advice and I consider her to be my sifu (master). But she has been very supportive and encouraged me all the way. Still, I admit that maybe we were naïve then. She wasn’t the only one – there were many friends who told us we were mad to want to venture into the restaurant business,” he says.

He thinks the fact that he is no culinary expert works to his advantage. “Ya, I can’t cook. But maybe it’s because of that that I’m able to process the entire journey from a different perspective. I believe that dining is no longer just about eating – it’s a total experience. You already start smelling the food before it arrives, and when it lands on the table you’re already eating it with your eyes. You start to have preconceptions about what you are about to eat, and when you finally taste it, it takes on another journey.”

That is the whole idea behind – perhaps even the success formula of – ABC. “I constantly tell my staff that people don’t come here because they are hungry. They come here for the experience. Whether they want to create happy memories with friends and family or have a quick escape from the daily grind with a cup of coffee, I want ABC to be that sanctuary,” he concludes with a twinkle in his eye.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 258.