Charismatic restaurants stir up culinary diversity in the Malaysian island city
It’s a familiar scene in George Town, the capital of Malaysia’s northern Penang island. Crowds of residents and tourists are flocking to a cluster of roadside stalls to order tangy fruit salads and spicy noodles in tamarind soup. Penang is a beloved paradise for street food, after all.
But a few steps away from the bustle, the discreet doorway of a nearly century-old building offers a tantalising glimpse into an alternative landscape for food lovers. Inside, visitors can explore a leafy courtyard with rustic walls of exposed brick – the site of Patio Bar de Tapas, a Barcelona-inspired, Malaysian-owned restaurant that’s packed on most weekends.
“Try this paella,” Patio’s co-founder Justin Chuah tells us, as his team brings a fragrant pan of Spanish-grown simmered rice crowned with prawns, calamari and clams. “You should also taste our chicken wings infused with Red Bull and jalapenos. And our baked speciality of chorizo, tomato, egg and manchego cheese.”
Patio’s slate of temptations illustrates how gastronomy in George Town is fast evolving, with a dizzying diversity of contemporary eateries now concentrated within two square kilometres of George Town’s core.
Hungry for haute cuisine? Head to Farquhar Mansion, a restaurant that opened in 2014 in a stately two-storey bungalow. Upstairs, a kaleidoscope of portraits blankets the walls and the ceiling, depicting everything from pink flamingos to Marilyn Monroe. It’s a playfully eccentric setting for an exquisite extravaganza that might commence with French oysters with lobster gelée, cauliflower mousse and Ossetra caviar, before later concluding with white chocolate coconut parfait with mango basil compote.
Or perhaps you’re thinking of Thai? One of George Town’s top openings this year is Inch, a Southeast Asian tapas bar that focuses on food from The Land of Smiles, spanning traditional favourites like pad thai and tom yum goong, plus inventive fare such as honey-roasted cashews with Sriracha sauce, washed down with a Tom Collins cocktail with a twist: Gin infused with nutmeg, one of Penang’s signature spices.
Inch is nestled amid the numerous ‘heritage buildings’ of Penang, which features one of Southeast Asia’s largest collections of pre-war buildings dating back to the British colonial era. These structures range from the modest to the magnificent, furnishing memorable ambiances with a rich sense of history for restaurants.
If you need a feel-good breakfast, check out Narrow Marrow, helmed by the affable duo of Alvin Neoh and Jamie Oon, an architect and interior designer respectively who’ve painstakingly restored a shop-lot that had been abandoned for a decade.
Narrow Marrow is a quirky space that defies easy categorisation – the décor leaps from terrariums and teapots to tables and chairs salvaged from streets and flea markets. The food includes not only thick traditional toasts slathered with cheddar cheese and avocado paste, but also a comforting lamb stew that Oon’s mother lovingly cooks at home. And the vibe is encouragingly cheerful – Narrow Marrow has hosted everything from musical gigs to a ‘tropical cosmic space future’ costume party.
“This is our playground,” Neoh says. “We like to get people feeling curious and connected to this place and each other. What we sell here is social lubricant.”
An equally distinctive destination can be visited for lunch. Jawi House, located in a 19th-century building on a street once known for brass and copper merchants, dishes out cherished recipes handed down through the generations, blending local Malay culinary traditions with South Asian and Middle Eastern influences. Founded by an anthropologist couple whose sons serve as the restaurant’s manager and head chef, this is one of the few places that promise nasi lemuni, a herbal rice dish with a lightly bitter tang, cooked with coconut milk and lemuni leaves, believed to hold diverse medicinal properties. Come for the food, which showcases masterfully mellow subtleties, then stay and admire the evocative local artwork and heirlooms on display.
When the sun sets, enjoy an elegant evening at Cheong Fatt Tze Restaurant, which serves modern Cantonese cuisine in The Blue Mansion, a boutique hotel with an indigo-blue facade and a lavish interior initially constructed in the 1880s by the powerful Chinese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze. The restaurant that bears his name brings old-world aristocratic dining to modern-day Penang, with a refined menu that includes five-spice duck breast with orange plum sauce and double-boiled snow pear with hasma and ginseng, prepared by a chef who has cooked professionally for three decades.
Alternatively, foodies seeking a lively night can head to El Faro, a modern European tapas bar helmed by Penang native Jack Yeap, a terrific chef who returned to his hometown to open his own restaurant after honing his craft in Singapore. Yeap’s nuanced creations supply spellbinding flavours, progressing smoothly from cold capellini with konbu and lumpfish caviar to hot squid ink rice with mixed seafood and aioli.
Penang’s flourishing food scene has drawn restaurateurs from far and near, including at least two Italians. The gregarious Roberto Dreon, who hails from Venice, presides over Il Bacaro, which promises trattoria-style cooking that blends authentic finesse with home-cooked honesty. Try the seafood stew, pizzas and duck ravioli with butter and herbs; the kitchen prepares much of the pastas and sauces from scratch.
Also conveying a taste of la dolce vita, Maurizio Ranauro’s Via Pre will make hearty eaters very happy. This cavernous restaurant is bursting with Italian hams and cheeses, alongside the likes of eggplant bruschetta and pork cheek bucatini, with a wine list that’s roughly 90 percent Italian.
Closer to home, Kuala Lumpur resident Diane Ong leaped at the opportunity to launch her own restaurant in George Town this year. Ong’s Awesome Canteen in the Sekeping Victoria vacation retreat is acclaimed for its ‘Paleo’ recipes, focusing on nutritious protein sources, vegetables and fruits, with vibrant highlights like grilled butterfish fillet with sweet potatoes and honeydew sauce.
Ultimately, Penang’s charm is best summed up by the people who were born and bred here, and who now run their own successful establishments.
“We’re a relatively slow and relaxed city,” says Vince Ong, a co-founder of Macallum Connoisseurs, a popular cafe, coffee roastery and training academy in a sprawling refurbished warehouse. “But we’re inspired to show that we can do things as well as anyone else.”
“This is a place where you can build a meaningful business with character, soul, warmth and identity,” says Ben Ng, a respected mixologist who spent years in Kuala Lumpur and abroad before returning to George Town to launch Mish Mash, a bistro that attracts bustling crowds for its hearty pub grub and imaginative cocktails in an atmospheric setting lined with portraits of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and a cigar-smoking Fidel Castro. “It’s really good to be back in Penang.”