Restored buildings in Penang now serve as restaurants that offer cuisines rich in taste and culture.
THE Unesco World Heritage status for George Town has resulted in an influx of tourists to the island, and a burgeoning boutique hotel industry to cater for them, bringing the place to life once more.
Derelict buildings and shophouses in old George Town, run down and long abandoned, have now been beautifully restored, and come complete with all the latest modcons like ensuites, WiFi, swimming pools and even art galleries on site. Many have outlets offering different types of cuisines.
They are a wonderful way to soak up our rich history. Make sure you use the annual George Town Festival (June 15-July 15) as an excuse to come up north and try a few of them.
Starting with Chulia Street, there’s the orange and blue Yeng Keng Hotel, set in an Anglo-Indian family bungalow built in the mid-1800s. The former backpackers’ hostel was renovated in 2009 and is now a trendy hotel with 20 ensuite rooms.
Its pork-free Café Bar, situated on one side of the spacious front courtyard, has an eclectic décor which reminds me of a Wild West saloon, with its dark wood tables and chairs and a long bar interspersed with the fresh green of leafy plants overhead, and maroon velour banquettes along a far wall.
The hotel is headed by veteran chef Tan Jee Yong, who whips up Hainanese and western dishes. His Choon Piah, crispy spring rolls served with a spicy angmor tau eu (Worcester) sauce, is probably a requisite starter, although the most popular dish is not actually on the menu.
“Chef Tan’s Hainanese Chicken Rice is one of our Chief Minister’s favourite dishes,” claims manager Jackie Chung. Served with a generous helping of Tan’s special garlic and ginger chilli sauce, it has to be pre-ordered, like the meringue-topped Macaroni Pie.
Equally popular is his Bomb Alaska, a throwback to the colonial days when the white masters enjoyed the razzmatazz which accompanied the serving of this fruit cocktail, ice cream and cake dessert covered with white meringue. The lights are dimmed as it is brought out, after which it is doused with a spoonful of brandy and then lit. It’s a great way to celebrate a special occasion or even just the end of a meal.
In Muntri Street, Mews Café in the pet-friendly Muntri Mews serves a range of local and international favourites like its special Nyonya Laksa Lemak.
A few streets away at the corner of Hutton Lane and Lebuh Clarke is the amazing “green” Hotel Penaga, converted from a cluster of 15 pre-war terraces and shophouses using recycled material, wherever possible. Its ground floor Cinnamon Restaurant offers a mix of fusion and western cuisine.
Just outside the core zone is the splendid 1881 Chong Tian Cultural Hotel at Jalan Pintal Tali, a Chinese heritage hotel built around the end of the 19th century. The 11 unique rooms are furnished with genuine antiques and chinoiserie.
Dine in splendour in the hotel’s two ground floor outlets which serve Chinese and western cuisines, respectively. Check out chef Wo Siong’s special creation, La Zi Tou Fu – prawns, minced pork and buah petai fried in a delicious dark sauce. It’s great with plain white rice. Or enjoy a drink on the rooftop bar and look down on the twinkling lights of George Town by night.
Just a block away at the corner of Campbell Street and Cintra Street is the three-storey former Tai Leok Hotel, now the extensively-refurbished and modernised Campbell House. Opened by Nardya Wray and partner Roberto Dreon last year, the place is designed as a “home away from home”.
Roberto is keen to promote his native Venetian cuisine, so at its pork-free outlet Il Bacaro, you can tuck into some unique Italian dishes. There’s home-made gnocchi, for example – soft and fluffy and served with a garlicky tomato sauce, also home-made.
Seafood has a large role here; the Cod a la Vicentina has been adapted using local salted fish and is served with home-made polenta.
To go with your sundowner, try one of the newly-introduced cichetti, Italian tapas, taster-style dining which is fast becoming the trend all over the world.
Over in Stewart Lane, Lorina and Stefan Gehrig have taken over the former Straits Collection suites. No. 53 was a factory where, until just a few years ago, the local coffee was slowly “fried” in an enormous metal wok which still takes pride of place.
Their casual corner outlet, 55 Café & Restaurant, offers Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, including a large range of tapas.
“It’s kwailo dim sum,” quips Lorina, a former merchandiser from Hong Kong, “which is perfect for this sort of weather.”
There are specially selected Spanish wines to go with the Gambas (prawns) in olive oil, chilli and garlic flakes, grilled eggplant or Albondigas (minced pork meatballs). Or, why not order a jug of the ice-cold sangria?
The 1881 Chong Tian Cultural Hotel
38, Jalan Pintal Tali, 04-263 1881;
Corner of Jalan Hutton and Lebuh Clarke,
04-261 1891; hotelpenaga.com
362, Chulia Street, 04-262 2177;
Campbell House Penang
106, Lebuh Campbell, 04-261 8290,
Muntri Mews Penang
77, Muntri Street, 04-263 5125;
Café 55 at Coffee Atelier
47-55, Lorong Stewart, 04-261 2261;