My experience of George Town is somewhat unique; I've been fortunate to know the city as a tourist, a food/travel writer on assignment and now, as a resident. I know what I like as someone who lives right in the heart of the city right now. But I also remember what struck me as an observer keen on finding a story, and what I wanted from and liked best about the city as a traveler without a mission.
Every week I receive emails asking for recommendations -- for restaurants and hawker stalls, for hotels, for non-street food places to eat. There's already loads of Penang and George Town info on this blog as well as in articles I've written for the New York Times, SBS Feast, Wall Street Journal Asia, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and other publications. But now, as tourism to the UNESCO world heritage site I call home seems to be building momentum, it seems a good time to pull some loose ends together into a post that will, hopefully, insure visitors leave George Town loving it at least a fraction as much as I do.
If you're planning a visit to Penang know first that George Town is the place to stay. The island's beaches just don't rate, especially when compared with others in the region. Penang is an increasingly urbanized island half of whose coastline is separated from a busy shipping port by a well traversed strait.-- which doesn't make for pristine waters. And, unfortunately,increasingly larger swathes of the island are falling to unsightly development; head north from George Town past kilometer after kilometer of eyesores and you'll see what I mean. Sure, there are spots outside George Town worth visiting: Balik Pulau, durian farms (in season), Penang Hill (not on a weekend!) .... but all can be done comfortably in a day trip.
George Town: a mostly lowrise, very walkable city. Red tile roofs mark old shop houses.
Despite gentrification and a serious overstock of boutique hotels and cafes and trinket shops -- and the resultant loss of many long-time residents -- George Town is still, somehow, very 'real'. Moreover it is unique in the region for its historically rich (and fairly intact) cityscape, loads of authentic (ie. not designed for tourists) "street theater" and fabulous food, especially on the street.
Best of all, George Town is completely walkable. A leisurely stroll from one end of the UNESCO conservation zone to the other will take only an hour or so.
This list is far from comprehensive, it could extend for pages. But a gal has to keep some secrets. I won't claim that any of these spots are The Best this or that, but they are places I, and folks whom I refer, consistently enjoy. There's enough here to keep you busy and well-fed for a good 3 days or so. Addresses are listed or are to be found in links.
Our first meal here was in 2009, back when Teochew-Chinese-Malaysian restaurant Tek Sen was a glorified stall with tables occupying an alley and a five-foot way, before it had a Facebook page and an illustrated menu and a few years before its mention in a Lonely Planet guide made tourists as often seen here as locals. When Tek Sen tripled its capacity by relocating to its current double shophouse premises we feared the worst. But quality has remained high, probably because the family that opened the place 25 or so years ago is still on hand, in the kitchen and the front of the house, to insure that your bacon candy is every bit as savory-salty-sweet-lardy as it should be.
These days the queues can be gruesome, so go early (around 6pm), late (around 830pm but beware -- customers are often turned away by 8:45), or for lunch. After all these years Tek Sen is still the first place we take visitors, and for good reason.
A more typical Tek Sen scene
Some of our favorite dishes from a very long menu: Teochew steamed fish, gulai tumis, French beans stir-fried with pork, steamed homemade tofu, pork belly with preserved mustard, potato leaves stir-fried with sambal, bean sprouts with salted fish, tamarind prawns and whatever's on the white board.
Note: I'm suspending my recommendation of this restaurant based on a few reports I've received recently from readers. We're soon leaving George Town for a couple months so I won't be able to verify, but for now dine here at your own risk. And if you have a good -- or bad -- experience please let me know by email (email@example.com) or in the comments section below. Thank you!
For our money the best Penang Nyonya food, cooked by a real Penang Nyonya, is to be found at Pulau Tikus market. But a close second best, and heads and shoulders above the unremarkable grub served at other Nyonya restaurants on the island, comes out of the kitchen of a Peranakan home that doubles as a bird's nest distributor and restaurant. Mom -- along with aunties, sisters, etc. -- is in the kitchen, and when we reserve (and you do need to reserve) we ask for a table in the back with a view into her workspace rather than one among the somewhat creepy displays of bird's nest up front. Their "very hot" sambal belacan is the spiciest thing we've ever eaten in Malaysia. We love it.
Toh Yuen, Campbell Street near Cintra
Go to this old Cantonese spot for the tea and the atmosphere -- plenty of old-timers while away hours here. There is poached and roast chicken rice which is good but not as good as that at Keng Pin (see below), and the odd dim sum and pork buns which are OK, and fish ball soup which contains housemade fish balls and is stellar. If you like hot and sour flavors ask for kiam chai boi, a soupy Hokkien "leftovers" dish of meat (duck, here) cooked with mustard greens, chilies, tamarind, asam keping ("sour slices") and chilies. Noodle dishes are good too.
Simply the best nasi campur ("mixed rice", ie. rice and curries) in George Town. The owners of this stall migrated a couple decades ago from Sumatra, and the Indonesian island's influences come through in dishes like tempeh with green chilies, long eggplants fried to silkiness and doused with fiery red chili paste, beef jerky deep-fried with chilies and an addictive sambal made with grilled green chilies and tiny fish. Pineapple curry, whole round eggplant in an Indian-ish curry leaf-flecked curry, chicken cooked with kecap manis and red chilies and fresh pineapple achar say "Malaysia". The amazing spread includes several types of whole fish, a few different sambals and plenty of vegetarian options including, on weekends, do-it-yourself gado gado. Open till 4 or 5, but this is really a lunch place. Go by noon for the best selection. (Read more here.)
Cozy seating and darned fine nasi campur at International Hotel
Veloo Velas, Little India (Penang Street near Bishop)
I have to admit that I haven't frequented Veloo Velas much since an unfortunate refurbishment turned it from a pale blue and pink-painted six-table establishment that transported me to southern India, to a blandly tiled two-room restaurant. But I recently stopped in after a long absence and I'm happy to report that the thosai are still among the best in town. My favorite is the masala thosai, served mornings only (as are all tiffin, replaced by rice meals around noon), for its heavily spiced vegetable filling. You'll know this place by the thosai griddle out front.
Nasi Kandar at Toon Leong Cafe
I know what you're wondering and no, Anthony Bourdain did not eat here. Who cares? This little stall, run by the grandson of its founder, is parked at kopitiam (coffee shop) run by the son of the guy who opened it over 80 years ago. Service is mornings only, most things are sold out by ten. I love the super tender spicy beef curry and the eggplant, but I'd go with pretty much anything this guy dishes up. Toon Leong's strong kopi beng (iced coffee with sweet milk) sipped while sitting in one of the coffee shop's unironically vintage booths is a bonus.
Hainan chicken rice at Keng Pin on Penang Road
Hainan chicken rice may be Singapore's national dish but we're lucky to have a mighty excellent version here in George Town. If you're one of those folks who doesn't "get" this dish try the version here, served from about 1130am (Mondays off) by an intense couple who don't smile much but do know how to delicately poach a chicken to barest doneness and cook rice in the bird's broth with garlic to perfection, grains tender and separate. The sourish chili sauce is nice too. Specify when you order, breast or other part, with or without skin.
Curry Mee (on the same street as "Famous Cendol" -- see below -- off Penang Road)
I love Eng, the bubbly woman who runs this stall, and I love her curry mee even more. She used to park her stall on Cintra Street, but moved when the building behind her was refurbished. I thought she was gone forever until we stumbled upon her current location, in front of a cute little shop house whose three tables offer a cool, quiet respite from George Town's hot noisy streets. Be sure to order the loh han goh, an (admittedly pretty sweet) herbal drink made with a dried medicinal fruit that is said to be cooling -- more so if ordered with ice. Read more here.
Char Siew on Carnavon (corner of Cheong Fatt Tze / Hong Kong Street)
Arrive to this coffee shop by 12:15 or you'll end up waiting quite a while for your sweet-sticky pork. All hell breaks loose when this vendor, one of the few in George Town to BBQ his pig Kuala Lumpur-style (rather than Hong Kong style, sans sugar and rimmed in red) arrives at 12:30, unpacks roast pork, char siew and roast duck from his motorbike and hangs the meat in his glass display case. For my money the roast pork is not quite as impressive as the char siew, but it certainly isn't awful. The duck is very good, but nowhere near as tasty as that cooked over charcoal at Kuala Lumpur's old Sek Yuen restaurant. But then again I'm not sure there's a roast duck in Malaysia to match Sek Yuen's.
Asam laksa at Weld Quay
Judgment of whether or not an asam laksa is "good" or "bad" or somewhere in between comes down to chilies, tamarind (and/or asam keping, aka "sour slices") and fish. I like mine spicy, tart and full of piscene flavor. If you do too get your asam laksa at the stall that parks at the corner of Weld Quay and Aceh from around 2 in the afternoon until 5. Read more here. Across the street find tasty fried bananas.
Cendol on Burma Road at Lorong MacAlister
There may once have been a day when George Town's "famous" cendol, located on a lane just off Penang Road, was famous for a reason other than that it's famous, but that day is gone. Watery coconut milk, suspiciously vividly green mung bean "pasta" and sloppy presentation (the latter due, I suppose, to the need for speed to appease the inexplicablly huge crowds that mob this stall) make this version a No-Go for me.
Do yourself a favor: bypass the crazy queue. Walk right past and take a right at the flyover. Three or so blocks up Burma Road, on your left, you'll find a cart whose owners dish up a cendol worth your money. The wait is short, the coconut milk is thick and rich and the gula Melaka is deep and butterscotchy. After 12pm, odd off days. (Thanks to Bee of Rasa Malaysia for this tip.)
Over the past 18 months George Town has seen a rash of cafe openings. Too bad the coffee served at most is not worth my time or my money. After paying 19 ringgit last week at a newish cafe for a glass of meek and weak iced drip, I'm sticking with the tried and true.
The owner of China House is an Australian caffeine addict and her love of the bean comes through in the coffees served at the cafe. Her baristas know what they're doing and the beans are imported from a boutique roastery in Singapore. (Desserts and homemade ice creams are a bonus.) And if you can catch it open, the owners of Ete Cafe, a blink and you'll miss it spot on Lorong Carnavon off of Carnavon Street, lend their uniquely Taiwanese love of coffee to brewing a very good cup. His beautiful French pastries and macarons and her quiche (both trained at Le Cordon Bleu) are a bonus.
I haven't checked the prices listed on hotel websites lately but these hotels/lodgings are meant to be listed most expensive to least expensive. (I'm not including the E&O because who doesn't know about the E&O? It's George Town's colonial grande dame, boasts the city's biggest swimming pool with a fine location right on the water and has a health club. But it's a bit too stuffy and way to big for my taste.)
My bias is towards smallish, unique hotels that are the result of a sensitive/smart refurbishment of older structures by owners who've really put their heart(s) into the project. There's a lot of sub-par refurbishment going on in (formerly) lovely old buildings around town; know when you book a hotel that the word "heritage" in its name guarantees nothing.
All of these spots are conveniently located right in the middle of the world heritage site. I've viewed them and I get frequent feedback on service and comfort from guests who take my food walks. (Know that whether traveling as a journalist or a blogger I don't solicit complimentary food/lodging.)
Posh and private, sited behind a massive wooden gate at the upper end of hostel-choked "Backpacker Street", 23 Love Lane has spacious rooms in a refurbished bungalow and attached wing. Despite its exclusivity the hotel doesn't feel stuffy. Rooms and public spaces are washed in bright colors and are furnished with a great mixture of antique and mid-century pieces. A recent change of ownership may have affected service but recent street food walk clients have been happy here.
Stunning suites with very cool black and white mosaic tiled bathrooms arranged around a long courtyard on the second story of seven rebuilt terrace houses. Very private (only guests and their guests are allowed beyond the bar and restaurant) with a small pool. Read my full review for Wall Street Journal Asia here.
I included this early comer to George Town's boutique hotel scene in my NYTimes Travel "36 Hours in Penang" piece, which last year was republished in a book of 36 Hours pieces. As such rooms here can be hard to come by but it's worth trying, because Campbell House is small and intimate and the welcome is warm, thanks to the hands-on management style of its Malaysian and Italian owners.
Fabulously located in Little India, which to my mind is one of George Town's main attractions, the rooms at this refurbished Chinese medicine hall are as beautiful as they are comfortable, and are varied in size and configuration so as to accomodate the needs of single travelers and families as well as couples. The cafe downstairs is a great spot in which to cool off (passion fruit soda highly recommended) while people watching.
Newish Sin Keh describes itself as a "guest house" but has all the comforts of a hotel; it occupies a stylishly refashioned old shop house sited in a neighborhood not yet pocked with same-same cafes and trinket stores. There's an arts workshop and performance space in the hotel, which makes for a good crowd. The vibe is laid back and friendly and the roof deck is a great place to relax at sunset with a drink. As one who often finds that the problem with hotels is not the hotel but inconsiderate guests I appreciate Sin Keh's "Quiet at Night" policy.
When we're in Penang -- which admittedly isnt super often until our manuscript is in -- I offer private, bespoke street food tours in George Town, while EatingAsia photographer Dave Hagerman, who shoots for Saveur, SBS Feast, the New York Times and other publications, runs private and small-group photography workshops ranging from 3 hours to 1.5 days. For more details contact us by email: robyn[DOTt]eckhardt[at]gmail.com and drhagerman[AT]gmail.com.. We'll both be around for November and most of December.
IF YOU'RE IN PENANG SOON:
David Hagerman is showing 30+ of his photographs documenting daily life in public spaces around George Town for the My George Town project, part of the annual month-long George Town Festival. See the exhibit inside George Town World Heritage Inc. (corner of Carnavon Street and Lebuh Aceh, just around the corner from Armenian Street). The exhibit runs through August 31, 2014 (closed Saturday/Sunday).
If you can't make it to the exhibition go the map on the website and click the pins to see still images and 360-degree movies of daily life in public spaces around George Town.