Speckled with colonial buildings on every corner, giving way to tree covered alleyways with chinese lanterns guiding you, Georgetown has preserved its integrity against all odds. With more old-school tea rooms than you could shake a stick at, achingly beautiful mansions, vista's over the sapphire blue sea and the emerald hills protecting the midlands, this island really is the gift that keeps giving.
Another, and decidedly more important reason to visit Penang, is the food. The undisputed street-food capital of Malaysia, it's hard to not elevate that title a touch higher too, all things considered. Spend a day here and your stomach will thank you, sacrifice a little more time and scratch beneath the surface and you might relocate. From fiery hawker stands, pier-clinging seafood spots, sprawling banana leaf canteens and every cuisine on earth represented in it's 120 square kilometers, hire a bicycle, buy better shoes, and get going!
Having visited more than 5 times in the past, I still feel like I haven't cut the cake yet, i've just been transfixed by the icing.
Where to eat in penang
Tajuddin Hussain ($)
My vote for Penang's best Indian/Pakistani food goes to this amazing spot. Crawling likes an ants nest from 11am onwards, you need to be here before midday to get their spectacular Mutton Curry before it runs out. Ask for the spicy version (not the korma) with biryani rice and prepare your tastebuds for full frontal assault.
Tek Sen ($$)
Speaking of spices, the potato stems with prawns at Tek Sen don't hold back. The waiter asked me twice if I was sure, but his fears were baseless. It had a hit to it, but nothing that a proper Thai dish won't stoke up. Everything I tasted on the menu here was excellent, but come early unless you want to sit in a plastic chair waiting room for what can be an hour. It's really THAT popular.
New Siam Road Char Koay Teow ($)
Not the biggest fan of waiting in lines in 35 degree heat/humidity, I already gave up once at this place when I stood for more than 30 minutes and moved all of 2 meters closer to the stall. Today I managed to get a plate of steaming hot koay teow in under 45 minutes. Was it worth it? Yes.
The other versions of this dish I tried in Georgetown don't compare. This had the kiss of the charcoal wok, the plump prawns, was spicy and not as sweet as many others. Do yourself a favour and avoid the lunch rush, and pray you don't get stood behind someone ordering 10 portions to-go, like I did.
Zen Xin ($$)
With vegan alternatives like this who the hell needs meat? Sublime aubergine kung pao with smokey dried chilli's, chunks of fresh ginger and some green pepper. Stunning! Seriously! Stunning!
MEWS cafe ($$)
Regardless of the fact that street food usually wins, some restaurants are famous for one particular dish. Mews Cafe is known for their Curry Mee, a dish I have struggled to find a perfect version of at street stalls. Either the broth is too thin, too thick, not rich enough, the prawns are of the frozen-type, the noodles aren't quite there... Mews take's all of these grievances and turns them into a bowl of divine intervention.
It's creamy, it's rich, it's heavy, but goddamn it's tasty. Ask for a side-bowl of chili sauce and we're laughing!
CAFE ETE ($$)
Taiwanese beef noodles in Penang? Why yes sir! Having squandered some hours reading through Penang Foodies recommendations, I happened upon this article and was immediately drawn by the photo. I rushed down, ordered a bowl, ate it clean, smiled like a cheshire cat and complimented the chef who told me at length that it was an old mothers recipe from Taiwan. No wonder, this was dynamite.
Penang Road Famous Laksa ($)
"We need the funk, we gotta have the funk".
Never have those words rung truer. Old Grandma is still standing, ordering everyone about and overseeing the quality control. The tables are full of tourists and locals slurping noodles and pieces of flaky mackerel. The soup, although pungeant and insanely fishy, gets more and more addictive the more you dare to eat of it. This is NOT for the faint-hearted, this food is an acquired taste and will send some people running to the hills at the first whiff.
Kapitan Tandoori House ($)
One of Penang's main allures is the infestation of sublime Indian restaurants. The workers were herded onto boats in Madras and sent across the ocean to level the forests two centuries ago, and they made their mark on this land by way of their kitchen.
Kapitan serves some of the tastiest tandoori chicken you'll find anywhere. My favourite part about it is it's fiery kick, something that's generally lacking from this dish elsewhere.
Hot Bowl White Curry Mee ($)
Furiously curious if anything resembling a bowl-broth-noodles-stuff is involved? Hop over here and grab their signature "White Curry Mee", which isn't very white after you've plonked a big spoon of their lush chili sauce on top. The chicken here is also really tasty so order a side-plate of that.
lagenda cafe ($$)
Penang's best beef rendang, customisable with a myriad of pickles, sambals, egg salads, chillis etc. Lagenda Cafe has been bringing in the crowds since it's inception, and I can bloody see why.
Uncle Kin Chilli Pan Mee ($)
Most Penang-ites will admit to being bonafide Chilli Pan Mee addicts, and Uncle Kin is their dealer. Drop by for a light meal of blisteringly spicy, perfectly at-dente noodles with crispy anchovies and chicken mince. It's a meal to bring tears to your eyes for two reasons.
Sri Ananda Bahwan ($)
Usually my first stop on any trip to Penang, this Georgetown royalty serves excellent banana leaf's to hallways jammed with smiles. If you're in the mood for something else they do a great masala dosa, but it's not the best in town.
Rumah Kacha ($$)
Smack bang in the middle of the hip market area of Hin Bus Depot (Sunday markets), this glasshouse restaurant is the perfect prescription on weekdays when the crowds are elsewhere. The food is dynamite, and the locale makes you breathe in deeply and relax.
Menya miyabi ($$)
Suckerpunched by a bowl of soup? Today I was. Expecting nothing from the Ramen Gods, they decided to shine on my blond head and shower scoops of delicious broth, springy noodles, perfect egg and slighty chewy (but tasty) pork my way. And I thank them for it!
Annalakshmi Temple of Fine Arts ($)
Set in a beautiful back-garden with statues of Hindu Gods littering the rock-walls and foliage, this beautiful spot hosts cheap lunch thali's and "pay as you like" buffets to those in the know. Luck would have me find it, and I was not disappointed. Stunning vegetarian food served by the sweetest aunties imaginable.
Pho Viet ($$)
A small hole in the wall spot that serves pretty decent beef pho. Bonus points for being walking distance to Ome by Spacebar so you can get yourself a real coffee after. Tender beef, good beef balls, solid noodles, above average broth: what more do you need?
Not just another replica restaurant on the long drag of insufferable choices, this place actually delivers quietly. Entranced slightly behind the street level, braveness ensuing walk in boldy, grab a table, order a Masala Dosa and expect to be transported to Chennai. The sambar and chutney are outstanding, and the dosa is just right even tho on first inspection I had my doubts. Stay away from the ice coffee, it's like reduced coca-cola with sugar and milk in it, and extra sugar and then some extra caster sugar.
Pasar Air Itam Laksa ($)
Anthony Bourdain made me do it!
When people mention local, it doesn't get much more local than this. Wrapped around the corner of Air Itam market, with a few tables clinging to the walls, a drinks stall and the laksa stall out in the open with the penetrating sun blinded by a few hanging plastic tarps. Sink your teeth into this ultra-fishy concoction only if you are a brave motherfucker. It's not for the faint-hearted, put it that way. I struggled to eat it at first, but it did grow on me.
WARNING! ONLY FOR THE BRAVE
Kashmir restaurant ($$)
A visit here to meet the old lady is reason enough, the fact that they have excellent Indian food is another plus point. "Sad Hour" beers on the balcony followed by a faultless Chicken Masala (ask for it spicy) and Garlic Naan, life could be worse.
Cafes, Bars & Curiosities
Jing Si Books & Cafe
A repellant towards everything that Love Lane is, this oasis of majesty in the middle of the city is "home". Sit in the corner, bring a book, order a cold brew tea and let your mind wander for minutes, hours, days. Few places on earth retain this much calm per square meter.
Junk Cafe ($$)
Deceptively located on Chulia Street, covered in a burst of foliage, creep into the depths of this bizarre bar and buy yourself a drink. The walls are decorated like a hoarders mansion, and they make the best damn burgers in town! No contest.
The Alley ($$)
This great little local gem lies in a small street behind the Goddess of Mercy Temple, offering respite from the heat. With great music, good coffee and a quiet environment to read in, what more could you ask from a cafe?
Cafe Antarabangsa ($)
Introduced to me by an old friend who runs Moonshine & Lemongrass, this is Georgetowns cheapest "bar". A glorified corner shop with a multitude of plastic chairs strewn haphazardly over the neighbouring area. In the late afternoons you can pop by for a quiet drink with the old guard and contemplate loss.
At night it can become a bit "fucktard spring-break tourist-ish". If your constitution allows you the ability to filter out idiots, then this place is perfect for some cooling relief in the shape of a 330ml can of beer.
Ome by Spacebar ($$)
Torn out of a page of some seattle hipsters wet dream, this cafe may look the part but the good thing is the coffee's are on point too. Despite the ultra-cool interior the service is friendly and relaxed.
Rabbit X Hold Up ($$)
The fridge is not what it seems.
Generally hateful of most speakeasy concepts, finding them curio-fodder for the ill-equipped at life, the reason I'm including this cafe at all, is that the front part is a perfect people-watching spot. Secondly, the coffee is excellent. Ignore the squeals of euphoria when tourist number X realises there is an entire room behind the orange refrigerator, put your headphones on and stare out the window at the sweating masses.
Hin Bus Depot
Swerving sharply towards the hipster side of things, this small enclave in the middle of Georgetown allows artistic merit to blossom, and is surrounded on all sides by cafe's and restaurants. On Sundays they host a market, tuesdays is film-night. On other days you can just pop by for a moment of peace, or sit and have a coffee at Bricklin's.
Prefering the solitude of graveyards to most parks, the latter comprising heaving, tormented square kilometers overflowing with screaming kids and maniacal joggers, i'll rather seek out tomb-storages whenever I am on the road. This one in particular is perfect for some afternoon reading under the shade of old trees, you only need to peek up once in a while to nod affirmatively to a passing tourist. The kind of nod that says "I acknowledge you, but don't start a conversation".
Mish Mash ($$$)
Malaysia doesn't make it easy to be a thirsty degenerate. Alcohol here is so blindingly expensive your entire months budget will be blown on one lengthy binge. If, however, you choose your moments and drink irregularly, then drop by for a solid cocktail from this award winning bar.
Look, if you've got 2 days in Penang skip this, however if you're staying a while and want to see something a little out of the ordinary, pop by and spend some time talking to the amazing grave-keeper. He has been living/working here his entire life and bears the weight of death in his kind eyes.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively