Above: Inside Studio at Straits.
In and around the historic core of Penangâ€™s World Heritageâ€“listed capital, a fresh crop of repurposed buildings is adding to the quiet excitement of this quintessential Malaysian destination
Story and photographs by Leisa Tyler
Where to Stay
Installed in a 19th-century carriage house and stables, Muntri Mews (77 Muntri St.; 60-4/263-5125; muntrimews.com; doubles from US$92) is the latest venture from Penang-born hotelier Christopher Ong. The meticulously renovated clapboard building offers nine suites and an airy street-side cafĂ© serving local staples like nasi lemak. Rooms are well priced and spacious, particularly those upstairs, which come with four-poster beds, teak floors, and pitched ceilings.
Also new to the scene is Hotel Penaga (Hutton Lane; 60-4/261-1891; hotelpenaga.com; doubles from US$148), which threw open its doors earlier this year. Occupying a cluster of modified 1930s terrace houses on the outskirts of George Town’s heritage zone, the 45-room hotel features hand-painted tile floors and a deft blend of designer furnishings and period antiques. The two-bedroom Clarke Residence apartments are perfect for families. Other amenities include a lap pool (in plain view of the cafeteria across the street, alas), a cute spa, and green touches like solar panels–carbon-conscious guests can track how much energy these are generating on a monitor in the lobby.
Where to Eat & Drink
Though Penang’s legendary street food–a mĂ©lange of Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, and Malay flavors–is as enticing as ever, dedicated foodies will want to make time for at least one meal at Chin’s (Church St. Pier; 60-4/261-2611), the first fine-dining Chinese restaurant in town. The interiors are glamorously whimsical, with velvet-draped windows, mismatched chairs, and reproductions of contemporary Chinese art hanging from the ceiling. The menu, by contrast, is solidly traditional: think fish hot pot with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppers, or a Mongolian stir-fry of tender local lamb.
More laid-back is Kopi Cine (55 Stewart Lane; 60-4/263-7299). A former coffee-roasting workshop (the old roaster is on display in the back courtyard) and now part of the Straits Collection hotel, the open-air cafĂ© invites guests to graze on platters of freshly baked meat pies, barbecued chicken, meze, and salads. Grab a sidewalk table to watch the comings and goings along this atmospheric lane; for those in need of further distraction, the adjoining reading room is filled with magazines and books.
A stone’s throw away, hole-in-the-wall Ecco (402 Chulia St.; 60-4/262-3178) is primarily a backpacker’s hangout–but with the springiest, most succulent homemade pasta around. The sauces are on the sweet side; if in doubt, order a rustic country-style pizza.
Penang’s wine lists have long been lackluster, which is why locals now flock to That Little Wine Bar (54 Chow Thye Rd.; 60-4/226-8182). Squeezed into a 1930s duplex on the leafy outskirts of town, husband-and-wife team Louise and Tommes import fabulous wines from small family vineyards in Europe. Pair a bottle with tapas plates like honey-cooked shiitake quiche.
Where to Shop
Drop by the Fuan Wong Gallery (88 Armenian St.; 60-4/262-9079) to browse creations in stained and fused glass by the eponymous artist-owner. The showroom upstairs is shared by photographer Howard Tan, renowned for his images of old George Town, and Jonathan Yun, whose range of molded and hand-beaten jewelry includes pieces inspired by Peranakan beadwork.
Next door, Bon Ton the Shop (89 Armenian St.; 60-4/262-7299) stocks an array of Asian-inspired bric-a-brac, from batik kaftans and Miao tribal necklaces to China-chic furniture and Malaysian handicrafts. EntrepĂ´t (Transfer Rd.; 60-4/261-1891), the atmospheric gift shop at Hotel Penaga, also carries a good selection of books, cushion covers, and assorted knickknacks.
For Peranakan antiques and colonial-era trinkets, head to Chulia Street. The pick of the shops here is Kedai Antik (No. 443; no phone), a shoebox-sized store with everything from porcelain and vintage compasses to bijou boxes and lacquerware.
Upstairs from Bon Ton the Shop is the Straits Collection’s latest endeavor: Studio at Straits (86 Armenian St.; 60-4/262-7299), which hosts exhibitions curated by Kuala Lumpur’s Core Design Gallery. A recent show, “This is It,” presented an edgy mix of black-and-white sculpture, photog-raphy, and installations by Malaysian artists such as Nizam Abdullah and Arif Fauzan.
In George Town’s bustling Little India area, the Alpha Utara Gallery (83 China St.; 60-4/262-6840) focuses on contemporary Asian talents like Japanese abstract artist Toru Matsuyama, while Gallery 29 (29 China St; 60-4/264-3580), on the ground floor of an Art Deco building, showcases the vibrant canvases of Malaysian painter and textile designer Rebecca Duckett.
Originally appeared in the June/July 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“George Town’s New Gems”)