Above: Inside Studio at Straits.
In and around the historic core of Penang’s World Heritage–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 café 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 mélange 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 café 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. Entrepôt (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”)