Anthony Bourdain, host of the Popular TV show No Reservations is no stranger to this great city and once declared “What city worth its concrete doesn’t afford citizens the opportunity to eat on the street?” He was in this instance referring to Rio but it’s an acceptable caveat to apply to any city, especially an Asian one.
Georgetown, Unesco world heritage site and foodie mecca. This, small, friendly walkable city on the island of Penang is photogenic, pretty relaxed and keen to please your stomach ten times a day. It’s basically where you would like to live given the chance.
The TV personality also summarised “When you slurp something out of a hot liquidy bowl, on a low plastic chair. I’m pretty much happy” and that, I have to agree with.
Restoran Kapitan chicken just keeps me coming back, we’ve spent two lots of around ten days in Penang and eaten in Kapitan at least eight times. In the six months between visits I dreamed of Kapitan chicken – it’s delicious and there aren’t enough superlatives to describe their sour green sauce.
The chicken naan set is good value at around 10RM and their biriyani rice is decent, not amazing but decent. Westerners seem give Kapitan a really bad rep on Tripadvisor, mostly because of the service, but generally we think they’re OK and their food more than makes up for it. We found they lack consistency (and quality naan) the later in the day you visit.
93 Lebuh Chulia: 24hours, seven days a week. Around 10RM per person
Hameediyah Restaurant has been open over a century, and serve up South Indian Muslim food – they are especially well known for the murtabak, which is delicious and their range of curries.
It’s a crazy chaotic skinny building but you can head up to an air-conditioned restaurant and order. This restaurant is never going to win any awards for style or cleanliness, but it’s an important heritage restaurant in Penang.
Recently, they’ve announced plans to franchise outlets across the country. So hopefully they will still be able to deliver the same quality in the future.
156 Lebuh Campbell : Open daily lunchtime until 11pm. Closed Fridays.
A chain of South Indian restaurants, Sri Ananda is spreading across the country. The tandoor is better at Kapitan for me, but they also serve banana leaf curries (look out for the sign ‘daun pisang’ on buildings in Little India) and a decent butter chicken. The Thosai, (or dosa) chef out the front is always busy.
55 Lebuh Penang : 7am-11pm seven days a week. Around 10RM per head
Sin Nam Huat is a chain, across Penang selling pork, duck and chicken rice. We tried spontaneously due to their hanging meat looking incredible, and it was. It comes with this weird, coagulated meaty soup, which I think is called chai buey – the cooked down bones and leftover cuts of meat with vegetables which for me had too much spice (it upsets me to write this as a chilli fiend) when eaten with the delicate pork/duck/chicken rice.
They have several branches around the city but this one is clinically clean, and half way between Lebuh Chulia in the heart of tourist-town and Komtar – A good place for those who are worried about food hygiene as I would have happily eaten off the floor in this restaurant.
59 Lebuh Cintra : Opens mornings until 5pm, but the best roast meats will be long gone by 2pm around 5RM per plate.
Tai Wah Café is kind of famous in Penang for their wan than mee but it felt like a homely welcoming kopitiam, lacking a shouty dragon boss lady like a lot of other well-known places. It also seemed to be full of locals who quietly read the paper and slurped their delicious breakfasts.
Basically, for a popular Chinese kopitiam breakfast place it was very very chilled. The noodles are as close to perfect, the broth is rich and the char siu flavoursome. Everything has a deliciously porky butteriness to it. It Served with shredded roast chicken and gailan.
We’re BIG wan tan soup fans, but almost everybody else was eating the dry, caramelised dark noodles, so perhaps we missed out on their best offering.
Next time, Penang.
84 Lebuh Argylle : open for breakfast, probably finish in the early afternoon. Closed Tuesdays <5M per serve.
Hokkien mee is one of the Chinese Penang dishes (it’s a Chinese Malay invention, and a quintessential Penang dish) there’s places all over which sell this in the morning, lunchtime and night. We’ve not ventured to any of the reputable morning places (which sell out early) because we prefer to eat it in the evenings. Some Kopitiams and collectives (such as Kheng Pin) will have it at lunchtimes too.
*both of these are available in the evenings*
Most Penangites were pleased with our choice of 888 Hokkien Mee stall, a simple pushcart in a courtyard affair which offers meaty extras like pork belly, rib, and intestines. I really liked the broth, but the shrimp was not generous, looking like it had been through a mandolin.
One local who favours 888 as their go-to Hokkien mee spot said it’s because, the broth is so good, you don’t need the extras, like other places.
The hawker at Old Greenhouse Food Court was not a favourite of the average Penangite but I liked the broth. Also, and importantly whole prawns were bobbing in the soup alongside the egg and crispy crunchy belly pork – that’s love, right there.
Ultimately, I would probably go back to 888, it’s a little cheaper, closer to central Georgetown and it has a dessert cart parked out front too, which dishes up a lot of ABC & chendul.
The lady who runs the place and works the pot, blanching noodles and beansprouts seems to be the only one who interacts with foreigners and amazingly, she doesn’t seem to write orders down.
888 Hokkien mee, Lebuh Presgrave. Evenings only, closed Thursdays, <5RM more with extras.
Old Greenhouse Foodcourt, Jalan Burma. 8pm –4am, closed on Sundays. <10RM
Teh soon café is a great place to eat breakfast, brunch and while away some time watching the staff working in this, one of the oldest kopitiams in town. Despite being little more than a shack in an alleyway is full from morning to afternoon close and presumably has resisted calls to upscale for decades.
The toast is thick cut, hand scorched under charcoal and smeared with homemade kaya, served with soft boiled eggs. They also have premade nasi lemak banana leaf pyramids on the tables which are good quality. The thick, Hainan coffee keeps us coming back.
184 Campbell street : Mon-Sat, 8am-6pm; closed on Sun
Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng is a pretty busy and ‘famous’ place, selling, unsurpsingly koay teow th’ng (although no longer on Pitt Street) – soft white noodles in broth with soft, homemade fishballs. The broth has delicious little squares of crackling floating about and the soy dipping sauce is laced with chilli, garlic and lime. The fishballs are even made with a ridge, to make it super easy to pick up with chopsticks! Fantastic taste & an excellent value breakfast.
183 Carnarvon street: 8am-4pm although often sold out by lunchtimes. Closed Mondays, 3-5RM.
A collective of hawkers have stalls in the Kheng Pin Cafe known for the lor bak, a deep fried pork table snack and something you must try in Penang. Stalls also sell char kway teow and hokkien mee Amongst others. Don’t sit too close to the lor bak fryer or you and your clothes will be covered in a stinky, greasy film.
80 Penang Road: 7am-3pm. Closed Mondays, around 5RM per serve.
Like Kheng Pin, Kedai Kopi Seng Thor is a hawker collective with Lor mee and wantans in the mornings – Popular for the fried oyster omelette (also known as ‘oh chien’) in the afternoons.
Carnarvon Street: 630am-7pm, 3-15RM.
In the same vein as the previous two, Joo Hooi café, also had a co-operative hawker stall inside and has various dishes. The asam (penang style) laksa was decent, although it could have been spicier. The lady selling nonya snacks including pai tee was great. You can also order Chendul from the stall outside to eat at the booth – 5oSen service charge.
475 Jalan Penang, 1130am-5pm. Around 5RM per item
Having had no prior knowledge of it, and only really sought it out of curiosity and being one of the favourite meals of a local friend. Bak kuh teh, translates as ‘pork bone tea’ – soy garlic broth with mixed mushrooms, pork rib cuts and assorted offal in an earthy but sweet herbal soup – I have no comparison, but was recommended the hawker at Old Greenhouse Food Court. It’s a bit more expensive (and easily serves two) than your average Georgetown meal, but certainly interesting… Am I in a hurry to eat it again? Not really, but I’m glad I tried it.
Old Greenhouse Foodcourt, Jalan Burma. 8pm –4am, closed on Sundays.
De Tai Tong is a great stop for people watching. Old Chinese ladies fluctuate between gossiping and pushing the dim sum trolleys around (which are actual mobile steamers) and bully you into buying more. Dim sum is available all day,- steamed and fried – unlike other places which are breakfast only. They also have a full a la carte menu.
45 Cintra Street, 6am-12midnight.
Tho Yeun Chicken Rice sell excellent dim-sum in the mornings (until it runs out) and chicken rice at lunchtimes. The owners are incredibly attentive and will explain each different piece of dim-sum if you ask questions. Great service, potential to have a very expensive, but delicious breakfast. The Char siu bao & custard tarts are fantastic.
96 Campbell street, 6am-3pm. Closed Tuesdays.
Curry mee. That sounds like a safe choice, a comforting hawker dinner? Well, yes and no. A Penang variation on the rich and well known curry laksa.
Penang curry mee, is basically a slightly thinner soup base with tofu puffs, prawns, coagulated blood cubes which are kind of set like a jelly (quite nice, honest) and like curry laksa – cockles.
Tuai Pui, centrally located was recommended to me as a place to check out curry mee. The broth is rich and they add mint leaves, which is a nice touch.
Kimberly Street, 9am-5pm.
Expect a bit of a wait especially at peak lunch time, if you’re headed to Kota Lama (fort Cornwallis) food court to indulge in Hameeds mee sotong mamak & Jalil Special Ice Kacang Coconut milkshakes from the sauce is a little on the spicy side but nothing inferno like – Get a coconut shake from next door, which goes great. Just grab a table in front of the hawkers and order from the roaming staff from each of the businesses. Even if you’re not interested in eating, the coconut shakes (made with coconut water, flesh and some vanilla ice cream) are worth the walk.
Access from Light Street (Kota Lama Foodcourt) 1130am-8pm. Closed Sundays. 3 -5RM
If you can’t make it out of the way to Hameeds (well worth the walk) Sri Weld foodcourt, on the edge of little India also has a mee sotong stall, which although not as good, is worth visiting.
Beach street/Lebuh Pantai, 9am-5pm daily.
Restoran Kassim Mustapha, Malay buffet style meals, a mixture of curries and vegetables with rice naans and other mamak treats. You can ask the servers for Kandar, or help yourself.
Corner of Lebuh Chulia & Jalan Penang, 24hour.
Cake and sweets
Because everybody loves cake, right?
Rainforest Bakery & Mugshot Café, French style pastries, breads and a few cakes, good European standard coffee (and prices) in the attached coffee shop Mugshot which also sells salmon & cream cheese bagels.
Lebuh Chulia, 10am-1opm. Closed Sundays.
The Alley is a tiny little coffee shop selling frappes and European style coffees with a trendy young crowd, they also sell cronuts. Yup, cronuts!
5 Lorong Stewart. 12noon-12midnight, Daily.
There’s a tonne of cakey offerings at China House, the food is a mix of western and Asian and relatively expensive, but the cake is great and choices are nearly endless 6-15RM
For me, I’m no local and I think most chendul tastes the same, It’s a nice little sweet treat, great on a hot day but possibility of qualifying one over another? Not a chance for me, so I just do as what is natural to us Brits and join a queue….
Penang Famous Teochow Chendol is a popular choice, it’s also directly opposite a rival – If you order from the cart, you stand around and eat out of a little bowl, but if you go into the Kopitiam next door, Joo Hooi Cafe not only can you get a meal, but you can sit and enjoy the chendol in peace at a table – 50 sen surcharge – they will also deliver it to you and you don’t have to stand in what can sometimes be a huge line!
There is also a unnamed chendol cart outside of 888 Hokkien Mee, which is a good pudding after a spicy, sambal laced dinner and my local confidant told me was one of the best in town…Not being one to do as I’m told, I had the ABC which was also good.
Sri Weld Foodcourt – chee chong fun, nasi lemak , mee sotong – everything we’ve had here has been pretty decent, the Nasi lemak (right at the entrance) has a great flavour and the sambal is on the spicier side.
Red Garden Foodcourt – awful, just awful with an Abba cover band in drag.
Old Greenhouse – Hokkein mee & bak kuh teh, worth the effort to get out of the city.
Gurney drive – rojak, asam laksa, wan than mee, nasi lemak & char ke teow – a bit disappointing, in my opinion. The dishes we tried were mediocre by Penang standards.
(Lorong Baru) New Lane hawker Junction – Good variety of stalls, old fashioned pushcarts and plenty of Malay and Chinese options, chee chong fun, congee, popiah, curry mee, char kway teow etc.
Kimberly Street Night Hawkers – char kway teow, Rojak, popiah, satay. All outside Sin guat keong coffee shop – nothing I had here was overly memorable (also we tend to favour rojak & popiah in Melacca, where the flavours are more balanced and less sweet) but a good enough introduction to some flavours if they are new to you.
This is just my findings and opinions based on a few internet searches, local Malay blog sites, word of mouth and wandering around – Every Penang local we spoke to was happy to disclose their favourite places, it takes little to coax a good recommendation out of someone. This is neither definitive, nor complete – Eating in cities like Penang is an exhaustive task and one that is never likely to be completed.
EatingAsia is a great site to read more (and salivate over photos) about the Georgetown food culture and Asian food in general.
There is also so much more to visit Georgetown than just the food, it’s beautiful in every which way, the architecture, the public arts programs and the museums will knock your socks off.
Most backpackers on a standard ‘three months in about seven countries’ kind of trip (that we spoke to) only stopped by for a night or two (and often spent the day in the National Park!) Give yourself a week, explore, endulge and enjoy it.
Phrases worth knowing
Penang’s a pretty mulitcultural place and English will generally be spoken by almost everyone. But often a few Malay words are useful, although sometimes a grasp of Hindi, Hokkien or Cantonese would be advantageous.
Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih – Thank you
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry
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