Until recently, going out for a drink in Penang meant making do with the backpacker-oriented bars lining George Town’s tourist enclaves of Chulia Street and Love Lane. However, since mid-2017, several new “secret” cocktail bars have mushroomed around George Town’s historical lanes, creating one of Malaysia’s most eclectic nightlife scenes.
Pull a lever on the Wing Chun dummy in the anteroom, and the sliding door opens to reveal an impressive display of muted lighting, furniture and paintings that are a nod to ancient China. The classy bar, with its towering backdrop of bottles manned by a tuxedo-clad mixologist, takes centrestage. Try the Black Diamond, which cleverly mixes rum, chocolate and bamboo charcoal.
Chefs Jack Yeap and Weng Chia’s latest creation makes quite an entrance. Push open a golden door to enter a retro lavatory replete with bathtub, tiles and gold touches. Beyond is a dark room that resembles a graffiti-covered alley, which leads to a second door. Open that door and walk into a bright pink room with an oval bar flanked by golden high stools. Signature drinks include the zesty Picante Margarita (with Cabeza tequila, lime, agave and Tabasco); they also serve a range of prettily plated, gourmet bar bites like crostini with smoked salmon.
Good Friends Club
The neon-lit, bright purple signboard of this little café dominates a simple open bar. Wander through the back door, and you’re likely to discover artistic types gathered in a dimly lit room strewn with driftwood tables and low couches. “Our menu infuses a smattering of Penang tastes into international spirits,” explains Meeuki Tan, the jovial boss. Signature cocktail 9394 – a blend of rum, sour plum and calamansi – is a must-try.
One of the first bars to launch the speakeasy trend here is cleverly hidden in a rugged shophouse. Get past its rusty metallic gate, push a hidden panel on the left side of the wooden partition and enter a romantic lounge with brick walls, red lanterns and waiters dressed in traditional Chinese outfits. Following the old-world theme, drinks are served in ceramic jars sporting Chinese calligraphy – the DJs and live bands are the only modern additions.
Born out of a clothing shop’s staff pantry and hidden behind the orange door at the back of adjacent Good Friends Club, tiny Backdoor Bodega draws in a small crowd of local insiders. They come to enjoy the laid-back ambience (cream walls, a mahogany bar and a foosball table). “Remember that, like a real speakeasy, we don’t sell drinks: only drink-inspired, limited edition lapel pins. Buy one, and get free booze,” owner Koh Yung Shen cheekily explains. For an innovative cocktail with a local twist, try the signature “Kelapa Hotak” – sweet homemade coconut rum washed in pandan leaves.