The best George Town Penang restaurants for modern Malaysian cuisine range from atmospheric Kebaya, serving elevated Peranakan and Indochine classics in a sumptuous dining room to chef Johnson Wong’s gēn 根, where he presents contemporary Malaysian cuisine based on local produce.
When it comes to eating, the city of George Town on Malaysia‘s island of Penang is best regarded as a street food destination and its reputation is legendary. Most foodies are in George Town to forage the city’s markets, track down food stalls and old school eateries, graze their way through street food streets, and compare signature street food dishes like char kuay teow, curry mee, Assam laksa, murtabak, and more.
Culinary travellers return from a Penang trip raving about its nasi kandar, mee goreng and dim sum yet rarely mention its restaurants. However, George Town is also home to outstanding fine diners and casual contemporary restaurants that are elevating Malaysian food, including street food specialties.
I was reminded how good George Town’s restaurants are when we recently dined at 80/20 restaurant in Bangkok, where Penang’s chef Johnson Wong and his team from gēn 根 were doing a pop-up. It was enough to make me want to return to the city, and not necessarily for its street food, but to hunt out more restaurants.
These are our picks of the best George Town Penang restaurants for modern Malaysian cuisine that you need to try on your next trip.
Best George Town Penang Restaurants for Modern Malaysian Cuisine
The first time we dined at atmospheric Kebaya, pictured above, we enjoyed it so much we returned again the next evening. While Kebaya has since steered away from a la carte to focus on four-course menus, Kebaya is still serving the elevated Peranakan, classic Straits cuisine and Indo-Chinese specialties with a twist that we savoured on those first visits, making it one of the best George Town Penang restaurants for modern Malaysian cuisine. Start with Kebaya’s take on miang kham, ‘envelopes’ of betel leaves filled with toasted coconut, shrimps, lime cashew, and Norwegian salmon roe, that you devour in a couple of bites. If it’s on the menu, don’t miss the otak otak, a baked curry of red snapper and spices such as turmeric and galangal in pastry, that is related to Cambodia’s fish amok and Thailand’s hor mok. The rendang-like melt-in-your-mouth Kebaya tamarind beef was made with tender Australian beef shoulder that had been sous-vide for 72 hours and glazed with palm sugar and tamarind. While dishes remain authentic in flavour and traditional in essence, most have been given a modern spin or refined with French technique. All dishes are served on antique porcelain (which Ong collects) on marble-top tables in a sumptuous dining room decorated with Chinese lacquer screens and red velvet drapes and dripping with chandeliers. Make sure to reserve ahead so you don’t miss out – book tables two nights in a row in case you find yourself as eager to return as we were – and have a pre-dinner cocktail in the gorgeous bar. Stewart Lane, George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Check in: Kebaya is located on the ground floor of Penang-born heritage conservationist Christopher Ong’s beautiful Seven Terraces boutique hotel, so you won’t need to go far after dinner. If you’re taken with the ceramics used in the restaurant, there’s a wonderful antique store on site.
Dining Room at Macalister Mansion
Luxury hotel Macalister Mansion’s all-white Dining Room – the island’s most elegant fine diner – is another of the best George Town Penang restaurants for modern Malaysian cuisine. When we first dined two years ago, the restaurant had been reinvigorated by then-26 year-old chef Johnson Wong, who was creating Penang’s most imaginative food at the time, best sampled in the form of an 8-course tasting menu. Many of his dishes were inspired by Wong’s childhood growing up on the island and the local specialties he remembered fondly as a kid. Made with the finest produce available from Malaysia and abroad, the modern Malaysian cuisine also reflected the young chef’s experience in the kitchens at restaurants such as Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, Macau’s Robuchon au Dome and Singapore’s Au Jardin. Penang’s culinary heritage could be felt right across the menu, starting with the delicate coffee-flavoured bread rolls, inspired by a popular snack and the local Malaysian kopi (coffee). While Wong has since left (see below), many of his dishes remain on the menu, which has been taken in a slightly more contemporary-European direction. Opt for the wine pairing and have a pre-dinner drink or nightcap in the plush lounge-bar, The Cellar, which stocks over 300 labels from around the world. 228 Jalan Macalister, George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Check in: The Dining Room is at the grand Macalister Mansion boutique hotel, a whitewashed colonial villa built in the early 1900s that has received a quirky restoration. Each of the eight rooms is individually decorated and feature specially commissioned art works.
The new restaurant of chef Johnson Wong, formerly of Macalister Mansion, gēn 根 is arguably one of the best George Town Penang restaurants for modern Malaysian cuisine right now. Wong’s purpose-built restaurant couldn’t be more different to the formal dining room at Macalister with its white linen tablecloths and high-backed chairs. Located in a sleek, narrow space with polished concrete floors and bare bulbs above diners, gēn 根 has just one long table that runs the length of the restaurant where guests sit facing the chefs working in the open kitchen. Unlike out on the streets, where cooks perspire over hot woks and cooking can be chaotic, all is calm at gēn 根 where the cool and collected chefs quietly work with tweezers to immaculately plate each dish. Gēn 根 means ‘roots’ in English and Wong and his team of young chefs are continuing to delve into their memories of growing up as Malaysians of different backgrounds to explore the favourite foods of their childhoods. One dessert is as savoury as it is sweet and is intended to induce nostalgia in locals who grew up eating sweets: ‘Pineapple, Soya, Red Chilli, Coconut, and Kaffir Lime’ consists of fermented pineapple with soya and red chilli served with ginger crumble, coconut ice cream, and pineapple kaffir lime chips. ‘Roots’ also references the indigenous produce that the chefs use, much of it bought from the nearby wet market or from the fishermen and farmers they work with, like Uncle Wong, who provides their free range eggs. 68a Lebuh Presgrave, George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Check in: Just a ten-minute taxi ride away, The Edison is a chic boutique hotel set in a remodelled colonial-era mansion, with a stunning interior design that successfully fuses the traditional and modern, outstanding service, and all-day snacks and drinks in its casual cafe.
Not yet three years old, low-rise Kota with its floor to ceiling glass and whitewashed brick walls comes as a surprise in the grounds of historic 200 year-old Fort Cornwallis. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand the restaurant’s air-conditioned cool is much welcomed after a sweaty morning sightseeing, making it a fabulous spot for lunch. On the other, being located on the grounds of a heritage site means that no alcohol is served. A crisp glass of white wine would match wonderfully with this food. Only non-alcoholic beer was offered when we dined, which was at least thirst quenching and a better match than the coffee suggested. But a visit to Kota is all about eating. Perhaps the island’s first eatery to get creative with Nyonya food, Kota is another of the best George Town Penang restaurants for modern Malaysian cuisine. The chef’s playful approach to traditional dishes has resulted in bold, colourful plates that are as photogenic as they are flavourful. The pretty chicken rendang I sampled sat atop blue, butterfly pea flower-infused coconut rice, while the Hokkien mee that Terence has was an Italian pasta in a lobster bisque-like sauce with sweet plump prawns, quail eggs, and caviar. Note that you’ll need to purchase an entry ticket to the fort to access the restaurant, but ask and this will be deducted from your bill. Fort Cornwallis, Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah, George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Check in: In keeping with the historic theme of the setting, stay at the majestic 19th-century Eastern & Oriental Hotel, a ten-minute stroll away, which has spacious colonial-style suites with sea views, a stunning swimming pool, and puts on a very traditional afternoon tea.
If you’re looking for old-school Malaysian restaurants, see this local guide to eating out in George Town, Penang.