George Town has always had an old-world feel to it. Most of the traditional houses that crowd its narrow streets were built between 1890 and 1920, and at night, without a car in sight, it’s easy to imagine that you have somehow stepped back in time…
George Town of the 1920’s on any given weekend was crowded with lean, tanned British rubber planters, tough tin miners, tired ships captains and of course Australian Army and Air Force personnel on weekend leave passes. Where there are now cafes, there were bars. Lots of them. In fact it was once said that there were more bars in George Town than there were in any square mile on the planet.
It’s no surprise then that speakeasies have started to pop up in George Town, making its already colourful nightlife all the more enticing. The Australian Air Force is still well represented (they still have a base just across the bridge in Butterworth), but rough and ready rubber and tin planters of the 1920’s have long since gone, replaced with a more genteel, well-heeled crowd.
So where are these speakeasies and how do you find them?
The first one that became popular with the “in-crowd” was Magazine 63, in Magazine Road. Its design is pure Shanghai 1920’s, with subdued lighting, lots of red on black and plush leather couches to sink into. Its waitresses don richly embroidered Chinese dresses, its waiters, in their traditional Chinese attire, look like extras from an old Bruce Lee movie.
From the outside the building looks abandoned…don’t let this fool you. There are no signs in English either, just a small white flag that says “alcohol”, in Chinese, and a black sign above the door, also in Chinese, wishing the premises lots of luck. Its hours are 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week.
Secret Door in Carnavon Street is one of my favourites. However, in order to access the bar you need to know the secret code. The code changes weekly and finding out what it is requires a bit of detective work. Don’t panic though as there are clues on the door itself. Once inside, you’ll be glad you made the effort. Sumptuously decorated, with lighting that makes the worst of us look good, this bar serves every cocktail you can imagine and probably a few you can’t. It opens, somewhat optimistically, at 4 p.m. with last drinks being called at 2 a.m.
Out of Nowhere is harder to find than most, and when you do, you’ll need to get your head around the fact that you are about to enter a fridge. That’s right, the entrance to this intimate speakeasy is an orange industrial fridge door. Inside, live music and super friendly staff, well versed in the art of cocktail science, make this a must-visit. Based in the quiet lane of Kuala Kangsar, drop by anytime from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
There are few others to choose from, 12 Senses, The Bund, Golden Shower, Le, Norm/Noct, the Good Friends Club and Room 495, are all good choices. But none come close to my absolute favourite, which is in Stewart Lane. This one is so secret, so coveted and so special that I can’t even tell you its name. In fact, I don’t think it has a name. All I can do is give you a description; some hints about where it is and wish you the best of luck.
Situated in what looks like a 1970’s Chinese cafe, with white tiled walls, Formica tables and chairs and lighting so bright you’ll need your sunglasses, this speakeasy is really something special—but you’ll never see anyone in the cafe…because it’s not a cafe. There are no staff, the tables are empty, the chairs unused. However, look closer and you’ll notice one table in the centre of the room with a single old-style black rotary telephone on it.
With echoes of The Matrix movies, enter the cafe and go directly to the phone. Dial a secret number—there are hints in the cafe with regards to what it is—and silently a secret door will reveal itself. Walk through it and you’re in for a treat.
Inside, no expense has been spared on the plush surroundings and the cocktails are hands down the best in town. The crowd is friendly; the music is from the 1970’s (think Cat Stevens, The Dooby Brothers, The Eagles, Pink Floyd and Yes) and low enough so that you don’t have to shout to be heard. And if you’re by yourself you won’t be for long. People here like to chat and you’ll meet some interesting Penang based characters. It’s that kind of place and in true speakeasy tradition everyone’s out to have a good time…