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Penang's best cafés

Cheng Sim discovers what’s brewing in Penang’s latest crop of independent cafés

The Mugshot Cafe
Photo: Hizwan Hamid
1/5

The Mugshot Cafe

Twins Jesse and Jerry Tan are the proprietors not only of this café but also of the popular Rainforest Bakery next door – a local bread institution. The café is a welcome extension to the bakery, manned by barista-turned-partner Tristan Navarednam, and as with most independent coffee spots in town, it has a rustic ambience and a charmingly eclectic interior.

Here, sharing a tiny table with a stranger is the norm and the only music you’ll hear is the brewing of a cup of espresso from the La San Marco coffee machine. It’s all about building a local coffee community for the folks here, and the friendly, laidback baristas are likely to strike up a conversation to make you feel at home. From the coffee counter to the shelves, the furniture is made of recyclable items or built from scratch by Tristan. Some of the smaller wooden tables and chairs are hand-me-downs from local primary schools and nurseries. The café offers a straightforward menu of yoghurt, bagels and drinks. When you’re here, go for the crisp wood-fire toasted bagel with either the popular bacon and egg or cream cheese and smoked salmon. The freshly baked bagels are from the bakery, of course.

The homemade Greek yoghurt topped with fresh fruits and soft muffins are good snacks. You won’t find fancy flavoured coffees here since the Tan twins are pretty keen on keeping the purest flavours of coffee brewed from Arabica beans. These days the menu has broadened to include hearty mains like homemade meatballs and a fruit juice stall.

We recommend: Bacon and egg bagel with a cup of creamy latte and homemade yogurt topped with kiwi and honey.

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George Town
Brown Pocket
Photo: Kevin Tan
2/5

Brown Pocket

Perched high on the sixth floor of Gurney Paragon mall, this café offers desserts and a good cuppa. Being in Penang’s latest mall makes it accessible to shoppers, perfect for a quick snack before you head home.

Polished cement floors give the spacious café a sleek, industrial feel that matches the neat cluster of retro chairs and wooden tables. It certainly avoids the stereotypical cutesy aesthetics of your regular run-of-the-mill dessert café. Owners Bruce Tan and Aw Kaiho aren’t afraid to go raw and bold with its interior – you’ll find jabs of testosterone in a framed picture of Iron Man with sharp horns and a plastered bull sculpture that will catch you off guard.

The menu gives the place an overall soft touch. The house specialty is liege waffles flavoured by chocolate banana, mixed fruits and beanie matcha, sinfully drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with a cold scoop of ice cream. There’s a fun breakfast for the kids here of waffles made of eggs, chocolate sauce and chopped fruits for a pop of colour.

Once you’re settled with your order, lean back and look up to the wooden tree centrepiece with branches that snake across the ceiling, dotted with drop-light bulbs that really liven the place up in the evenings. Between that and the ladder-shaped shelves filled with books, you won’t notice the hours go by. Families and kids are noticeably absent here. Instead, groups of girls giggling away and couples looking for a bit of quiet seem to be the regulars. When night falls, head over to the balcony for a view of the sea and the twinkling lights of Gurney Drive below.

We recommend: Chocolate banana waffles with a cup of cappuccino.

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George Town
Moustache Houze
3/5

Moustache Houze

Instead of a hostel, owners Catherine Yeo and Christine Ooi transformed a long forgotten space into a three-storey café. As its name suggests, the thematic café carries all things moustache. Catherine cooked up ideas such as a box of removable moustaches for picture taking to silly moustache straws.

The café’s ground floor is dotted with a mix of furniture, two indoor swing sets that are favoured spots in the house and a metal piping that doubles as a book shelf. There are four private rooms on the second floor with quirky murals and furniture, and remember to take your shoes off. The largest space is on the third floor – it has a balcony with a view to go with your latte.

The café’s specialty beverages are the ice-cube drinks made from frozen fruit juice, with choices like passion fruit, kiwi, pineapple or strawberry and soda. The trick here is you’re going to have to mix it up yourself, according to your taste. For coffee lovers, there’s the espresso cubes with a side of fresh milk for some mixing fun.

What’s cute here is the 3D foam art that tops a cup of frothy cappuccino or latte. It’s done upon request and is completely free of charge. The desserts and cakes are mainly sourced from out of Penang to ensure a one-of-a-kind menu. So, you’ll discover rare finds such as the cookie puff, a crumbly cookie pastry with a vanilla ice cream centre that feels like a modern take on the local fried ice cream. You’ll also find Oreo crepe cake, hazelnut crème cake and tiramisu. Since it’s open until midnight, it’s a favoured spot for the after-dinner crowd.

We recommend: The very moist pistachio cheesecake with espresso ice cube drink.

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George Town
The Twelve Cups
4/5

The Twelve Cups

Why twelve, you ask? Manager Ng Kim Loon describes the number as an important symbol in Chinese and Western astrology as well as our daily lives – it represents the months in the calendar. It’s also wonderful serendipity that they found a location at number 12 on The Whiteaways Arcade. Whether it’s the corporate crowds on weekdays or a younger set on weekends, their homemade 20-layered mille crepe, prepared by one of the proprietors herself, is a favourite here.

Bright yellow walls, wood-accented furniture, coupled with dreamy café music, encourage you to kick back and exhale. The scent of brewing espresso wafts from their gurgling Vibiemme coffee machine, which produces coffees with a sweeter profile and a bolder espresso taste due to the supremo blend beans they use. Non-coffee lovers can enjoy mild hot chocolate or a green tea latte.

We recommend: Hokkaido chocolate mille crepe and affogato.

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George Town
La Vanille Cupcakes
Photo: Kevin Tan
5/5

La Vanille Cupcakes

Even on busy afternoons this café is neat and well stocked with pastel-coloured cupcakes and bite-sized macarons. Even though the cupcake shop is petite, you’ll discover a secret garden of flower pots, quirky figurines and cupcakes within.

Here, sweet and pretty confectionery rules the glass display. Driven by her love for desserts, opening this café is a bold move for owner Joey Yeo, who had a nine-to-five desk job. She defines her craft as ‘creative pastry’, an apt term to describe her work of beautiful decorative pastries shaped into Marvel superheroes and teddy-bear cupcakes.

Constantly challenging her expertise, she moved to baking, which resulted in some of the best red velvet cakes, tiramisu and macarons in town. If you’re craving a substantial meal, the menu extends to honey-grilled chicken and ham cheese croissants with salad and hash browns. Parking is a bit difficult in this part of town, so you may find yourself parking a little further up the road and shedding a few of those extra calories on the walk back.

We recommend: The blue cheese macarons.

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George Town

More cafés to try

Ben's

Founded by Benjamin Yong, this Malaysian franchise carries a menu of Western and Eastern fare such as golden soft-shell crab spaghetti and Hainanese chicken rice. The decor of this cosy café is a contrast of sunny yellow walls and dark wood furniture complemented by dim, low lights for a soft romantic glow. For sweet endings, try the macadamia cheesecake sundae.

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Gurney Drive

Kaffa Espresso Bar

Entering this vintage American-themed café feels a bit like going through a time warp. The outlets on Green Hall and Penang International Airport are decorated with bare brick walls and couches done up with funky, retro prints. Good coffee and a comfortable atmosphere make it an ideal hangout for hipsters.

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George Town

Budan's Brew Coffee Bar

The lighter profile of Budan’s handcrafted coffee suits the taste buds of those who love a toned down coffee. With grey, polished floors and wooden furniture, this unassuming local café serves Western breakfasts and croissants, making it a perfect café for brunch.

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George Town

Mish Mash

This one’s a café, tobacconist and art gallery under one roof. The mixologist here is swift and skilled in producing refreshing beverages such as the zesty Supernova. If complicated drinks are not your thing, grab a coffee instead and head over to the tobacconist counter for a cigar. It’s a bit like a Gentleman’s Club, albeit with a casual and relaxed ambience.

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George Town

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