How To Find the Best Hidden Bars in Penang

Hidden among the narrow streets of George Town are some of the world's coolest secret bars.
Hidden among the narrow streets of George Town are some of the world's coolest secret bars. | © Fabrizio Troiani / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kirsten Raccuia
23 December 2019

Most people are familiar with Penang’s legendary food scene. However, until recently, the city’s bar scene was a little underwhelming. The rise of hidden bars and speakeasies has changed everything.

If quirky is on your checklist for a night out, then these secret venues are for you. But be prepared to work for it; gaining entry can be pretty tricky. Some have levers, others have secret codes, but figuring that out is all part of the fun, and the reward is some of the finest food and drink Penang has to offer. Here are our picks of the best.

Manchu

Bar, Snacks
Map View
Manchu-Miss Empress
Try one of Manchu's signature cocktails

Manchu sits on an unassuming street lined with old shops. When you come across a warmly lit entryway with some Chinese writing, you’re in the correct place. Step into the red glowing anteroom and search for the right door to get inside. As soon as you do, you’ll be transported to another world and a different era. The servers wear traditional cheongsams and changshans, which add to the old world feel. The moody lanterns strewn about the ceiling provide the interior with a deep red glow. There is live music every night, from DJs and bands to Chinese opera. The unique and inventive menu is impressive, with ingredients you’ve probably never heard of. If you are feeling adventurous, go for the omakase, which leaves the cocktail choices up to your mixologist, who will send you five spectacular drinks of his creation. Alternatively, try the Empress’s Milk Tea for 4-6 people that comes in a smoking steamboat dish.

12 Senses

Bar, Snacks, $$$
Map View

Tucked away on a small side street, 12 Senses is easy to miss. There is no sign, but you’ll find a door that is ajar. If you walk into the anteroom and see a picture of Bruce Lee, you are in the right place. The big heavy door won’t open unless you find the right trick to release it. Somewhere in the anteroom is the answer. Wendy A. from Sydney says, “It took me about 10-minutes to figure it out, but then I realized the answer was right in front of me the whole time.” Once you get inside, the room is mysterious. Glowing with blues and greens that slowly transform into pinks and purples. The whole place is warm and inviting. The theme is Ancient-China mixed with modern-day décor. Wooden lanterns and red cloths are dripping from the ceiling. But the paintings of gorgeous Asian ladies dominate your attention. They have nightly music and some exciting cocktails.

Magazine 63

Bar, Snacks, $$$
Map View
Mangazine 63. Kirsten's pic
Take in one of the nightly performances on Magazine 63's floating stage

If you can read Chinese, you’re in luck. Find the white flag that says “alcohol,” and you’ve found Magazine 63, one of the original hidden bars in Penang. Colourful parasols hang from the ceiling, and red silk lanterns give the room a low-lit glaze. There is a floating stage that overlooks the bar for the nightly performances. The drinks menu is small but creative. Victoria from Scotland says, “Try the Not Shootable. It’s gin infused with lavender and served in a Chinese porcelain soup bowl. There’s something about drinking a cocktail out of a bowl that makes it feel even more secretive, like no one would know there is alcohol inside.”

Out Of Nowhere

Bar, Cafe, Wine, Beer, Cocktails, Malaysian
Map View

By day, the Hold Up! café is a minimalist coffee shop. By night, it’s the secret entrance to Out of Nowhere. Walk into the very bright Hold Up! café, find the orange refrigerator, and walk through it, Narnia style. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and you’ll find a sleek, moody room with soft pink lighting. It’s small and usually packed, so you may have to share a table unless you make a reservation. Their cocktail menu comes in the form of a notebook, and includes hand-drawn illustrations. Each drink has a flavour profile in its description, which makes picking your poison a lot easier. They use a lot of local ingredients – like pandan and jackfruit – that you wouldn’t usually associate with cocktails, but somehow really work. Try the Thorn to Be Wild; whisky infused with berry, cinnamon, and ginger. Instead of ice, they use a frozen apple to keep your drink fresh.

Backdoor Bodega

Bar, Snacks
Map View

Speakeasies back in the day had to find a way to hide that they were selling booze. Backdoor Bodega wanted to follow that tradition and call themselves an “overpriced pin shop,” instead of a bar. The only way to get a drink is to buy a pin, and then you can exchange that pin for a drink. The catch? Before you can buy a pin, you’ve got to get in. You’ll find Backdoor Bodega in the back of another very cool bar called Good Friends Club. Walk to the end, and you’ll see a wooden door with a keypad. Guess the right 4-digit code, and the door will pop open. The pins, the code – it all works to confuse the masses and keep Backdoor Bodega on the down-low. “Backdoor Bodega started as a small bar for friends to hang out and enjoy experimenting with drinks and cocktails, until friends started bringing their friends, and then strangers started showing up. And three years later, these strangers have now become our friends, and the cycle continues,” says Giap, the overpriced pin seller.

These recommendations were updated on December 23, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.