Written by Beverley Lennon
Deemed as one of KL’s most historic districts, I have to confess that things have changed in Chinatown. The area has recently seen a major revamp, and people don’t just come for the touristy counterfeit bargain market anymore!
On a recent stroll along Petaling Street, I got to know that several of the pre-war buildings have been restored and turned into cool quirky cafes and secret speakeasy bars that have incorporated Chinese culture, traditions and heritage in their interiors and menus.
Most of these joints are guarded by Insta-worthy cultural alleys that are animated with thematic murals to depict the lives of early Chinese settlers back then too! All the while, it is also amazing to see that legendary local food stalls are maintaining their queues despite being surrounded by trendy joints.
Now friends, could KL’s Chinatown be the latest trendy hipster spot of the city? Time to uncover its hidden gems!
18 Hidden speakeasy bars in KL with passwords, secret doors, creative cocktails and clues to find them!
Tapak Urban Street Dining: Hipster night market in KL with food trucks selling monster burgers, crazy milkshakes, jumbo Indomie and more!
Chill at hipster cafes!
1. A 150+-year-old building turned into a Kopitiam! – Luckin Kopi
As you enter Chinatown’s century-old heritage shophouses, you’ll almost feel like you’ve just stepped back in time.
One that does it so well is Luckin Kopi – the traditional Kopitiam is where contemporary meets old and it is housed in a 150+-year-old pre-war building where nothing much has changed.
You’ll be instantly transported to an era when Peranakan culture was distinct and celebrated, and I personally admire the dishes offered. Not all hipster cafes have to feature avocado toasts and smoothie bowls right?!
Besides its homey ambience, the local joint serves up some heart-warming comfort food from breakfast (7am) to dinner (9pm). Luckin Kopi is loved for its authenticity – you’ll find traditional Hainanese recipes like their chicken chop amongst other old school delicacies including Nasi Lemak too.
If you are here for your first meal of the day, give a go to their kaya butter toast or their special Luckin toast which is a unique set of toast slices with 5 different sauces and half-boiled eggs! For a heavier meal option, their Mee Siam doesn’t disappoint or for some comfort on a rainy day, people have raved about their Mala hotpot (Chinese numbing-spicy hotpot)!
Oh and before I forget, did I mention about their free flow kopi?2. Have you heard of a speakeasy cafe?! – Merchant’s Lane
If not for its signage, this cafe right here could be easily missed! We’ve been to several speakeasy bars in KL but this joint right here is an undercover cafe rather than a drinking hole. How cool is that?!
Well, it is not necessarily unknown among locals but if you’re not familiar with the area, I promise it can get a bit challenging and fun to look out for Merchant’s Lane (unless, of course, you’re cheating and using your online maps).
I dropped by here on a Saturday afternoon and needless to say that I had to queue and wait some time for a table – and even less surprising is that it was packed with a good amount of hipsters! Merchant’s Lane wraps itself around everything offbeat and unique – it spans across a large indoor and semi-outdoor area, features a bunch of old-school provision items and has beautifully painted murals.
Aaaand, of course, it’s got its good amount of Instagram-worthy aptitudes too. Everything a free-spirited person needs, am I right?! Well, not quite yet as I still have to talk about what’s on their fusion menu!
Merchant’s Lane is famous for the twists it brings to local Malaysian delicacies – for instance, their chicken rendang spaghetti (I mean, why not right?). I personally tried their chicken satay wraps and it did not disappoint but I’ve seen several burgers being delivered to tables around me too!
Although they don’t have delivery options, you can purchase dining vouchers to be used after the MCO!
3. Come to sit and drink here! – Chocha Foodstore
Why Chocha though? Is it some random name that’s meant to make you wonder? Oh yes, it almost is but it does have a meaning – Chocha means “sit and drink” in Hakka dialect and that’s exactly what you come here for, oh and of course to eat too!
From the outside, Chocha has nothing like a cafe – in fact, if you ask me, it almost looks like any other abandoned shop lot along Petaling Street but it’s on the inside that things take place. The food store is housed in what used to be a hotel. It has kept its rugged brick walls and antique decor but it now features a coffee bar, teahouse, and restaurant on its ground floor while you can head up the spiral staircase to check out their Botak Liquor Bar.
Just like its interiors, you’ll find unique Western and Asian fusion dishes on the cafe’s menu – if you’re a fan of pasta like me, you’ll be impressed by the “ban mee”-like ones at Chocha as they produce their own hand-pulled flat noodles.
What’s more, the local joint supports local and sustainable produce by sourcing their ingredients locally. They even feature a small herb garden that serves both the restaurant and the bar upstairs. What really steals hearts here though, is their Curryflower which is a whole baked cauliflower coated with curry powder and salted egg! Sounds exotic right? Wait until you hear about their duck rendang on a hill of hummus!
Before you leave to explore other hidden gems around Chinatown, don’t miss on washing it down with a drink at their Botak Liquor Bar – their Jasmine and Tarragon cocktail will do the job!
4. Never trust a closed door! – Jao Tim
Although Jao Tim is currently temporarily closed during MCO, they are still supporting local musicians. Check our their Instagram page for live performances and donate to their fund on their website to help musicians and live performance venues during this tough time.
The doors at Jao Tim are always closed, and I bet this is how the curious minds out there have found it. If you speak Cantonese, you’ll be a bit more familiar with the cafe’s name; ‘Jao Tim’ means ‘hotel’ and the place does not only have its name as the interior is really themed as an old-school hotel with a dedicated concierge area.
In fact, the building used to be a hotel back then in the 19th century so that makes a lot of sense – it’s charming, vintage and rustic-chic but also oh-so-truly Chinatown-like!
I don’t mean to say that Jao Tim is your next go-to food spot but it’s the ideal one to consider if you’re looking to catch up with friends over coffee or beer, alongside some munchies like their ooey-gooey grilled cheese toast!
It also features an event space and on particular days, you’ll be able to catch a good Jazz jamming session here so I beg to differ that Jao Tim is just like any other cafe; you’ll have to drop by to see why ;)!
5. This is where you come for Cendol and Durian bubble tea! – LIPAO 麗堡堂
There’s a place around Petaling Street that has been stepping up the bubble tea game and it is LIPAO! Now, no I am not talking about White Rabbit boba or Brown Sugar ones but rather cendol bubble tea and depending on the season, if you’re lucky you could even get yours topped with big chunks of Musang King durian or even slices of jackfruit! I’m personally not a durian-fan (where are my haters?!) but I do not mind befriending durian lovers so I gotcha!
The people behind LIPAO simply want the new generation of boba addicts to remember traditional concoctions too, so that was how the idea of cendol bubble tea came about, amongst their other delightful drinks (fruit juices and more)!
6. KL’s very own dedicated chocolate cafe! – Beryl’s Chocolate
Unfortunately (or not) I have a boyfriend who is fond of everything chocolate, so there’s always some at home. Now, what he does not know yet is that very close to our place in KL, you can actually find a cafe that is dedicated to chocolate! I’m planning to keep this place a secret until maybe… his birthday?
The venue, which is a refurbished heritage shophouse, is divided into three main areas including a chocolate museum, chocolate shop and chocolate cafe with sinful creations – sounds like a chocolate kingdom with everything to get you super sugar high right!? And for those of you who don’t know, Beryl’s is actually a Malaysian homegrown chocolate brand!
7. A cafe full of nostalgia for the locals! – Mingle Cafe
A stroll along Petaling Street is like a voyage through time, and stepping into Mingle Cafe is like stopping by your old-school kedai shop (provision shop) with tin cans filled with snacks (you can even buy those biscuits!) displayed at the counter while you get to sit on old-fashioned recycled furniture.
As the cafe is located on the ground floor of a backpacker hostel, it offers some really good hipster food from breakfast to dinner to serve the real free-spirited crowd (read: smoothie bowls, giant burgers, ooey-gooey petai pizza and more!).
Besides their vintage feel that is bound to bring you back to your childhood and incredible food that’ll get you keep coming back, the cafe often displays environmentally-friendly products for sale such as soaps, lotions and much more! Fancy taking a look at what cafe-hopping used to be like for your Ah-Ma and Ah-Gong? Drop by right here!
P.S. One of KL’s best hidden bars lies right next to Mingle Cafe, behind a little blue door!
8. A cafe where less is more! – Leaf & co. cafe
This cafe is temporarily closed during MCO.
You might raise an eyebrow or two, but honestly, a cafe does not necessarily need to burst in colours and decor to be hipster and Instagrammable – it could well be like Leaf & co. cafe!
This little gem right here sits below Mingle hostel, right next to Mingle Cafe but I am told they are managed by two completely different groups so avoid asking them if they’re the same ‘cafe’, I’ve warned you!
With rustic looks, rugged unpolished walls and cement bricks that serve as a backdrop, Leaf & co. cafe comes with a unique charm, not to forget that the 70’s music in the background adds up to the nostalgic feels too! Jokes aside, I once had an interior designer friend who came to KL on a holiday and she kept raving about how this cafe inspired her with new ideas.
Now, when it comes to the food, you’ll find a good bunch of items on the menu ranging from tidbits, mains to perfectly handcrafted drinks too – their mojitos are served with a popsicle on top, how insane right?!
Their sandwiches, chicken satay and collection of colourful cakes are highly recommended too!
9. Your soft serve à la Malaysian! – Pandan Republic
Takeaways are not available at this cafe but you can opt for delivery options.
The last time I had a softserve was when FamilyMart used to sell the cheesecake softserve (some years ago, I would even have it almost every week!). Now, I’ve also heard they sell other fancy flavours like sea salt, charcoal and more.
While these could well be in trend, I found it rather unique to find a store dedicated to making soft serve a-la-Malaysian right here in Petaling Street. Pandan Republic masters the art of creamy, indulging pandan soft serves that come in a flower-shaped cone! It apparently tastes even better if you decide to settle down at their little repurposed mercantile shophouse that complement the local touch to your experience.
Besides the sweet stuff, Panadan Republic also serves Hakka thunder tea rice! If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a Hakka cuisine consisting of a bowl of rice with mixed vegetables and nuts, paired with a green broth which is made of tea leaves, nuts, seeds and herbs – it’s supposed to have an acquired taste which you’ll either love or hate!
Go on a hidden bar crawl!
10. Staircases and even more staircases! – The Attic Bar
FINALLY! An outdoor venue on our list! Yes, The Attic is your rooftop option and the best part is that it offers splendid sunset views so let’s cheers to that my friends! But another good news is that this one too is located in Chinatown.
Well, in fact, The Attic isn’t thaaaat unknown among backpackers – guess why? 😉 They even sleep right here!
There’s no signage to the bar so believe me when I say it can get a bit tricky as it is beyond where you intend to explore while in KL. That being said, if you’re one smart person, you should have gotten a clue from what I previously mentioned and after a series of staircases (you’ll be spinning a little as they’re spiral staircases!), you’ll be transported back in time with traditional oriental decor.
If there’s one thing I am most excited about The Attic Bar, it is their elegant Dragon Lady cocktail which is not only stunning in looks but also contains a few on my favourite ingredients – dragon fruit, passion fruit and vodka! This seems to be best enjoyed as a sunset drink if you ask me while you enjoy the cool outdoor weather and views of stunning KL!
11. You’re only allowed in here if you have a reservation – Shuang Xi
Stepping into Shuang Xi is almost like dropping by your friend’s living room for a drink – it’s super casual and welcoming that you’d feel at home – well, put aside the kinda-creepy red neon light, body-parts’ decor and sphynx cat (who likes sphynx cats, seriously? They freak me out!).
While the atmosphere here can be relaxed and pretty friendly, it’ll be a tad bit more exclusive to get in as compared to your friend’s living room – truth be told, Shuang Xi only allows you in if you have a reservation so you’re almost the chosen one!
Now, talking about the good stuff – the booze! Blends here include vodka, banana milk and salted caramel (sounds like an alcoholic milkshake to me) or how about some plum wine with a sprinkle of ginger – everything that tastes good but with a dose of craziness ;)!
Note: Reservation by Facebook or Instagram is strictly required!
12. Where else than in a small alley, in Chinatown? – Concubine KL
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon along the streets of Chinatown, we discovered one stunning alley with mural art, food and beverage spots and a cute little speakeasy bar.
Of course, I decided to research about it, only to learn than it has a deeper meaning – all these have been renovated during the Mid-Autumn Festival 2019 to revive the old days of the traditional Petaling Street and the alley has an actual name: “Kwai Chai Hong” (previously known as “Chee Cheong Kai”, which used to be a must-visit in KL back in the 1970s).
The people behind project Kwai Chai Hong had in mind to revive the street and make it as lively as it used to be back in the days – somehow, it had apparently lost its Chinese touch and that’s exactly why they decided it was about time to restore… and here’s where Concubine was born.
If you’re looking for post-office drinks, this is exactly where you should be looking at. It’s a grown-up ambience (similar to Pisco Bar, if you know, you know) and the outdoor area is amazingly chilled out – people mingle around, whether they have a seat or not. While there that night, I am also told that they’re soon to open an indoor space and a rooftop for more seating options! Oh and they serve some of their cocktails in recyclable “Teh Peng” plastic bags too!
Read more about KL’s speakeasy bars here!
13. Dare to open the door of this almost horror-house?! – The Deceased
This bar is temporarily closed during MCO.
Afterlife, death, superstitions and ghosts are the main themes of this hair-raising speakeasy bar and if there’s one spooky place to hang out at in KL, it is here at The Deceased but don’t worry, there’s plenty of alcohol to help you go through the horrifying experience!
The venue is pretty well known among serious bar-hoppers because obviously, the internet practically broke when locals found out that you could be drinking out with the dead right in the middle of Chinatown – it couldn’t fit anywhere else anyway as you’ll notice very familiar Chinese traditions and superstitions once you get in.
Once you’ve spotted the easily-missed blue door, time to figure out how to get in. As we managed to get in by ringing the bell (if you make a reservation, they’ll give you a secret code to enter), my heart was pounding – it was dark and eerie in here, and of course I screamed when I saw the macabre-looking mannequin behind the door. As we made our way up, we couldn’t help noticing haunting bloodstains on the wall… And which is actually the correct door?
Since it is housed in an old Chinese drugstore, you’ll also find vintage medicine cabinets but not with any traditional herb or potion inside – these are now used to store tools that help them craft their creative cocktails.
Having a drink or meal here isn’t your typical bar experience – the concoctions and dishes are inspired by Chinese and Malay superstitions, spiritual beliefs and death mythologies! Will we come out of here alive? I wonder… as a set of mysterious drinks and food items get delivered to our table – how about drinking out of a spooky baby doll’s umbilical cord, hit a voodoo doll (your enemy) with a clog as part of a Chinese Taoist ritual (it even comes with a stick of lighted incense) or the chopped bloody hand that comes along with your booze… Even your nachos come served on top of a “bleeding” skull!
Read more about KL’s speakeasy bars here!
14. The inner kid in you will stop by this retro “toy shop” – PS150
This little gem right here isn’t necessarily unknown among locals but if you’re not familiar with the concept of speakeasy bars, yet would very much love to hop on the bandwagon, it’s a good one to begin with!
Personally, it’s one of my favourites as it had seriously good music as compared to the other ones we explored around Petaling Street (yes we went on a hidden bar crawl and uncovered over 5 of them in just one night!).
The place is housed in a pre-war shophouse and brothel that has lived through different ages and been carefully restored while preserving Chinatown’s heritage. And while it may seem like a vintage toy shop on the outside, PS150 invites you to awaken your child-like curiosity to explore further and enter the world of absolute adult fun!
As you enter the labyrinth-like venue, you’ll have three sections to choose to be seated at and these represent different eras. You can opt to settle down at one of their private couple booths known as the Opium Den representing the vintage and classic era or if you dig deeper, you’ll enter the Courtyard representing the tiki era, before you make it to the Main Bar that showcases the disco and contemporary era and is adorned by traditional Chinese lanterns and glowing neon calligraphy on the wall to illustrate “Petaling Street” in Cantonese.
I recently dropped by there for a second time to try out other cocktails and I have to say that I’m a big fan of their Bee’s Knees – a citrusy cocktail inspired by our mums’ herbal remedy!
Read more about KL’s speakeasy bars here!
15. The creepiest shop lot often leads to the most colourful places! – 1.45am
This bar is temporarily closed during MCO.
If it wasn’t for the hidden bar, I’d honestly never ever enter such creepy-looking shop lot in the middle of the night.
1.45am has nothing similar with traditional old-time speakeasy bars, it’s one that is fit for the modern trend of social media and in fact has more of the vibes of a nightclub than a typical bar, if you ask me.
As the night wears on and the shops in the building close down, this is when 1.45am comes to life with throbbing music and the most colourful neon light entrance, but to make it there you’ll have to go through a series of staircases with little to no light at all (I was shitting my pants) before you’re guided by what felt a little too loud of a party music to me (but I am guessing that’s exactly what an 18 to 20-year-old crowd should be looking for).
Once in, you’re set for a good half an hour of Instagramming – it’s all about the interiors but also the creative way that drinks are delivered to your table. They have a fire extinguisher – not for your safety but rather one that serves frothy drinks as you pump (a cocktail named 1664 +2). So cool right?! Oh and how did I not mention about their truly sophisticated menu that’s almost like a Kindle?! You won’t even need your phone torch to choose your booze from the list!
If you can’t decide what to go for, the bartender is always glad to help but our recommendations include the Drunken Deer, Slippery Panties and Fire In The Ass. Whatever naughty concoction you settle for, be sure to match it with their fruity-flavoured purple shisha served in a wine glass – quite an unusual!
Read more about KL’s speakeasy bars here!
Check out secret local food spots!
16. The good old tastes of the decades – Ho Kow Hainan Kopitiam
This cafe is temporarily closed during MCO.
Since 1956, Ho Kow Hainan Kopitiam has been serving up the real stuff – traditional Hainanese comfort food. Though it opens as early as 7.30am, you’d have to be here from 6.45am to avoid the queue (8am sees the worst crowd) as it is the go-to spot for breakfast.
I mean, who can say no to a comforting slice of kaya butter toast, a bowl of soft-boiled eggs or better yet, their dry shrimp curry chee cheong fun to begin the day with?!
To wash all these down, give a chance to their bestseller – traditional Kopi Cham which is a coffee-and-tea concoction.
Set in what resembles an old-school trading shop, their menu is presented on an almost-crushed newspaper that looks like it has gone through decades, and that’s exactly what you’ll feel like while having a meal at Ho Kow Hainan Kopitiam where a voyage through time awaits!
17. For legendary egg tarts! – Bunn Choon Restaurant
What makes a good egg tart for you? For us, it has to be flaky on the outside, gooey, light, airy and smooth on the inside… If you think just like us, Restoran Bunn Choon is where you’ll find your egg tart haven. They are known to master the art of pastry-to-filling proportion just right! You can even choose a charcoal sesame base egg tart!
While it used to be a mere little shop selling egg tarts, Restoran Bunn Choon has very recently (as of October 2019) expanded into a two-storey restaurant selling more than just its perfect egg tarts; you can now also satisfy your craving for dim sum too, while they provide sets of Mahjong as well.
Other pastries you should not miss are their Xi Shi So – a bun filled with lotus paste and pork floss, and Nam Dam So which has sinful salted egg yolk and lotus paste bursting out. They’ve also got a BBQ Pork Pie that come in bite-size portions, perfect to take home! Did I just get you drooling?!
Get to know about culture!
18. Discover a hidden Instagrammable alley with deep cultural meaning! – Kwai Chai Hong
Art, culture and heritage come together at Kwai Chai Hong – a hidden Insta-worthy alley off Petaling Street. What used to be a dodgy area has been recently restored with over 10 shoplots (cafes, local kopitiams, hidden bars) and beautiful murals.
I discovered this hidden gem on a Saturday afternoon after lunch in one of the hipster cafes around and I was left in awe! I was later told that the key idea was to encourage tourists to explore more of the once-neglected shoplots in the surroundings.
With a little bit of paint and colours here and lots of work renovating the buildings, the project successfully turned the hideout for homeless people, cockroaches and rats into a stunning and meaningful corner!
The main aim of this project is to allow the young crowd to feel what Chinatown was like back in the days – the paintings depict the life of early Chinese settlers and you can even scan the several QR codes along the alley to watch interactive videos and stories that give meaning to the mural paintings.
At the entrance, you’re greeted with a wooden bridge (of which all materials have been restored from the old shop lots). Four ancient-looking buildings surround the alley – in fact, they aren’t just vintage in looks but in age too as they date back to the 80’s!
See, you can now easily spend a whole day strolling around Petaling Street, enjoying hipster cafes, legendary local food and hunting for hidden bars at night! Who are you bringing along? Tag them below!