With plenty of local food options available, dining on a budget in Kota Bharu isn't difficult, though unless well versed in local cuisine you may occasionally be disappointed with your selection. Asking for a recommendation will usually get you something palatable if an obviously identifiable chicken or noodle dish isn't staring you in the face. If selecting from a 'buffet'-style eatery, keep the mystery sauces separate until tried, even if the locals are going at them with gusto.
If landing at the central bus terminal in the early morning hours, crossing over to Jalan Padang Garong you'll find Ros Restaurant located next to Azam Hotel. Open early and closing late, this local restaurant is casual, inexpensive and they serve excellent food. It's mostly Malay style, but they will ask about your spice tolerance. The most expensive item on their menu is five ringgit and staff are especially friendly.
Another nearby local option is on the next block headed east on Jalan Padang Garong. With its larger open-air area, Nasi Air Hidar Pok Sen looks like a mini hawker stall pavilion, with a traditional buffet of local fish curries and chicken dishes. The local regulars may have priority on service speed, but if you're not pressed for time this is an inexpensive option and they are open 24 hours.
Just up the road west on Jalan Padang Garong is Oriental Restaurant (inside Sabrina Court Hotel). Their extensive menu of Chinese and Malay cuisine is the real deal and they also offer some Western fare like fish and chips, chicken nuggets and fries at inexpensive prices -- good if you've got non-adventurous eaters in tow. Lots of vegetable dishes as well.
Across from the bus terminal is the quaint Thai Square Restaurant, which specialises in Thai dishes. Great for watching for arriving buses, but a poor choice for anyone seeking food between 13:00 and 14:00. The Kota Bharu lunch crowd is alive and well at this popular eatery and the working masses will definitely be attended to first.
If wandering south of the central area, the food court near the Cultural Centre has several stalls serving a wide variety of local Malay food. The open-air people watching venue is a great chance to mix and mingle with locals and to try some homegrown recipes at dirt-cheap prices. Average dishes will set you back five ringgit.
For the adventurous, directly across the street is the fabulous Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah. This is a local wet (and dry) market with an assortment of truly local cuisine upstairs. Some may indeed be put off by some of the hygiene practices, but it's well worth pulling up a stool and throwing caution to the wind. The seafood is especially enticing, but it's not cheap. Chicken and beef dishes are far more affordable, though some of the cuts may be mysterious. Don't ask, just try, because it's delicious!
Heading west on Jalan Pintu Pong towards the river, take a left on Jalan Pasar Lama and just past Dynasty Hotel is the inexpensive Oriental Kopotiem. Nestled within the shop block row this little waterfront cafe is a refreshing sight. Serving coffee, teas and a variety of simple Malay and Asian dishes, the relaxed ambiance is inviting enough to just hang out for a while. Although they are somewhat open air, sitting by the river and enjoying the community common area picnic area is also an option.
If you find yourself museum bound between the hours of 11:00 and 16:00, Restoran Nasi Ulan Kampung Kraftagan (behind Tourism Malaysia and across from Royal Guest House) is an essential stop. Even if it is the dreaded lunch hour, the staff will do their utmost to accommodate. Their popular lunch buffet frees staff up to assist the culinarily lost traveller with simple explanations or the rapid refilling of cold beverages. Heavy on the fish sauce as well as mysterious arrays of garnishes, the curries and other dishes offered on the buffet are enthusiastically grabbed by regulars. You can follow suit as we did, and taste some authentic local Kelantanese cuisine.
For a higher-end local culinary choice, the chef's Kelantanese specials served up at Bunga Melati Restaurant at the Royal Guest House are sure to be a conversation topic later, or at the very least, a memorable meal. If a night absent of plastic tables and chairs and blaring background TV beckon as a treat, this place even has tablecloths.
The nearly 50s-style corner diner-styled Kota Bharu Bandar Raya Islam sits quietly on the adjacent corner from Tourism Malaysia. It's a perfect perch to sit undisturbed for a bit of people watching and a cuppa.
Bunga Melati Restaurant (at Royal Guest House): Lot 440-443 &448-445 Jalan Hilir Kota, Kota Bharu. T: (09) 743 0008. Open: Daily 07:00-22:00
Food Court at Pasar Basar Siti Khadijah (central wet market): Just off Jalan Doktor and Jalan Pintu Pong, Kota Bharu. T: (01) 7983 9981.
Kota Bharu Food Court: Near the Cultural Centre, on the corner of Jalan Mahmood and Jalan Bayam, near Stadium Sultan Muhamed Ke-4, Kota Bharu
Ros Restaurant: Next to Azam Hotel, Jalan Padang Garong, Kota Bharu. Open daily 07:30-22:00
Nasi Air Hidar Pok Sen: Near HSBC bank, Lot 444 Jalan Padang Garong, Kota Bharu. T: (01) 7 908 5262; (01)7 908 7818. Open 24 hours, seven days
Oriental Restaurant: Ground Floor, Sabrina Court Hotel, Jalan Padang Garong, Kota Bharu. T: (09) 741 9991;(01) 2 662 0080. Open Sat-Thu 11:00-23:00; Fri 16:30-23:00.
Oriental Kopotiem: Jalan Pasar Lama (next to Destiny Hotel), Kota Bharu. Open daily 09:00-01:00.
Restoran Nasi Ulan Kampung Kraftagan: Behind Tourism Malaysia across from Royal Guest House, Jalan Hilir Kota, Kota Bharu. T: (01) 9 946 6665. Open Sat-Thu 11:00-16:00.
Thai Square Restaurant: Next to Hatachi, directly across from the central bus terminal, Kota Bharu. Open daily 07:00-22:00.