Kota Kinabalu is not a food paradise on par with Penang or Kuala Lumpur, but you won't go hungry here either. Expect a fusion of Asian cuisines – Malay, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filippino – due to Kota Kinabalu's history of immigration plus plenty of international restaurants serving up comfort food to travellers who've just returned from jungle trekking or mountain climbing.
Kota Kinabalu is known for its fresh seafood. You can see the catch of the day for sale at the Central Market, but if you don't want it sashimi-style wait until 18:00 when the night market gets started. The Kota Kinabalu Night Market (also known at the Filippino Market) is an orgy of grilled seafood under plastic tarps. There are dozens of stalls, each grilling up plump prawns, fish, squid and crabs slathered with spices. The vendors speak English and you'll want to confirm the price before ordering – expect to pay around 10 ringgit for a fish and 15-20 ringgit for a plate of prawns. The market runs till the wee hours and is a rain or shine event.
For seafood cooked in ways other than grilling, try the Seri Selera foodcourt. The seafood here is just as fresh and displayed in aquariums with the price clearly displayed. Popular choices include crabs cooked in pepper sauce, breaded shrimp and non-seafood options too like stir-fried veggies and tofu. Prices are higher than the night market, though low enough that it's still popular with locals, and they serve beer.
More local specialties can be sampled on Gaya Street where some restaurants have been around so long they're institutions. One is 5 Star Hainanese Chicken Rice &BBQ Pork which serves exactly what the name suggests for 6-8 ringgit per plate. These simple Chinese-style dishes are deceivingly delicious and come with flavoured rice and a bowl of soup broth. For a restaurant with something for everyone, head to Fook Yuen where you can get a cup of kopi, dim sum, Japanese-style grilled eel, kaya toast and an American breakfast all under one roof. The restaurant is self-service but prices are a bargain and they're open from ridiculously early to ridiculously late. Don't leave without a "I heart Fook Yuen" T-shirt.
Kota Kinabalu has an unusually high number of Italian restaurants, but one of the best and longest-running is Bella Italia in the Jesselton Hotel. Their pizzas and pastas are discounted 50% from 15:00-17:00, but so delicious we'd gladly pay full price. They also do breakfast sets for a bargain 6 ringgit and experiment with other cuisine types – it was Turkish food when we visited – so check the specials board.
For the best Vietnamese food south of Ho Chi Minh City, try Peppermint Vietnamese Restaurant. The set-up may remind you of a Vietnamese McDonalds, but the beef pho, spring rolls and drip coffee are authentic and nothing costs more than 7 ringgit. We only tried the classics, but the locals seemed to be going crazy for the spicy Vietnamese chicken rice.
For fusion food in a funky setting, check out Wishbone Art Cafe. The mid-priced menu offers unique creations like a teriyaki rice burger, kimchi fried noodles and their spin on chicken rice with zesty mango coleslaw and there are daily lunch specials. We also love the air-con space filled with artwork and the free Wifi.
For a caffeine fix and a history lesson, don't miss Borneo 1945 Museum Kopitiam at Australia Place. This antique-filled cafe offers both Malaysian kopi and espresso-based bevvies plus local favourites like chicken curry, kaya toast and nasi lemak (coconut rice with chillies, peanuts, sardines and fried chicken). It may be located in an area filled with guesthouses, but prices are so low it attracts locals too. It's also a stop on the Kota Kinabalu Heritage Walk.
Kota Kinabalu's main nightlife area is a breezy seaside strip known as the KK Waterfront where you'll find a half dozen bars and restaurants. Among them, The Cock &Bull is regularly voted KK's best entertainment outlet and it's easy to see why with big-screen TVs to watch the game, a pool table, live music every weekend and a mile-long cocktail menu.
You'll find Guinness and Kilkenny on tap next door at the Shamrock Irish Pub. The outdoor seats are the perfect vantage point to watch the sun set and the pub grub like burgers and sausages is spot on. In the same complex is B.E.D. nightclub (it stands for Best Entertainment Destination) with DJs and a live Filippino band that attract a young, mostly local crowd.
For something a bit different, check out El Centro cafe-bar with cheap beer (by Malaysian standards) and the best margaritas in town. It attracts a casual, fun-loving crowd and there's often entertainment like free salsa lessons or a Wednesday night pub quiz.
5 Star Hainanese Chicken Rice &BBQ Pork: 123 Gaya Street, open daily 06:00–17:00
Bed Night Club: KK Waterfront, open daily 20:00–late
Bella Italia: 69 Gaya Street (inside Jesselton Hotel), T: (88) 313366, open daily 06:30–22:30, http://bellaitalia.com.my/
Borneo 1945 Museum Kopitiam: 24 Jalan Dewan (Australia Place), T: (88) 252891, open daily 07:30-00:00, http://www.borneo1945museumkopitiam.com/
Cock &Bull Bistro: 3 Anjung Samudra, KK Waterfront, T: (88) 257 881, open daily 15:00–01:00
El Centro: Lot 32 Jalan Haji Saman, T: (88) 251427, open Tues-Sun 17:00–00:00
Fook Yuen: Gaya Street (between Jesselton Hotel and Sabah Tourism), open daily 06:30–01:00
Kota Kinabalu Night Market: Waterfront opposite Le Meridien Hotel, open daily 18:00–late
Seri Selera Food Court: Jalan Kampung Air 4, open daily 17:00–late
Shamrock Irish Pub: 6 Anjung Samudra, KK Waterfront, T: (88) 249829, open daily 12:00–01:00
The Peppermint: Gaya Street (northeast of traffic circle), open daily 12:00–22:00
Wishbone: 109 Gaya Street, T: (88) 239533, open daily 11:30–22:00