Kuala Lumpur has an impressively diverse (and affordable) food scene. While a common refrain among travellers is that the city is only “worth” a couple of days due to a limited selection of top-shelf attractions and activities, it more than makes up for this perception with its food—in almost two weeks we ate more than 100 meals but barely scratched the surface.
If you’ve never been to Kuala Lumpur (or Malaysia) and really don’t have a handle on the food scene, we highly recommend doing a food walk while you are in the city—we cover some options in our sights and activities section (coming shortly!). A food walk can be a great way to break the ice and to give a novice eater a primer on what they are eating and why they are eating it where they are.
Why is Brickfields so South Asian and why is it there? How did it come about that there is so much Indonesian satay and Thai tom yam in Kampung Baru, an ostensibly Malay district? Why is the street food being moved into the ground floors of condominiums? The answers to these questions (and many more) are often best answered by a local guide walking you through the districts, introducing you to the people living their food day in, day out. So if this is your first time to Kuala Lumpur, set aside a half-day for a food walk.
While you will find all sorts of food all over the place (yes, including Burger King), using some very broad strokes, we’d say the concentration of Malay food is in Kampung Baru, South Asian is in Brickfields and Little India, Chinese is primarily in Chinatown (duh!) and cafes, both traditional and hipster, are scattered pretty much everywhere.
The largest concentration of Western-style bars is around Bukit Bintang, with cheaper (by Kuala Lumpur standards) drinks available street-side in Chinatown. A small but growing speakeasy scene is centred around Chinatown and Little India, but it isn’t cheap. There are of course many, many exceptions to all this—you’ll find Indian fare in Chinatown and beef ball noodle soup in Little India. Bangsar, a bit of an expatish quarter to the southwest of KL Sentral, has a bit of everything from sports bars to banana leaf curries to a weekend market.
So where to start? Where to eat if you’ve only 48 hours in the city? While we cover all these in a bit more detail below, if we had to select seven truly standout places for seven meals across two days, here is our pick. On your first day, start with a breakfast of roti special at Selangor Mansion, then head to Kampung Baru for a Malay lunch at MZ Darul Naim, then duck down to Chinatown for a late afternoon small bowl at Shin Kee Beef Noodles (the broth is better after 17:00), followed by dinner at Betel Leaf. On the second day, start with chapati at Santa Chapati House, have lunch at Vishal Food & Catering and then tuck into dinner at Seng Kee.
Before we go any further, a thanks to all who got in touch with recommendations and we would like to say a very big thank you to Alia Ali, a KL native who sent us a bunch of excellent food recommendations (and met up to help us scoff some of them), and also to Espen Antonsen for his KL makan makan list of around 100 places to try in the city. Last but not least—this is our first take and we’ll be returning to KL in early 2018 to eat some of KLCC and PJ.
Unless you want to hit a fancypants restaurant like Bijan, all roads for Malay cuisine seem to lead to Kampung Baru. There is a loop road you can easily walk—start at the intersection of Jalan Raja Abdullah and Jalan Raja Muda Musa (look for the giant arch), walk along the latter and it loops back on itself before becoming Jalan Raja Alang and returning to Jalan Raja Abdullah. You’ll find everything on this small loop, from deep-fried battered prawns (udang tepung) through to a steak house.
One of the first places you’ll hit, on your right almost immediately after the arch is Restoran Gerak Dua Pulu Satuh #, a large covered food centre with a mind-blowing selection of curries in bainmaries, and, at the far end, an ikan bakar (barbecue fish) stall. This is all help yourself eating, but we’d push further down the street before settling in for a meal.
Cross the cross street and then on your left is Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa #—which has been in business since 1973. They’re open all the way through the night, so if you’re in the mood for a 03:00 nasi lemak, this is an option. Just down the road, Nasi Lemak Wanjo also gets solid reviews, though we didn’t try here. Continue on and at the southeast corner of the loop you’ll find two Malay restaurants facing off from one another, Chunburi Seafood # on the north side and Kak Som # to the south.
These were repeatedly recommended to us as good spots to try Malay food. We ate at the former, where we enjoyed two excellent dishes—laksam and nasi kerabu. We loved the laksam—smooth thick noodles rolled up like tape, drowning in a rich fishy broth hiding a slow-burning punch. Also very close to here, just a little past Kak Som on the same side of the road, is an excellent satay vendor. All are open for lunch and dinner.
Slightly further flung, to the northeast of Masjid Jemak Kampung Baru at 1244-1245 Lorong Haji Hussien 2, you’ll find MZ Darul Naim #. This Malay eatery (lunchtime only) works on a help-yourself basis, with dozens of individual dishes along with curries and sauces laid out to your left as you walk in. We tried quite a few dishes here, but the ayam percik—a grilled chicken glazed with a sweet coconut sauce—was pretty special. The sauces were great, in particular the budu, a fermented anchovy sauce with a dollop of tempoyak (fermented durian) added to it, then some fresh chillies broken over the lot.
Kampung Baru is best approached via Kampung Baru station on the Kelana Jaya line or Medan Tuanku or Chow Kit monorail stations. All are a 10-minute (or so) walk from most of the above-mentioned restaurants. Bear in mind that walking around Kampung Baru is a hell of a lot more pleasant than walking around downtown.
If you’re looking for something more downtown and don’t want to head out to Kampung Baru, we’d tilt you towards Capital Cafe #, right smack in the heart of matters on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, so a short walk from Coliseum Cafe and Bandaraya station. You’ll frequently read Capital referred to as being a time warp, or a step into the past, but the food, especially the satay, is good and the drinks are cold. It gets very, well, uncomfortably busy over lunch, so if you’re thinking a leisurely meal, then aim for before or after the lunchtime rush, as lunchtime slow eaters may feel a bit pressured to move along.
Capital Cafe 213 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman; Mo–Sa: 10:00–20:00.
Chunburi Seafood T: Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kampung Baru; .
Kak Som 19 Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kampung Baru; .
MZ Darul Naim 1244-1245 Lorong Haji Hussien 2, Off Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz; T: (019) 905 1130; .
Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa 4 Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kampung Baru; T: (115) 111 1991; http://www.nasilemakantarabangsa.my/ Mo–Su: 17:00–12:00 (midday the next day).
Restoran Gerak Dua Pulu Satuh Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kampung Baru; .
Kuala Lumpur boasts two primary South Asian districts: Little India on the east side of the Klang River (and just to the north of Chinatown) and Brickfields, on the west bank of the Klang River, near KL Sentral. Both have excellent eating options and are easily reached by public transport, so it is no big deal to head out for an Indian meal when you’re staying elsewhere in the city.
Selangor Mansion # is a dated building wedged between Jalan Masjid India and the Klang River. On the Klang River side of it, on the ground floor pretty much opposite the walkway over the river, is a 24-hour cafe that does a spectacular roti special. The roti are torn up, served with two soft and runny eggs and then drenched with curry and sambal. You have to try it. Wash it down with a coffee for a total spend of around 5 ringgit.
Another great option for a South Asian breakfast is Restoran Santa # on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee. The street signage reads Restoran Santa (Chapati House) so punters will know what the speciality here is: chapatis! Light and fluffy, as chapatis so often are not, we had a double serving along with a cup of coffee and it was a great way to start the day.
Hidden away in the back-blocks of leafy Bangsar, vegetarian The Ganga # delivers solid North Indian fare in a very friendly setting. We enjoyed the paneer butter masala (under 20 ringgit) and eyed off the mushroom matar being eaten by the people sitting beside us (some tables are shared) so obviously that they asked us if we’d like to try it. The food is complimented by a selection of refreshing cool drinks and lassis. They have a Gujerati-style buffet on Sundays, which comes highly recommended, though we didn’t try it. The Ganga is set along a short row of other restaurants including Mediterranean Barat, seafood-serving Bakar (among others) in the southern stretches of Bangsar. This is a solid 20-minute walk from Bangsar LRT, or get a Grab or Uber.
Edging towards finer dining, we had a simply outstanding meal at Chettinad restaurant Betel Leaf # on Lebuh Ampang. Their exquisite Chettinad fish masala (15 ringgit) was a complete flavour sensation, yet was surpassed by the gobi Manchurian (11 ringgit). This second dish was deep-fried cauliflower cooked in an Indian–Chinese gravy ... well, that is how the menu described it, but it could have just as easily have read “OMG you must try this”, and it would still have been accurate. The setting is a step up from a typical walk-in eatery—it is upstairs, not on the ground floor. We walked in and had no trouble getting a table, but the restaurant was jammed by the time we left around 20:30. Recommended. On the same street as Betel Leaf, we had a delicious tiffin at Sangeetha Vegetarian Restaurant # and the prices were very reasonable.
Saving perhaps the best for last, our final pick on Lebuh Ampang is the famous Bakti Woodlands #, where we went with the oft-recommended Madras thali. At 12 ringgit, with endless refills, how can you go wrong?
On the topic of banana leaf curries, over in Brickfields long-running Vishal Food & Catering # came super highly recommended and if there was one place that almost pushed us over the edge into a food coma, this was it: Arrive with an empty stomach! You sit down, a banana leaf is placed in front of you, and it gets piled with a few side dishes and an enormous biryani rice (with a chicken leg AND an egg in it). Then the food starts coming, and coming, and coming. Tray upon tray of curry—we tried a chicken, a dark syrupy squid and some fish in a rich tomato sauce, but there were 20 other selections.
Really, it was an astounding variety and all delicious. The meal for two, with two mango lassis, came in at about 60 ringgit. It’s very popular; we arrived at 14:00 and it was heaving. Highly recommended—and thanks Rich for shouting us lunch! It’s located on Jalan Scott, a 15-minute walk from KL Sentral. Just a few doors down, Vishalatchi Food & Catering # also comes very highly recommended.
Also over Brickfields way, we had a good banana leaf lunch at Sri Paandi Restaurant #. It is about a 10-minute walk to the south of KL Sentral and we’d say worth the walk. You can order a la carte or just heap your own plate.
Bakti Woodlands 55 Lebuh Ampang, Little India; T: (03) 2022 3225; .
Betel Leaf 77A-79A Lebuh Ampang, Little India; T: (03) 2032 5932; http://www.betel-leaf.com .
Restoran Santa 11 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Little India; Mo–Sa 07:00–18:30.
Sangeetha Vegetarian Restaurant 65 Lebuh Ampang, Little India; T: (03) 2032 3333; http://www.kopathagroup.com/svr/default.aspx .
Selangor Mansion Between Jalan Masjid India and the Klang River; Open 24 hours..
Sri Paandi Restaurant 254 Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields; T: (014) 646 2588; .
The Ganga 19 Lorong Kurau, Taman Bukit Pantai, Bangsar; T: (03) 2284 2119; http://www.theganga.com.my .
Vishal Food & Catering 22 Jalan Scott, Off Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields; T: (03) 2274 0995; Mo–Su: 07:30–10:45.
Vishalatchi Food & Catering 18 Jalan Scott, Off Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields; .
Not surprisingly, you’ll find some excellent Chinese fare in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. We’ve concentrated on free-standing restaurants and street-eating options but if you’re feeling the need for some icy air-con, don’t turn your nose up at the foodhalls in KL’s big malls, as there is plenty of decent eating in those as well.
We first need to mention a drink stall, Air Mata Kucing #, which you’ll find operating at the corner of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Hang Lekir, more or less at the base of the Lantern Hotel. The friendly guy here ladles out glass after glass of an iced (or hot) longan drink and nothing is as refreshing as a glass of this. Priced at just 2 ringgit (2.50 ringgit without ice) once you try it, you’ll be back for more. We aren’t the only fans; this post talks about how to make it at home.
If you’re after a quick light meal, Koon Kee # does wonton mee, either in a soup or dry. When we dropped by in the early evening they’d run out of the pork wontons so we “made do” with chicken, in a soup. We tried it dry later in the week and it came deliciously drenched in soy. This is a simple, fast meal—handy if you just need a top up!
How far an individual will travel for a bowl of pan mee is a personal thing, but regardless of what your limit is, make the trek to Kin Kin Pan Mee # kind of near Chow Kit—thank us later. Chilli pan mee is a flour-based noodle (the pan mee) served dry in a bowl with a paste of minced pork and anchovies with a very soft poached egg served on top. You then spoon the chilli on top (use caution!) then break the egg and mix the whole lot up. We struggle to explain just how delicious this is. Wash it down with one of their honey lemon lime with jelly drinks.
Long-running Yut Kee # was founded in 1928 by an immigrant from China’s Hainan province, Lee Tai Yik. At the time, Malaya’s colonial rulers favoured the Hainanese to be their chefs but what the Brits wanted to eat wasn’t traditional Chinese food, but cooking that reminded them of home. Out of this grew Hainanese coffee shops that took elements from English and Chinese cuisines, then added a distinct Malaysian twist. “This was fusion food, before fusion food was invented,” Mervyn Lee, the grandson of the restaurant’s founder, told us on a visit a few years ago. At Yut Kee you’ll chicken and pork chops through to rice congee, but they are arguably most famous for their roast pork. It is now only available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so we missed out—starting our day instead with a chicken chop. Originally at 35 Jalan Dang Wangi, Yut Kee moved around the corner a few years ago to Jalan Kamunting. Yut Kee gets extremely busy (note all the waiting seats out front) and solo travellers will be expected to share a table.
Beef noodles is a dish you’ll encounter commonly in food centres and comes in a few varieties—sometimes with beef balls, other times with tripe, and others still with thinly sliced beef. It was this last version we tried at Shin Kee Beef Noodles # and we’d go as far as to say it was one of the best meals we had across our time in KL. The broth is rich but not syrupy and you choose the noodles you want with it. In with it goes a beef sauce, and, in our case, the raw strips of beef, which cook perfectly in the soup. It is almost pho-like, and tremendous. You must try it, with a bowl going for 6-8 ringgit. We also tried the beef ball soup across the road in Lai Fong Coffee Shop and at Soong Kee Beef Noodles on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, but this was easily the best of the three. . Come in the late afternoon to give the broth the benefit of the day at work.
Moving on from beef, we hit the pork wagon in a serious way at Seng Kee # on Jalan Sultan, where we ordered a small claypot pearl noodles, a Seng Kee special of pig intestine and a plate of fried noodles with pork. When we ordered the friendly staffer asked if we wanted to wait for our friend before the food came—oh no, it was all for me. It turned out we really didn’t need the pork noodle dish as the other two were plenty sufficient. We’re not normally one to get excited about offal, but the pig intestine was spectacular with a slow acting chilli heat that snuck up on us. The claypot pearl noodles though really stole the show. The soft fat noodles are at the base, hidden under a layer of minced pork, with a raw egg on top. Stir it all up and start scoffing—be sure to scrape the remnants off the claypot. Tthis reviewer inspired our choices and had a near identical experience. The restaurant gets very busy in the evening, so come early if you’re crowd-averse. Full English menu and iced cold beers are on hand. Highly recommended.
Sticking with pork, there is an unnamed char siew and roast pork place # (breakfast and lunch only) on the alley just to the south of Jalan Hang Lekir between Jalan Petaling and Jalan Sultan. To reach it, walk along Hang Lekir and turn south after Koon Kee (see above); follow the alley down and you’ll see a glass box with all the porky goodness and a few tables running off on an alley to your left. You can also approach it from the south—follow Jalan Sultan around to the west and you’ll see a narrow road striking north with plenty of street art for Pasar Karat street market. Follow this alley and you’ll reach the same stall. While the staff do a variety of Chinese dishes, the pork, especially the roast pork, is the bomb—pure melt-in-the-mouth stuff.
If you find yourself doing a bit of electronics shopping over in Low Yat Plaza, pretty much opposite you’ll see invariably heaving Instant Restaurant #. A long signboard inside details dozens of dishes, or choose from steaming bainmaries. The won ton noodles came recommended, and while we were tempted by the chicken rice, we went with a simple roast park and rice and it was excellent. Eat inside or on the street, but as the place gets very busy, staff don’t expect you to linger once you have eaten.
Another option for chicken rice handy if you are staying over Bukit Bintang way, is Restoran Beremi Meng Kee #—find it right beside the KL Journal hotel. They do a Hainanese chicken rice along with standards including Hokkien mee, won ton mee and clay pot loh shi fun. Staff are cheery and welcoming.
About a third of the way down Petaling Street Market, on the east side of the road, is a woman whose family have been chopping up salted barbecued duck for more than 70 years—meet Sze Ngan Chye Roast Duck #. The duck here comes in two ways, the whole duck or a half duck. They’ll chop the duck up for you and toss it into about 37 layers of plastic bags and then you’re on your own. We grabbed a takeaway coffee from nearby 77 Food Court and retired to our hotel to eat duck. It was delicious, rich and textured like only duck can be, but, to be honest, we’d never eaten half a duck for breakfast by ourselves before. Next time, we’d share with a friend. A half duck is 28 ringgit and the whole bird 56 ringgit. Have somewhere to lay down afterwards.
While touristy, a good place to head for seafood, especially barbecue sting ray, is Restaurant Meng Kee Grill Fish # on Jalan Alor. The entire street is a madhouse of eating come the evening. We suggest partnering the sting ray with some stir-fried clams with chilli and garlic, plus a cold drink.
Further down the same Jalan Alor, you can’t miss Wong Ah Wah Restaurant # which, while being a full-blown Chinese restaurant, is deservedly famous for its chicken wings. Start—or finish—your Jalan Alor feeding frenzy with a delicious plate of them.
For Chinese vegetarian food, head to Blue Boy Vegetarian #, a slightly hidden away eating area beneath a rundown apartment building not too far from the southern end of Jalan Alor. The setting is a little grotty (skip the bathrooms till after your meal, or just skip them entirely) but the food is great—and it is all vegetarian. Well regarded for their curry mee, tom yam and asam laksa, we tried the char kuay teow (yes, it is possible to have it vegetarian) and found it to be particularly good. Prices are very reasonable, at around the 5-7 ringgit mark. Breakfast and lunch only, and no alcohol is served.
If you’re looking for a more foreigner-friendly spot for a meal, where you’ll have no trouble ordering in English and there may even be a menu, two crowd pleasers that spring to mind are Tang City Food Court # on Jalan Hang Lekir in the heart of Chinatown and Kedai Kopi Lai Foong # at the intersection of Jalan HS Tun Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Lai Foong covers standards like chicken rice and char kuay teow through to beef noodle soup (and also does decent coffee) while Tang City has these along with a spread of South Asian dishes, claypots and a table of curries you can help yourself to, which will appeal to those on a tight budget. Tang City and Lai Foong have loads of icy beer and prices are not unreasonable, but be warned both can get very busy at meal times—especially Lai Foong. If you’re finding some of the other places we’ve listed to be a bit intimidating or confusing, either of these are a good place to start.
Walk north of Chinatown into one of Kuala Lumpur’s two South Asian districts and you’ll reach Restoran Hong Ngek #, a classic Hokkien shopfront that has been serving Hokkien fare since the 1940s. They offer a wide variety of dishes, from one plate noodle and rice dishes for under 10 ringgit through to rich seafood plates at around the 30 ringgit mark. We went with just a simple chopped chicken with chilli on rice and it filled a hole, but we’d like to make time to get back there to try more—the herbal chickenn and the ribs cooked in Guinness were both recommended to us repeatedly. This place gets very busy at lunch time, so eat early or late if you prefer to dodge the crowds. Service can come across as abrupt, but they’re actually a very friendly crew.
Air Mata Kucing Corner of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Hang Lekir, Chinatown; .
Blue Boy 6001 Blue Boy Mansion, Jalan Tong Shin; Mo–Su: 08:00–18:00.
Instant Restaurant Jalan Bintang, Bukit Bintang; T: (03) 2148 8618; .
Kedai Kopi Lai Foong 140 Jalan H.S. Tun Lee (junction with Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), Chinatown; .
Kin Kin Pan Mee 6 Jalan Perubatan 4, Chow Kit; Tu–Su: 08:00–19:00.
Koon Kee Jalan Hang Lekir (between Petaling St and Jalan Sultan, south side), Chinatown; .
Restaurant Meng Kee Grill Fish 39 Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang; T: (012) 213 3082; .
Restoran Beremi Meng Kee 22-28 Jalan Beremi, Bukit Bintang; Mo–Su: 06:00–22:00.
Restoran Hong Ngek 50 Jalan Tuyn H.S. Lee, Chinatown; T: (03) 2078 7852; Mo–Sa: 10:00–19:00.
Seng Kee 52 Jalan Sultan, Chinatown; T: (03) 2072 5950; Mo–Su: 12:00–03:00.
Shin Kee Beef Noodles Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (opposite Lai Fong Coffee Shop), Chinatown; T: (012) 673 7318; Th–Mo: 10:30–20:00.
Sze Ngan Chye Roast Duck 85 Jalan Petaling, Chinatown; T: (012) 333 8903; Mo–Su: 06:00–16:00.
Tang City Food Court Jalan Hang Lekir (between Petaling St and Jalan Sultan, north side), Chinatown.; .
Un-named char siew and roast pork place Alley between Jalan Sultan and Jalan Petaling, Chinatown.; Breakfast and lunch only..
Wong Ah Wah Restaurant 1,5,7 Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang.; .
Yut Kee 1 Jalan Kamunting, Dang Wangi; T: (03) 2698 8108; Tu–Su 07:30–16:30.
Of all the Southeast Asian cuisines you can graze on in Kuala Lumpur, Thai is arguably the best represented. The northern Malaysian state of Kelantan has long enjoyed close relations with Thailand’s strife-torn Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala (the three Thai provinces used to be a part of Malaysia) and southern Thai food is especially common in the Malaysian capital. Two of our food guides remarked that the Malay heartland of Kampung Baru is home to more than 200 tom yam restaurants; you won’t hit northern nor much central Thai fare in KL, but you clearly won’t struggle for tom yam.
The epicentre of Thai fare in KL is Jalan Alor. This single street is sleepy during the day, but bursts at the seams in the evenings. It runs from Jalan Changkat Bukit Bintang in the north to Jalan Tong Shin in the south. While the strip offers a mishmash of Asian fare, Thai, and especially Thai seafood, is what you will come across most often, especially in the southern reaches of the street where you’ll hit a string of Thai restaurants—Restaurant New World Thai Food # has been reliable for us in the past. The fare is southern, so don’t expect khao soi nor rich duck curries, but steamed fish and fresh spicy salads can be worth trying.
Opposite the northern end of Jalan Alor, over the other side of Changkat Bukit Bintang, sits Restoran Thai Somtam Seafood #. An unassuming, family-run place, this restaurant does decent spicy salads, steamed fish and, you guessed it, som tam. If you ask for it spicy, they will deliver it that way. This is a good spot to grab one of the few tables that overlook the street, which is great for people watching over your lunch or dinner.
For a fancier meal, we trekked over to Tamarind Hill #, an upmarket Thai restaurant set along Jalan Sultan Ismail. For the standard, prices are reasonable—our red duck curry (55 ringgit) was pretty much on the money though the chicken and herb salad (35 ringgit) wasn’t really what we expected—rice ranges from jasmine (9 ringgit) through to a chilli and roasted rice concoction for 20 ringgit.
Restaurant New World Thai Food Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang; .
Restoran Thai Somtam Seafood 88 Changkat Bukit Bintang, Bukit Bintang.; Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00.
Tamarind Hill 19A Jalan Sultan Ismail, Bukit Bintang; T: (03) 2148 3200; http://www.tamarindrestaurants.com .
Kuala Lumpur is awash is fancypants minimalist cafes where you’ll be looking at 10-12 ringgit for a latte. This can be great if all you want to do is enjoy the air-con and relax with your laptop, but if you’re rafter some good strong coffee, the local food centres can be a great and cheap starting point. As an example, 77 Petaling Street is home to a food centre; ignore the food and walk right down to the back where a guy makes hot and iced bag coffee for 2.40 ringgit a cup. Bargain.
Sticking with Chinatown, we enjoyed a couple of slow brews at Cafe ETC # on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, though if you’re just after a coffee steer clear of lunch when it gets packed—and with good reason, as the salads here are great. Almost across the road sits cutely named Lucy In The Sky Cafe #, a popular hub for serious-faced Western travellers with MacBooks. Our latte (11 ringgit) here was good.
A third option in Chinatown is Leaf & Co # over on Jalan Sultan (underneath Mingle Hostel). It improves on the heritage feel upstairs is working with and makes for a cool respite from the midday heat. We found the staff to be obliging—we just wished they opened two hours earlier.
Strolling north from Chinatown will take you to Little India, and we liked the smart but narrow LOKL # right beside very popular BackHome hostel. A hit with the lunchtime crowd, LOKL does a spread of mostly Western-orientated cafe fare like broccoli and cream soup, smoked chicken and chickpea pasta and banana cake. They also do good coffee, both Western and locally styled (our kopi susu was 7.55 ringgit). Prices are cafe-level, with many of the mains around the 25 ringgit mark and a three-course set lunch coming in at around 35 ringgit. The main part of the cafe is quite cramped, but keep walking in and you’ll see a more spacious open air section further in, which is shared with guests at BackHome. Service is prompt and friendly.
If you’re starting your day in Bukit Bintang, two excellent Western-style cafes are Feeka # (on Jalan Mesui) and VCR (on Jalan Galloway). The latter is a bit far-flung though is very convenient for Paper Plane Hostel and it has an excellent selection of cakes to accompany the coffee. We breakfasted once at Feeka, and enjoyed one of our only Western breakfasts of our stay (eggs Benedict). Our latte was 11 ringgit.
Over in Bangsar, and set in the grounds of what used to be a printing factory, modern Pulp # is the flagship store of specialty roaster Papa Palheta and does a pretty solid cup of coffee (12 ringgit)—if perhaps not quite hot enough for our taste. They also offer a mostly Western menu of pasta, salads and so on.
Antipodean Cafe # is a chain with at least nine branches spread throughout Kuala Lumpur. Modelled on an Australian cafe, our flat white (13 ringgit) was on the money, but the real reason to come here are the spectacular morning-after-the-night-before breakfasts. Mostly around 20 to 26 ringgit, this isn’t a budget brekky, but if you can’t face another roti, Antipodean is a reliable bet. Staff are excellent—very friendly and professional.
For a more broad-ranged look at Kuala Lumpur’s cafe culture, check out our mate James Clark’s round-up of coffee shops in Kuala Lumpur, which includes many of the above along with a whole bunch of others including up around KLCC which we didn’t really get time to explore enough.
Antipodean Bangsar 20 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar. (9 branches in total); T: (03) 2282 0411; http://www.antipodeancoffee.com .
Cafe ETC 198 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Chinatown.; T: (03) 2022 3551; https://www.facebook.com/cafeetckl/ Tu–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Feeka 19 Jalan Mesui, Bukit Bintang; T: (03) 2110 4599; https://www.asianagegroup.com/ Mo–Su: 08:00–23:00.
Leaf & Co 53 Jalan Sultan, Chinatown.; https://www.facebook.com/leafandcocafe/ Mo–Su: 10:30–22:00.
LOKL 30 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Little India.; T: (03) 2072 1188; http://loklcoffee.com .
Lucy In The Sky Cafe 167 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Chinatown.; T: (03) 2022 1526; https://www.facebook.com/lucyintheskykl/ .
Pulp 29-01 Jalan Riong, Bangsar.; T: (03) 2201 3650; http://www.pulpcoffee.co .
VCR 2 Jalan Galloway, Bukit Bintang.; T: (03) 2110 2330; http://vcr.my/ .
If you’re arriving in Kuala Lumpur from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand or Vietnam, prepare yourself for some sticker shock—KL is not a cheap town for boozing. The situation isn’t helped by some hostels, which forbid bringing in outside booze while selling their own out of a fridge at a very significant mark-up. Bars likewise work in a hefty mark-up—as does the Malaysian government, with alcohol heavily taxed in Malaysia.
On another note, despite Malaysia’s barbaric laws regarding drugs, on a number of occasions we saw (and smelt) people smoking pot—all we can say is this is not what we would describe as exercising extreme caution.
If you’re out for a budget drink, the best option is to bypass bars entirely and have a few quiet tipples in either a cheap (invariably Chinese) restaurant, a food centre (like above mentioned Kedai Kopi Lai Foong or Tang City Food Court) or Jalan Alor. In all of these you should be able to get a large (620ml) beer priced in the 15-20 ringgit range. There are worse ways to relax after a hard day sightseeing than at a streetside table on Jalan Alor or Jalan Hang Lekir with a few friends and a few iced beers. If you are on Jalan Alor, the chicken wings from Wong Ah Wah go great with beer!
For a more social setting, The Original Kuala Lumpur Pub Crawl kicks off every Thursday and Saturday at 20:45 from Brix Union on Jalan Changkat Bukit Bintang. It costs 70 ringgit (per person) and includes “5 cool bars, 5 awesome drinks and 5 crazy stories”. We didn’t road test this, but five drinks for 70 ringgit isn’t too bad and going by their Facebook page, attendees look to be having fun!
Another place which lent itself to a quiet drink was The Geographer Cafe #, situated midway between Chinatown and Little India. It does food as well, and we liked the map/geography style of the place—it has a sister property in Melaka. Also in Chinatown, you’ll find the Reggae Bar # on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, with its kitschy reggae decor, pool table, not overpriced drinks but woeful service.
Another option in the slightly quirky but maybe worth a look category, is the Coliseum Cafe # over on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. One of the oldest pubs in Kuala Lumpur, they do an icy beer and we loved the memorabilia on the walls—especially the advisory on what to do if your servant has malaria. There is an attached restaurant (which we didn’t try) and while we wouldn’t suggest heading across town for a big night here, it will appeal to those who like a bit of history in where they drink. Staff are excellent.
If you’re less budget constrained then Jalan Changkat Bukit Bintang and nearby Jalan Mesui have to host Kuala Lumpur’s highest concentration of bars per square inch, with a mix of lounge bars, English pubs and sports bars. Prices are moderate to high. On the strip itself we’re partial to the Ceylon Bar #, which is a fair way along on the right, a little before Italian restaurant Ciccio, which sits on the other side of the road. Overall we prefer the scene on Jalan Mesui, which is slightly more sedate (though equally expensive). It’s also home to the long-running jazz club No Black Tie #. While we didn’t step in this time around, it has delivered outstanding evenings out in the past.
Slightly removed, though similar to the Bukit Bintang scene, are the bars over in Bangsar Village (which, if anything, is more expat-y) along with a second enclave down on Lorong Kurau, which is quite out of the way, and which we only discovered because we were staying at nearby Sekeping Tenggiri. In the former, The Social is your typical sports bar-style spot, while in the latter we enjoyed the quieter vibe and very friendly host at The Enclave #. If you’re staying downtown, in neither case would we say a trip out to Bangsar for a pint is warranted, but if you are staying out that way, then yes, either are reasonable options.
KL’s skyline is none too shabby, and while Traders Hotel is the most frequently recommended spot, we prefer Heli Lounge Bar #, which, as the name suggests, occupies a helipad on the 34th floor of an office tower. There are any number of OHS issues which may well not see a bar like this exist in your home country, and, like many bars which people only go to because of the view, the drinks are a bit pricey and the service is awful, but the views are terrific. It pays to dress up a little, so leave the fisherman pants in the hostel, but if you are going to hit one viewpoint bar, Heli Lounge Bar should be it. This is actually the cheapest way to enjoy the views as a trip up to KL Tower or Petronas Towers will cost you significantly more. You are required to buy at least one drink per person before being granted access to the rooftop. Recommended. The closest station is Raja Chulan monorail station, right by the tower. Arrive early to be sure of getting a table or call ahead to make a reservation.
Kuala Lumpur has a growing selection of speakeasy-style bars. They are often quite stylish, but prices are a good deal higher than what you’ll pay at the pub, with cocktails mostly starting at around the 40 ringgit mark. Most are clustered around Chinatown and Little India and while on weekends dress codes may apply, on weekday evenings they tend to be a bit more relaxed.
Omakase + Appreciate # claims to be Kuala Lumpur’s first speakeasy bar and while we can’t comment on the veracity of that claim, it is certainly the most difficult to find—despite it being on Google Maps and mentioned in most decent guides to KL. It is in the basement level of the Bangunan Ming Annexe—to find it, walk along Jalan Gerega to the west till it curves to the north, and on your right you’ll see Bangunan Ming Annexe. To the immediate left of the stairs going up, there is a set of stairs going down, which finish at a door reading “Dilarang Masuk No Admittance”—go in and you’re in the bar. Phew. The bar is the work of Joe and Karl—we were handled by Joe and he delivered the goods. Cocktails start at 35 ringgit, but custom drinks are from 40. We were in here early and had the place largely to ourselves (which we liked) but later in the evening it can get busy. We felt like we were in Hong Kong.
If you’re planning on a speakeasy crawl, PS150 # in the southern reaches of Chinatown is a good next bet—you can walk there in 20-30 minutes—just ask Joe to be kind to you. The name is a play on the address (150 Petaling Street) and they’ve gone the whole hog on reproducing the red-light theme. There’s lanterns and seductive booths and hidden corners for canoodling over cocktails, an open atrium area and the bar itself. Staff are excellent, the menu is very extensive and well presented. Most drinks are in the 40-50 ringgit range, though there is also plenty of scope for custom drinks. As with Omakase + Appreciate the entrance is understated. It is masked as a toy counter of sorts and is right beside ChoCha Foodstore—once you find the latter you’ll find the former. Smarter dress expected on weekends.
Almost next door, right above ChoCha Foodstore (which we totally missed and will try next time!) is brand spanking new Botak Liquor #. You have to actually enter ChoCha to reach the bar—enter, walk in a bit and take the spiral staircase up and enjoy the lush wonderland that awaits. Botak Liquor makes good use of the space, with high ceilings and a dilapidated worn feel. Their long bar and squat chairs (which, it must be said, were hard on the knees) are served by a swift and amusing team. Drinks lean towards the jungly—our fennel and cucumber tequila concoction wasn’t half bad (38 ringgit) but our companion struggled with his gin and pandan affair—that’s the jungle for you. That said they also have a solid selection of little-known beers and gins that you need not mix with pandan to enjoy.
Last but not least in our little speakeasy runaround, and certainly not a comfortable walk from Botak Liquor, is the fantabulous Pahit #, a gin bar where most drinks start at around the 40 ringgit mark and, well, they’re all good. Previously Barlai, if you are a gin drinker, this is where you need to start (or finish) your speakeasy run. Cute hideaways and rooms plus outdoor drinking in a heritage-style shopfront create an understated spot to relax and have a chat. We liked it here a lot—it is a touch out of the way, though really only a 10-minute walk from Jalan Alor. Upstairs is Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, a relation to Sekeping Tenggiri, one of our choice digs in KL—with this one though, you’ll be wanting to pack earplugs. It’s also just down the road from Paper Plane Hostel.
Botak Liquor Above Chocha Foodstore, Jalan Petaling, Chinatown.; Tu–We: 15:00–23:00 Th–Sa: 17:00–01:00 Su: 15:00–23:00.
Ceylon Bar 20-2 Changkat Bukit Bintang, Bukit Bintang.; https://www.facebook.com/ceylonbar/ Mo–Su: 16:00–03:00.
Coliseum Cafe 98-100 & 102 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, near Masjid India.; T: (03) 2692 6270; http://www.coliseum1921.com/ .
Geographer Cafe 93 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Little India.; T: (03) 2022 2193; http://www.geographer.com.my/index.php/geo-kl Su–Th 10:00–22:00 Fr–Sa 10:00–23:00.
Heli Lounge Bar Level 34-02 Menara KH, Jalan Sultam Ismail, Bukit Bintang.; T: (03) 2110 5034; https://www.facebook.com/Heliloungebar/ .
No Black Tie 17 Jalan Mesui, Bukit Bintang.; T: (03) 2142 3737; https://www.noblacktie.com.my/ .
Omakase + Appreciate Lower ground floor. Ming Annexe, 9 Jalan Ampang, Little India.; T: (03) 2022 2238; .
Pahit 3 Jalan Sin Chew Kee, Bukit Bintang.; T: (03) 2110 0776; https://www.facebook.com/barpahit .
PS150 150 Jalan Petaling, Chinatown.; T: (03) 2022 2888; http://ps150.my/ .
Reggae Bar 158 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Chinatown.; .
The Enclave 1 Lorong Kurau, Taman Bukit Pantai, Bangsar; T: (011) 3126 2643; https://enclavebangsar.wordpress.com/ .
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.