What moves you? A sense of history, brought to life through clever, meaningful design; a space in which your soul can unfetter and relax; a palate-pleasing menu. Soul. That is actually what sets a placepersonthing apart from the masses, and it’s something you can feel from the moment of first encounter.
Tucked away in the deep recesses of a retail store or a backpackers’ hostel, some of the loveliest cafe and restaurant spaces set to satisfy these deeper needs are hiding in plain sight. Rife with atmosphere and heavy with charm, they make a meal that much more memorable.
Here are four of our favourites; they are all-round top scorers, and even when they have a similar focus – a love for all things vintage – each remains distinctive.
The Curiousity Cafe
At The Curiousity Shop in 1 Mont Kiara, an eclectic mix of vintage furniture – mostly 1950s to 1970s – is piled high with a dazzling array of bits, bobs and baubles: a sequinned purple mini pillbox hat with jaunty black feathers, a flock of decorative miniature shopping carts, a beaten aluminium suitcase, a TV which was new in the 50s.
Drifts of treasures lie in piles, waiting for a hunter to find that exact thing, that perfect fit.
The juxtaposition of old and new, carefully-sourced and custom-made come together to form an Aladdin’s cave out of time – possibly stocked by various incarnations of Dr Who. There are some offerings from Malaysian designers, and the store provides various services including restoration and upholstery work.
Started in 2005, this glorious melange of vintage chaos has had various homes, including in Changkat Bukit Bintang and Sungi Besi – the latter space remains, but it has become more warehouse than walk-in, with visits arranged by prior appointment.
A more recent addition to the store, it began serving cuppas just two months ago.
The glass-fronted cabinets here are filled with vintage teacups and saucers, old plates, cut glass bowls and enamelled tin trays – many of them are from owner Lang Chua’s private collection, but some are for sale.
A definite sense of whimsy permeates. Avo and Cado are the two avocado plants growing in glass jars on the counter; always well-dressed, Avo sports a tiny necktie.
Suffused throughout with a watery white-gold light, the café boasts mismatched steel and wood tables and chairs, and a ceiling studded with chandeliers, each one different – ranging from classic crystal to a minimalist black steel number, with pale amber frosted bulbs (“I think that one’s been sold,” says Chua, 46).
Powder blue paper snowflakes dangle breezily from the ceiling, picking up the colour of the doorway frame – they’re reflective of the organic, unplanned approach from which the café itself sprang to life.
“The decorations were put up for a birthday party, and we left them there because we thought they were pretty,” says Chua. “We had actually arranged the furniture like this as part of the display ... but people kept coming through and asking me for a coffee! So I thought I’d have a café ....”
What began as coffee (Cottle Coffee from Melbourne) and cake – old-fashioned, classic bundt cakes, chocolate brownies and carrot cake baked by Soon Chooi Hai, who manages the cafe – grew into a small (fairly pork-centric) lunch menu.
Dishes like a rich pork rib curry, pork cooked with salted fish and pungent petai fried rice have hitherto been prepared at Chua’s Taman Desa restaurant, 8 Jugra, which she owns with a partner.
Lunch sets range from RM15 to RM25, while smoky-crunchy siew yoke and nicely-caramelised char siew are RM25 per plate.
But soon, the cafe will be renovated and a kitchen built; 8 Jugra chef John Choo will then oversee this kitchen as well. Pizzas (RM18 to RM29) and pastas will join the blackboard menu as part of the regular cast.
“Right now, The Curiousity shop is a retail space with a cafe. I want to turn it into a café with a retail space,” says Chua.
Chua has always had a love of collecting such furniture and furnishings, and an affinity for art. “I wanted to study interior design when I was younger, but my parents didn’t think it was a viable career,” she said. So she went into finance, and collecting beautiful things became a pastime before it became a career.
“What you love will always draw you back to it,” she says. Maybe that’s why The Curiousity Shop and the cafe themselves seem to have an irresistible pull – it’s hard not to fall for them both.
One visit, and like Alice, you’re curiouser and curiouser in this wonderland. You might stop for a coffee, but odds are you’ll find yourself lingering over the dull gleam of an antique weighing scale from 1900s Britain, or a rosewood dressing table that looks just like the one your grandmother used to have.
L2-1, 1 Mont Kiara Mall, Jalan Kiara 1, Mont Kiara, KL.
Tel: 012-638 6660
Few people visit Merchant’s Lane unaware of its origin story – this is The Café That Was Once a Brothel. In the slowly-gentrifying area of Petaling Street, the narrow, bright teal door next to a stationery shop opens onto a stone staircase lit with a red light, a nod to what it once was.
Up those stairs are a confluence of items from yesterday (a thermos, enamelled tiffin carriers, even a spittoon) with the old-new coffee bar fronting that space – old wood wrapped in a deep fuchsia steel cage and backed with light teal shelves. A neon sign proclaims that This Must Be The Place.
Then the space opens up, the vast ceiling soaring over the heads of diners. The walls are peeling and pitted, with layers of pale blue showing through the white in places, and wicker and wood furniture fill the large front room. Light tubes coil inside tudung saji lampshades; other lamps are made from long tubes of cardboard, painted gold at one end – they’re supposed to evoke joss sticks.
“This space was all individual rooms; we broke them down into one large space,” says Ken Ho, who co-founded Merchant Lane in 2015 with barista Kenneth Tan and Yong Sau Jin. It’s the first two whom you’ll usually find there.
“The owner of the stationery shop downstairs was my dad’s neighbour, and she tipped us off about the space. It looked like a ghost story waiting to happen,” says Ho.
“But in the middle, there was a tree – it’s still there. And that was the clincher that made us feel we could do it. If the tree could survive ....”
Petaling Street has been Ho’s stomping ground since childhood.
“My grandfather opened the leather shop 10 doors down in the 1960s,” he says. “And my father took it over after him.”
Ho actually opened another cafe before this one (which he still owns), and Tan was his barista there. “I always wanted to open something in this street though, and Kenneth became a partner when we opened Merchant’s Lane,” he says. “We wanted a comfortable space, and nothing industrial – whatever would give it soul.”
The fuchsia-teal accent palate is repeated throughout the rest of the space, adding a soft, feminine touch – a romanticised reminiscence of the women who once worked here.
Next to the coffee bar, a door opens onto a space outside, a wooden bridge flanked by metal grating on one side, with more seats. Roots and creeping plants snake up one concrete wall. If you’re looking down past the wooden banisters, you’re gazing into the neighbouring PS150, a hidden bar headed by famed mixologist Angel Ng.
The back seating area is smaller, with large, multi-hued paintings of peonies and chrysanthemums. It’s more sofa-and-armchair seating here, plus an often-Instagrammed hanging rattan chair, suspended from a beam.
Of course, the menu in such an atypical place must also be unusual. So you get a host of East-West inventions such as the South China Sea (RM26), grilled salmon on crispy shredded potato hash, with soft-centred poached eggs and fruit salsa – a house favourite – Italian Chow Mein, which pairs spaghetti and chicken rendang, and the Hongkie Beef Stew (RM22), a bowlful of tender, slow-cooked beef in thick broth with the sweetness of daikon and taucheo, on a smooth mashed potato bed. Better Than Sex (RM17) is pandan roti jala with melted cheese, kaya toast flavoured ice cream and gula Melaka sauce.
In the hopper: toasty, nutty Tanzanian coffee, from local roasters HotShots. “We try to support local businesses,” says Ho. Other popular drinks include the Superfruit Lemon Tea (RM13), with a base of hibiscus, lemon and lychees, and the lightly fizzy Pandan, Lemongrass and Ginger Cooler (RM13).
Many visitors may be drawn by the Merchant’s Lane story, but they stay – and return – for the hard-to-beat ambience, the affection for the old days coupled with a very modern practicality and comfort.
First floor, 150, Jalan Petaling, KL.
Tel: 03-2022 1736
There’s just something about LOKL. A tiny, ridiculously photogenic place tucked into a corner of BackHome – the pretty backpacker hostel on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee – this café is a warm, welcoming place that draws you in and renders you reluctant to leave.
The great coffee could have something to do with it – right now, that’s Papa Palheta’s Nuts and Bolts blend, which has a solid core of cherries and nuts, but with an unexpected marine edge. It’s like sipping your coffee on a pier overlooking the ocean.
Espresso-based coffees remain the focus, but true to its name, LOKL (pronounced “local”) also serves local kopi O or kopi susu. The Coffee Bon Bon (RM9.50) is a cuppa cultural fusion, a double espresso with a generous pour of condensed milk lurking underneath.
The staff definitely have something to do with it – the level of service here is pretty stellar, even in a sea of KL cafes with friendly staff. A great management initiative has the floor and kitchen staff rotating on a regular basis, so that everyone knows what’s what.
“We don’t want to compartmentalise people too much,” says co-owner Ng Ping Ho, 43, better known as Ping. Together with wife Cheryl Samad, 36, Ping opened LOKL in 2012.
The couple’s personalities are firmly woven into LOKL. Where Ping appreciates the minimalist clean lines and texture of industrial design, Cheryl enjoys a pretty, whimsical style.
“But we have a common vision, even if the details differ,” says Ping.
So a wall of shiny white tiles has the day’s specials written on it, and the wall opposite is of raw brick, with surprisingly comfortable wooden banquette seating underneath. But overlooking that is a mint green, lightbulb-studded sign proclaiming this LOKL.
The overall effect is one of minimalism softened with pretty accents – like the wall of art by designer Loo Jia Wen.
“We asked her to do something that was colourful and represented Malaysia. Even the frames are made out of durian wood, from a local company called Momage,” says Cheryl. The artworks include a stylised map of Malaysia, a tiger evoking the feel of that iconic Tiger Balm logo and a portrait of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.
The double-height ceiling and glass windows let in lots of natural light, so that you never feel confined. You can also sit in the sunny courtyard after 10am – until then, that’s where breakfast is served for hostel guests.
“This old part of KL, it has so much charm and history. We wanted to be part of such a neighbourhood,” says Cheryl.
Ping’s family owns a stretch of the lots here, but they didn’t take over from any of the old tenants, believing that they contribute to the great spirit of the area.
That’s also why their menu is more contemporary. “We don’t want to try to compete with people who have been here for generations,” says Cheryl.
When they wanted to evolve the simple opening menu, they turned to chef Jean Michel Fraisse as a consultant. The result is a menu of contemporary classics with an Asian twist. Careful attention to detail elevates the ordinary – an omelette is finished with a fresh grating of nutmeg, served with mushrooms and spinach, and a tangy tomato compote.
Some of the recipes are just them though. “Ping is all about brisket and southern fried chicken, so those recipes were his! So was the Putumayam Toastie,” says Cheryl. This is an offering of thick fried bread sandwiching a filling of fresh coconut and palm sugar – homage to the putumayam.
The Watermelon & Mint Salad (RM16) is a lovely splash of brightness, with sparkling, fresh notes of beetroot and mandarin, feta, rocket, mint and walnuts in a light coriander pesto.
The Smoked Brisket Burger (RM30) is memorable too, charred-and-tender with home-made BBQ sauce. At LOKL, the kitchen smokes its own salmon, makes its own granola – many things are made from scratch.
A last word on the service: on each table, there’s a cardboard envelope with three promises. That your food will take no longer than 20 minutes, that your waiter will look you in the eye and smile, and that your food will be consistent.
The red and green cards slotted into it put the proof in the pudding, and promise a free meal if you’re not happy with your experience.
So, there really is something about LOKL: it feels like home. With really good coffee.
30 Jalan Tun H. S. Lee, KL.
Tel: 03-2072 1188
Leaf & Co
The retro-loving surroundings of one of Chinatown’s newest chic cafes allows you to soak in an atmosphere of yesteryear that is fast disappearing.
Sit at a table near the front of Leaf & Co, and you’ll be assailed by an unbroken symphony of birdsong – one of the old-fashioned pet shops in the area is opposite, hung with row upon row of birdcages. A seat in the narrow verandah (a five-foot way in a past life) running the entire length of the premise also allows you to feel part of the street action – just strips of iron separate you from the world of old KL outside.
Owners Hermes Mah, On Wai Chee and Edmund Fock are childhood friends from Kepong, who also happen to go to the same church. They share two other commonalities – a love for food and travel. Leaf & Co sits at the meeting point of these commonalities, but also represents a sort of coming full circle for Mah.
“I used to go to school at Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsan Confucian, just around the corner – so this whole area holds a lot of meaning for me,” says Mah.
“Everywhere I look, I see memories of friends, of how we used to go to the bookshops and tea shops here after school.”
“When we found this space, it was dirty and abandoned. But the sense of heritage was irresistible – this place is over a century old,” says Mah.
Renovation of both Leaf & Co and Mingle Hostel, which it shares space with, commenced simultaneously.
The feel in Leaf & Co has been kept as stripped down as possible; walls are unfinished and rough, and when new, raw materials are used wherever possible – such as in the tall, double-height feature wall, a jigsaw of various-sized blocks rising up and up. The central airwell lets the light in.
The space is filled with antiques from all over Malaysia – old doors forming a decorative panel on one wall, a red, yellow and blue swing that will instantly transport you back down the corridor of years, heavy, wrought-iron chairs composed of flourishes and curlicues.
On takes care of the day-to-day operations and is usually behind the bar, coming up with new takes on the East-West fusion menu.
Drinks in particular combine inventive novelty with picturesque appeal, especially in the (non-alcoholic) mojitos, which come with colourful ice lollies dunked in.
“The flavours combine and change as they melt,” says On.
Try the lemon lime soda which comes with a mint lolly, or the grapefruit with a lime ice lolly.
There are espresso-based coffees, some which gotten On’s creative treatment as well – such as the rose latte and coconut latte – and a range of fragrant, pretty drinks like lavender green tea, Black Forest tea infused with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries and a tangy-sweet and very aromatic rose lemonade, made with fruit and actual flowers.
Popular dishes include the Buttermilk Fried Chicken (RM23) with a very briny, tangy sriracha and a simple dish of meatballs with mozzarella in tangy tomato sauce. “The Malaysia Spaghetti is also very popular, with a creamy rendang sauce,” says Mah.
Atmospheric and laidback, the airy surrounds of Leaf & Co provides a memorable “place for happy gatherings” – incidentally, a second meaning to Mingle’s name, if you look at the Chinese characters.
Mingle Kuala Lumpur
53 Jalan Sultan, KL
Tel: 03-6261 2228
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