Reimagining kopitiam classics


Good Friends Club’s interior with metal stools, original walls and tiles give it an old-school kopitiam vibe, with the bar area the only giveaway of it being a cocktail joint. — Photos: JEREMY TAN/The Star

COFFEESHOPS have been an integral part of Penang’s cultural landscape for over a century.

More popularly known as kopitiam, they serve as gathering places and brim with all types of delicious food and beverages.

This makes them rich sources of inspiration for innovative watering holes seeking to craft a unique localised drinking experience such as the Good Friends Club.

Located in a pre-war shophouse right next to Hin Bus Depot along Jalan Gurdwara in George Town, this kopitiam-themed craft cocktail bar cleverly reinterprets time-honoured coffeeshop staples into sophisticated drinks that allow one to taste Penang in familiar yet refreshing ways.

The decor is part of the experience. Out front, aquamarine-coloured metal shutter doors and signs with Chinese characters recreate that old-fashioned look that locals know well.

Inside, square white tiles rise halfway up original weathered walls with partially exposed brick.

A row of tall metal stools line the long, aluminium bar area.

If not for the shelves of liquor bottles on the back wall and cocktail equipment lying around, one could easily mistake the place for a kopitiam.

“In the early days, we used to get random people stopping by in cars or bikes, honking and hollering orders of kopi peng or fried rice,” said founder Lorraine Tan.

That was back in 2015, when they served mainly beers and light snacks. But as the global craft cocktail trend gained momentum, Tan and bar manager Wong Kelvin felt it was time for a change.

Wong serving up the popular CK-Tea Martini.Wong serving up the popular CK-Tea Martini.

They switched to a cocktail bar not long before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, weathering the subsequent storm to establish themselves as one of the most unique drinking spots in the city.

“The kopitiam is synonymous with comforting flavours and a laid-back atmosphere that is ideal for friendly conversation.

“We wanted our space to have such warm vibes, where people can come and enjoy Penang hospitality,” said Tan, also pointing to their now-iconic slogan.

The words “Good friends never bojio” are emblazoned at several spots. For the uninitiated, it simply means that buddies would always invite each other out ― in this case ― for a drink.

And much like visiting a kopitiam, choices abound here. One cannot go wrong with the delicate CK-Tea Martini which plays on kekwa peng (cold chrysanthemum drink) and char kuey teow.

Using a Vesper Martini recipe as a starting point, Wong swapped in chrysanthemum gin, herbal vodka and lillet, then added a savoury cracker as the finishing touch.

“When people eat char kuey teow, they often order cooling tea as a cleanser.

“The cracker has pork lard and chives, which we then torch to recreate wok hei,” he explained.

The Laksa Negroni.The Laksa Negroni.

The Laksa Negroni is tantalising and mouth-watering in equal measure. With anchovies, tamarind, torch ginger flower and mint muddled on the spot, every sip fills the palate with familiar notes of the pungent, spicy and sour noodle soup.

“We don’t make our drinks as straight-up liquefied versions of dishes.

“Instead, we distil its character and use its flavours and scents to trigger the memory.

“Our cocktails are all tastes locals would be familiar with. Things you would have ordered countless times before but with a modern and refined boozy interpretation.

“For overseas visitors, we also want it to be a representation of Penang’s social and culinary culture in a glass,” added Wong, who doubles as head bartender.

The Windows 23 is a cheeky derivative of ais tingkap. The original has coconut water and rose syrup, but here there is also dragonfruit, gin and tonic to make it refreshing and not overly sweet. A shard of curried roti on top references a popular accompaniment.

The Coconut Shake has always been a bestseller. Made of gin, coconut ice cream, pandan syrup and lime, it comes with a sotong wrap to evoke the sensation of having mee sotong with refreshing coconut water on a hot day.

“All the garnishes are meant to complement the drink and emphasise the Penang kopitiam experience,” Wong added.

Also notable are Durian Sticky Rice which mixes whisky with musang king durian, pandan, sticky rice and bitters; I Purple You which pays tribute to bubur pulut hitam, and Something Corny that plays on ban chang kuih.

No prizes for guessing what other drinks like Penang White Curry, Rojak Margarita, Teh Halia (Satu Boss), Pat Poh Old Fashioned, Barley-Barley Baby or Super Keat-Lahh were inspired by.

The Big Cat Fight may not be immediately obvious, but it is a mezcal Negroni based on the local hor ka sai (literally “tiger bites lion”) drink of coffee and cocoa.

You might never look at your favourite kopitiam beverage (or dish) the same way again.

Good Friends Club No 39, Jalan Gurdwara, 10300 George Town, Penang. Tel: 010-568 0527 Business hours: 8pm to 1am weekdays, 8pm to 2am weekends. This is the writer’s personal observation and is not an endorsement by StarMetro.

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bar hop , review , penang

   

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