KUCHING IS AGOG AS PENANG COMES A LITTLE CLOSER with the impending opening of the Old Courthouse under the China House umbrella. Touted to be a centre for heritage and the arts, with a liberal serving of food and beverages on the side, Kuchingites are hoping it will help to bring the heritage core of the city back to life and, of course, be a chic new eatery for the increasingly chic Kuching crowd. But the idea that the oldest of our buildings can provide the newest of venues is an old, familiar one, worldwide and even in Kuching. The character of each place can make the concept and oddly, the transformation, though it destroys the original character in some measure, can also help to see its preservation. as heritage houses are being torn down across Kuching at an alarming rate, at least a handful are being put to new use. so for dining and drinking in timeless, old world atmosphere, here are the best of the old classics.
Jambu – Jalan Crookshank
One of the earliest examples of the old made new, Jambu is already an institution in Kuching. Set in and around a glorious Malay-style house, the owner has been tinkering with this property for years, painting it a succession of fruity colours in keeping with name and adding out the back for more space, thankfully to keep the original house intact and unmodified. The house itself is now, actually, back to a house, though this time for hire. Visitors to Kuching can book the whole space in Jambu residences to enjoy the ambience of a time gone by. But the real action for locals goes on behind where a Western restaurant, claiming the best pizza in town (though the chicken liver pate is a personal favourite), backs up a busy bar. The eclectic décor extends to what might be the best toilets in town, with retro furnishings competing for space with colourful prints. Certainly, the pick of the crop.
Magenta at Square Tower – Jalan Gambier
The venue is new but the restaurant within is long- established. Magenta has migrated from Nanas Road to the Old Courthouse and now has finally settled in the Square Tower where it may have found its best venue yet. The Square tower has been through many lifetimes, as a prison, a police building and even a dancehall. But it returns to its entertainment roots with the arrival of this fine-dining, Western restaurant and lends itself perfectly. With the windows flung open on all four sides, diners can have a panoramic view of waterfront, water or courthouse, depending on their preference. The owner lets the heritage space speak for itself with only a few ‘objets’ scattered around and simple coffee shop chairs and tables. The menu is decidedly meaty and new dishes are always on offer. It is definitely a place to play the prince (or perhaps Rajah) in the tower for a night.
Bella’s Garden at Sarakraf – Jalan Tabuan
This grand old Chinese mansion has been expanding for years. first it opened as a centre for traditional crafts, as heritage practices met heritage house. Then came the restaurant in a more modern extension, and next a lodging house behind in an adjoining property. Recently under new management, the last few months have seen a new addition as the garden in front came under the cover of atap transforming into a new garden, this time for beer, named for Bella. Though the old house is now largely hidden from roadside, you can still admire its elegant proportions as you choose between fusion fine dining behind and Western food and buckets of beer in front. The space is still mutating as the new management find their way, but you should certainly find your way there to see the next stage in this old house’s history.
The Granary – Wayang Street
A broken down storage area has been given a new lease of life in the form of The Granary. Tucked in an alleyway behind a row of old shophouses, the walls have been rebuilt from the ground up, marrying original materials with new as brick and old timbers meet concrete and glass to create Kuching’s take on industrial chic. The result is a huge vaulted space, with rustic wooden furnishings, where live music, western snacks and plenty of cake are on offer. The Granary will soon be only part of a larger complex that encompasses a new lodging house on the hill, in a historic property that was once the St Mary’s Boarding house and the Ong family mansion before that. Due to open this year, renovations on the lodging house continue apace but, until then, store up some new memories of fun, food and relaxation here.
Basaga – Jalan Tabuan
Basaga is tucked away behind a wall of green and really works the nature around it to great effect. Driving up along an avenue of heliconia, this former school comes into view, shaded by great trees and surrounded by foliage. The main building is simple and elegant with a chessboard floor and hotel rooms upstairs. But the space comes into itself in the courtyard beyond, where the outdoors comes indoors as ponds and plants encircle the seating area under the canopy above. Basaga is bar, restaurant and hotel in one. The food also runs the gamut from Asian favourites to Western staples and it has been a favourite of Kuchingites for many years now, either for a restful bite or even a celebratory gathering. Truly a study in old made new.