Mention to a Taiwanese that you’re visiting Tainan, and you’ll undoubtedly receive a list of things to eat. As Taiwan’s culinary capital, locals come from wide and far to feast on its famous xiaochi (small eats) and make merit at its many shrines.
There is more to this Southern city than snacks and temples, though: recent years have seen an influx of Taipei-ites swapping the capital’s hubbub for a much more relaxed existence in Tainan’s low-rent neighbourhoods, opening up exciting new places to eat, drink and shop. Here are some favourites:
Where to eat in Tainan
Housed in a former rubber workshop, Zyuu Tsubo () draws crowds with a seafood-heavy menu that combines Japanese techniques with Taiwanese ingredients. The original factory fixtures in this narrow, 10-seat restaurant are complemented by polished wood, rattan panelling, and chrome fittings, and while the interior is intentionally left rough around the edges, its food is anything but. With a focus on fresh, high-quality seafood and beautiful presentations, it’s easy to see why locals often queue up for a seat. Their harako meshi, a bowl of vinegary rice topped with Norwegian salmon, fish roe and fresh wasabi, comes highly recommended, as do the long tian yang (soy sauce-marinated fried chicken) and kaisen don, which comes loaded with sashimi, scallops and squid.
Tainan’s Japanese influence is also hard to miss at Sputnik Lab (). Almost 100 years ago, this tatami-clad building was a dormitory for the Japanese government employees stationed here, but it now functions as a teahouse serving up a range of matcha-based desserts. Complete with Japanese bamboo garden and strict shoes-off policy, it’s as Kyoto as it gets. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, look behind the cluster of Indonesian warungs to uncover its entrance.
Over at Sensory 68 () on cafe-lined Zhengxing Street, the focus lies on wholesome comfort food with an international appeal. The menu at this bright, plant-filled restaurant revolves around fresh produce, with dishes adapted daily to what’s on offer at the morning market. Think colourful vegetable bowls, salads, and stews – all beautifully presented with herbs from the restaurant’s courtyard on ceramics that can be purchased at the small on-site boutique.
Where to drink in Tainan
Gritty-chic TCRC () —short for The Checkered Record Club—made it into Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2016 and 2018, and has been perennially packed ever since. Housed in a former depository, this boozy bolthole serves expertly crafted cocktails in an unpretentious setting. There is no drink list, but the classics are strong and on-point, while its bespoke creations put the focus on local ingredients. If you’re in the mood for something unconventional, ask for the weekly specials — expect experimental concoctions such as the Pizza Margarita with blue cheese-washed gin, clarified tomato juice, and basil.
A 10-minute drive away, Lola () sports a similar laid-back vibe, but doesn’t require the one-hour wait for a seat. Located in a small residential alley, this homey bar is littered with vintage furniture, hard-to-find vinyl, and remnants of the building’s Qing Dynasty past. Its drink list features the usual favourites and a handful of specials made with local spirits, such as the Yoko with plum wine, green tea and vodka. It’s also a popular live music venue, check ahead for the event calendar.
Tainan has no shortage of charming coffee shops, but PariPari () is particularly worth seeking out. Opened by a group of designers from Taipei and nearby Kaohsiung, this antique-store-cum-cafe is designed to resemble a kissaten (a retro Japanese coffee salon) – a homage to the building’s original owners who studied in Japan back in the 1950s. Beans are roasted at the owner’s own roastery, and snacks like cheesecake and sandwiches can be ordered on the side.
Where to shop in Tainan
Tainan’s best place to shop for souvenirs also happens to be one of its oldest. In its heyday in the 1930s, the Hayashi Department Store () lured well-heeled locals eager to experience the thrill of riding an elevator (it was the island’s second at the time), but after a much-needed renovation that lasted from 2006 to 2014, it now attracts out-of-towners stocking up on souvenirs. On its shelves, you’ll find Taiwanese teas, condiments, and spices—all in vintage-inspired packaging, perfect for gifts—, as well as local apparel, stationery, and quirky homeware by Taiwanese designers. Don’t miss the observatory deck on the top floor, which also houses the only rooftop Shinto shrine in Taiwan.
Next door, Dou Maison () the flagship store of Taiwanese fashion brand Duochanglee, houses several retail concepts within its brutalist black-and-white interior. On the ground floor, you’ll find a concept store with a well-curated collection of indie magazines, coffee paraphernalia, contemporary jewellery and leather accessories – mostly by Taiwanese designers. The brand’s own elegant ready-to-wear garments can be found on the second floor, and the third floor plays host to an antique store selling imported European furniture.
Not a single horizontal surface is left empty at Deerhouse (), a family-run business selling Japanese ceramics in all shapes and sizes. The three stories of this tiny shop are jam-packed with stacks of new- and vintage bowls, plates and glassware – all imported directly from Japan. Their main customers? Japanese tourists, funnily enough.
More Japanese knick-knacks can be found at Mu Er (), a small boutique just a few doors down from Lola’s. Here, owner Yuting Xu—a designer hailing from Kaohsiung—has transformed a derelict godown into a dimly-lit showroom for Japanese and Taiwanese handicrafts and vintage goods. Its antique displays and rustic flower arrangements are as exquisite as the products themselves: you’ll find a range of beautifully crafted ceramics, woodworks, and jewellery on sale.
NB: Part of this article was published in the October/November 2018 print issue of DestinAsian Magazine, titled ‘Transforming Tainan’.