Hidden Taichung: the cafes, bars and shops to discover the city’s cool
The central Taiwanese city’s drinks and dining scene has long played second fiddle to Taipei, but thanks to a raft of recent openings and innovative concepts, Taichung is ready for its turn in the spotlight.
- March 2020
When Taipei native and bartender Tim Pan travelled to Taichung more than five years ago, he and his friends had trouble finding a watering hole they wanted to hang out in.
“We started joking about opening a bar here,” says the 30-year-old. “While Taichung already had a few good restaurants, its bar scene had yet to catch up. Eventually, I decided to challenge myself by starting up here instead of the tried-and-tested route that is Taipei.”
The result of that is Ruler Bar, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Wedged between an apartment block and a wig store in Xitun District, the bar marries a pared-down interior with a lively atmosphere, establishing itself as the kind of quintessential hidden gem travellers delight in hunting down.
While Taichung’s bustling night markets have long been top haunts for foodies, Pan says the city’s restaurant and bar scene has boomed in the past two years, after Taichung pipped Kaohsiung to be Taiwan’s second-largest city by population after New Taipei City. “People who used to enjoy travelling to Taipei for its cocktail scene are now spending more time in Taichung because we have more options now,” he says.
For Singaporean chef Jimmy Lim, the city’s proximity to nature and fresh produce was a huge draw when he decided to open JL Studio in 1997. The fine-dining restaurant serves up modern Singaporean cuisine and sources around 90 percent of its ingredients from Taiwan, including white asparagus from Changhua, banana blossom from Hualian and rose shrimp from Yilan. “As a chef, it’s a luxury to have farms at my doorstep,” says the 37-year-old. “I started the restaurant with a mission to showcase Singaporean cuisine in an innovative light. When I first started though, I didn’t really think about whether it would do well in Taichung.”
Despite the avant-garde concept and JL Studio’s location in Nantun, a quieter part of town, it took off. Last year, the restaurant picked up the Miele One to Watch Award by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. “There’s a lot more potential for Taichung’s restaurant scene,” says Lim. “Street food is in abundance here but the fine-dining scene is not so developed yet.”
Back in Ruler Bar, Pan is optimistic about the significant advantage Taichung has over Taipei when it comes to a night out. “Unlike in Taipei where people are busier and just want to unwind with their friends after a long day, the crowd in Taichung tends to be friendlier. They’re always up for hanging out with other customers and having a fun time.”
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Where to eat in Taichung
Bring friends and a hearty appetite to this steakhouse in Taichung’s West District. While the meats are clearly the stars of the show, equal thought has been put into the appetisers and side dishes. Try the moreish pork chicharron with house-made dip or the warm green bean salad with a fermented tofu dressing to whet your appetite.
Why travel all the way to Taichung to eat Singaporean food, you ask? Because we are pretty sure you have not had local dishes that look and taste like the ones chef Jimmy Lim whips up. Lim says he does not have a signature dish because it requires a level of consistency that goes against his ethos of using seasonal produce and continuously innovating. But here is a taste of how humble hawker dishes are turned on their head — at JL Studio, Hainanese chicken rice comes without ... chicken meat or rice. Instead, you get an inspired combination of white asparagus, water bamboo, lychee essence, Chinese pear, chicken oil and rice stock.
As its name suggests, no animal products are used in the food served at this cosy café in the West District. The mains menu is compact, consisting of mostly pasta and risotto, but the desserts like the chocolate cake with pumpkin mousse are standouts.
This red-brick building in Central District was once the largest eye clinic in Taichung during the Japanese colonial period. It now houses a restaurant and retail store selling bubble tea, chocolate and over 50 flavours of ice cream alongside traditional desserts like pineapple cakes. The cavernous interior, with its chandeliered high ceilings and ornate decor, feels like a set out of a Harry Potter movie and is an Instagrammer’s dream.
Taichung’s coolest bars
Getcha Hostel and Bistro
A hostel’s café might seem like the last place to serve creative cocktails, but that is exactly what you will find at this hip spot in the North District. Part of the menu is dedicated to cocktails made with tea-infused liquor, while another is devoted to a selection of signature concoctions made with local ingredients. The cocktail dubbed Aged of Yancheng, for instance, has a base of aged rum and black tea that is sweetened with winter melon sugar sourced from Kaohsiung.
Art Anew Gallery & Café
This two-storey café/bar doubles as a space for art aficionados to gather. Exhibitions and workshops are regularly held here, but during the day, you can count on it to be a quiet spot to curl up with a book. Gin features heavily on the cocktail menu — including hard-to-find ones like Caorunn and Hayman’s Old Tom — but we recommend the Royal Oolong Iced Tea, which uses Shung Tang oolong liqueur from a distillery close to Taichung.
This welcoming joint is the kind of place a solo traveller would feel comfortable nursing a cocktail in. The bartenders will be more than happy to whip up a bespoke drink but take the chance to try a cocktail made using OMAR, a single-malt whisky from Nantou County.
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3 Giants Brewing Co.
Hop on the train for a short ride to Fengyuan District, where you will find this microbrewery started by two South African brothers and an Irishman. Some of the pours on tap at the attached brewpub include Chops IPA, which is described as having a “piney, resinous and earthy” aroma.
Taichung is a 40-minute high-speed rail ride from Taipei.