Chefs and Bartenders Are Injecting New Life Into Taiwan’s Oldest City
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Located on Taiwan’s southwestern coast, Tainan, the island’s oldest city and former capital, has a long history of cultural incursion, much of which can be traced through its existing architecture. Dutch traders started building forts here in the early 1600s, and Ming and Qing loyalists seized control about half a century later. From 1895 to 1945, while the island was under Japanese rule, city planners upgraded Tainan’s municipal grid with new roads, European-style shop houses and an imposing government hall with a mansard roof.
Today, relics of the past can be found all over town, sharing space with the street food vendors and restaurants that have made Tainan the culinary center of Taiwan. A ruined wall of the 17th-century Dutch Zeelandia fortress lies on the grounds of the restored Anping Old Fort, a site that, like the Qing-era Confucius Temple, draws weekenders from Taipei — a roughly two-hour bullet-train ride north. Nearby, department stores and museums have taken over some of the Art Deco buildings the Japanese left behind, and day-trippers crowd around the decades-old market kitchens, queuing up for shrimp-topped danzai noodles or milkfish ball soup.
Over the past several years, visitors have found even more reasons to explore the city. In the mazelike lanes, a fresh wave of creatives have transformed a number of Tainan’s neglectedstructures into craft studios and boutiques (such as Chin Chin Pottery and Mu Er, which specializes in ceramics, woodwork and jewelry) and celebrated cocktail bars, including Moonrock and the whiskey-centric TCRC.
“During the pandemic, lots of people moved here to escape the crowds and high prices of Taipei,” says the Tainan-born barista Noel Chang, who turned a former lawyers’ office into Irresponsible, a cafe serving specialty coffees and Indian-inspired curries. “Old, young, retirees — even Hong Kongers escaping the political turmoil back home. They come here for life at a slower pace.”
U.I.J. Hotel & Hostel
Given the city’s many well-designed cafes and ateliers, it’s surprising that Tainan’s hotel scene skews more toward banal business stays than boutique inns. U.I.J. Hotel & Hostel, which opened downtown in 2018, is a notable outlier. Its 87 rooms feature vintage furnishings, exposed brick walls and headboards made with steel piping, while the subway-tile bathrooms are partitioned by embossed glass walls — a traditional art form in Taiwan. (An additional 92 capsule-like hostel beds are also bookable.) Downstairs, the terrazzo-floored lobby doubles as a cafe and concept store where guests sip flat whites and browse the selection of coffee table books, Aesop skin-care products and limited-edition sneakers by the Taipei-based design studio Chenjingkai Office. uij.com.tw.
The angular concrete facade of Mao House is an anomaly among the temple roofs and low-slung brick dwellings of Yuguang Island, a forested isle connected by bridge to Tainan’s western Anping district. Designed by the renowned local architect Mao Shen Chiang in 2008 and opened in 2012, this five-room B&B melds Nordic influences such as Wishbone chairs by Hans J. Wegner with Chinese calligraphy and pottery, and is partly encircled by shallow pools that make it look as if the building were floating on water. The eccentric floor plan gives every room a unique footprint (some feature skylights, others a mezzanine for tea ceremonies), but they’re unified by their slanted raw-concrete walls and blond wood furnishings. Equally inviting is the glass-walled communal dining room, across the courtyard from the hotel’s main building, where guests gather for breakfasts of Taiwanese rice porridge and beef soup or for tea in the late afternoon. maowu.tw.
EAT and Drink HERE
For the husband-and-wife duo Chien Meng Yin and Chu Hsin Yi, stumbling upon a long-abandoned rubber workshop in downtown Tainan in 2017 was the final nudge they needed to pack up their belongings in their native Taipei and start afresh in Tainan. In collaboration with the local design studio Skillability, the couple revamped the narrow building into a 10-seat restaurant where, from behind a long counter, chefs prepare sashimi, fried chicken and donburi bowls with vinegary rice steamed over binchotan charcoal from Wakayama, Japan. The dishes come topped with everything from Hokkaido sea urchin to seared halibut from Aomori, Japan, and are best paired with a chilled mug of Okinawan Orion beer. instagram.com/zyuutsubo
Jai Mi Ba
A rule of thumb for eating in Tainan: The longer the line in front of a restaurant, the better the food. That is certainly the case for Jai Mi Ba, a utilitarian noodle shop in the West Central district, where crowds start gathering well before it opens for its lunch and dinner services. The menu, presented as a checklist on a clipboard, draws on the chef-owner Kedy Chou’s culinary experiences around the world (including stints at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris and Taipei), fusing Taiwanese mainstays such as beef noodle soup and shellfish with tapas and izakaya influences. The result: noodles with hand-shredded chicken and roasted beef tongue with truffle sauce. facebook.com/JaiMiBa.
Day drinking is encouraged at Swallow, a specialty coffee shop and cocktail bar where bartenders mix boozy drinks from nine in the morning onward. Opened last February by a pair of Taoyuan-born bartenders who returned to Taiwan after spending several years in the acclaimed Singaporean bars Jigger & Pony and Live Twice, Swallow now occupies an almost century-old shop house along a narrow lane in Zongye, one of the city’s oldest districts. In daylight hours, the drink list features coffee from Rufous Roasters in Taipei and four specialty cocktails, including espresso martinis sweetened with black sesame syrup; after 6 p.m., the drinks turn more experimental, with mix-ins such as kombu distillate, seaweed-infused ruby port and buckwheat tea. instagram.com/swallowtainan.
Tainan Art Museum
Tainan Art Museum is spread over two buildings in the city center. The first is the 1930s Art Deco-styled former headquarters of the Tainan Police Department; the second, which houses 16 galleries, is a striking piece of architecture by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Opened in 2019, the museum displays works by early 20th-century Taiwanese painters such as Chen Chengbo and Guo Baichuan, as well as rotating exhibitions dedicated to everything from local religious art to Pan-Asian interpretations of the afterlife. Even if you don’t have an entry ticket, the museum is worth visiting for its sweeping views of downtown Tainan from the jumble of platforms wrapped around it.tnam.museum.
Hayashi Department Store
Tainan’s first department store caused a sensation when it opened in 1932, with locals lining up just to experience the novel thrill of riding its elevator. The Japanese-owned Art Deco building was a high-society hot spot during the 1930s, then badly damaged by U.S. air raids during World War II. (There’s still a hole visible in one of its walls.) When colonial rule ended and the owner returned to Japan, a salt factory moved in and the building eventually lost its luster. After a yearslong renovation, the municipal government relaunched the five-story space as a cultural hub and showcase for local brands and designers. Today, it is one of the best places to pick up Taiwanese souvenirs such as handmade bamboo fans, patterned socks from the Taipei-based knitwear brand +10・10more or shrimp chips, salted egg yolk nougat biscuits and chile crisps wrapped in retro-inspired packaging. hayashi.com.tw.
What to bring home, as suggested by locals we like
Jewelry Box From Islet
“Tainan’s traditional glass shops have closed down one after another, and many beautiful antique glasses have been discontinued,” says Cloudia Wu, the curator of Moriyama Market, an annual pop-up carnival and craft fair that takes place each fall on the grounds of Tainan Art Museum. “Very few artisans have passed on this craft, which is why I cherish these upcycled glass jewelry boxes from Islet Studio; they’re infusing these antique objects with new ideas and values.” From around $82; instagram.com/islet_studio.
Tea From Zhen Fa
“Zhen Fa is Tainan’s oldest tea shop and has been selling loose-leaf teas here since 1860,” says Yi-Che Liao, the founder of the Tainan cocktail bar Moonrock. “The original shop on Minquan Road still sells its oolong and Tieguanyin teas from the antique tins lining the shelves and wraps them with traditional handmade paper. I see the beauty of it because it carries the soul and spirit of Tainan from the past century.” From around $11 for 150 grams (5.3 ounces); instagram.com/zhenfa.teashop.
Correction: A picture caption in our Jan. 13 newsletter referred imprecisely to the Eilean Donan Castle. It was rebuilt in the 20th century atop 13th-century ruins; the current structure was not built in the 13th century.