Suffolk House, Penang is a recently restored colonial mansion that makes for a super special location to enjoy afternoon tea in Georgetown.
Although found in the bustling capital city of Penang, Suffolk House is a haven of tranquility. A little out from the city centre, just a few side roads off one of the main arterial roads through Georgetown, this beautifully restored Georgian mansion transports guests back to colonial times, where birdsong follows you down a gravel driveway past well-tended lawns to the whitewashed facade of this stately building.
Suffolk House Penang – history
Georgetown, Penang is a history lover’s paradise. The city centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site, designed to protect its amazing array of heritage sights.. Although a little out of the protected zone, Suffolk House should definitely be on your historical hit list, as it’s Malaysia’ only surviving Georgian Mansion, and was used as the viceregal lodge in the Channel 4 period drama Indian Summers. In the past it was used as the residence of the Govenor-Generals of the Prince of Wales’ Island (as Penang Island used to be known), and was built on what was once the pepper plantation of Captain Francis Light – the founder of Penang’s British Colony – in the early 1800s.
Over the centuries the building has been used for a variety of things including a methodist boy’s school but by the 1950s was declared unsafe and left to fall into disrepair, with the roof and top floor eventually collapsing. For many years there was campaigning for Suffolk House to be restored, but work only began in 2000. Some money was provided by the government, but the rest came from fundraising and corporate donations from multinationals like HSBC.
In 2008 the project won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage award for culture heritage conservation and was finally opened to the public in 2009. It’s currently managed by the YKH Restaurant Group on behalf of a local non-governmental conservation organisation. Part of the building is now used as a restaurant and function centre, and it’s also a highly popular wedding venue – I can see why! You can also go on tours of Suffolk House – something I didn’t know about before my visit, and I’d love to return to discover much more about this amazing place. The money raised by the restaurant, tours and events held in Suffolk House go towards its upkeep and continued conservation work.
Visiting Penang? You may want to check out our guide to what to see and do on Penang Island!
Suffolk House high tea
Having reviewed afternoon tea at the Eastern & Oriental during my last visit to Penang (another colonial beauty, which originally opened in 1885), I wanted to find out if there were any other standout spots for afternoon tea on the island. During my research I came across Suffolk House, and decided this looked like it fitted the bill. It wasn’t just it’s history that stood out; it’s renowned for a particular dish that appears on it’s afternoon tea menu – a chicken and mushroom pie, which I just had to try…
High tea is served at Suffolk House between 2.30-5.30pm everyday. We arrived right at the start of the session and had the restaurant to ourselves. This is in the mansion’s Marble Room, which is spectacular. It’s believed that this room originally served as the mansion’s dining room, with the rooms coming off it as drawing rooms or work areas. Back in 1818 Governor Bannerman dined with Sir Stamford Raffles and his wife, and the locals say this may have even been the occasion when the merits of founding Singapore were discussed!
After being seated we were given the menu and chose from a small list of seven teas. In such a classic setting it felt right for us both to go for English Breakfast tea, and shortly after a fresh pot of loose leaf tea was brought to our table. Both the cups and the pot itself was quite small (for the two of us to share), but our two attentive servers regularly topped it up with fresh hot water. This was fine, however, it did start getting pretty weak by the third and fourth refill.
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Quite quickly our high tea arrived on a three-tier tray and the server ran through everything we had to enjoy. On the savoury tier we were each given one cucumber sandwich and one smoked salmon sandwich – the latter very different from what I’d usually expect. The salmon was topped with a chilli spread that had a sweet, spicy kick. A really original take on a classic sarnie, I thought it was great!
Beetroot isn’t really my thing but the pie did not disappoint. Fresh from the oven it was hot and delicious with a soft, crumbly pastry and packed full of chicken and mushroom goodness. I can see why everyone raves about it.
The scones were also freshly baked, and rather than raisins had small pieces of apricot in. We were given two each, and they came with an interesting selections of jams: ginger and chilli, sweet cherry tomato, pineapple and rosemary and a classic strawberry, which bar far was our favourite. As ever in Asia there was no clotted cream, instead we had the choice of butter or whipped cream.
The scones were lovely, and also very filling. But after stopping to enjoy another cuppa, we moved onto the sweets as they looked too good to leave. We were each given a slice of marble cake, a fruit tart and a classic and chocolate biscuit. Again freshly baked, these were delicious and had a crunch Paul Hollywood would approve of, but my favourite had to be the marble cake with its lovely flavours and cute white and milk chocolate decorations.
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My thoughts on afternoon tea at Suffolk House, Penang
I was sad to see Suffolk House so empty – we hardly saw a soul inside the building or around the grounds during our visit. Perhaps this was down to the fact we visited early in the day and also during Chinese New Year when a lot of people had gone away to visit family.
Still it’s somewhere I would definitely recommend if you’re looking for a classical setting for your afternoon tea. Sat in the Marble Hall you can’t help but feel a bit like the lady of the manor! Although the ambience was lacking the food was very enjoyable – especially that pie – and the building and grounds are well worth exploring.
The afternoon tea may not be as big in portion-size as others but it’s more than enough to fill you up, and at RM 90 for two – that’s approximately £17 at time of writing – it’s an absolute bargain!
If you get a chance I’d recommend trying to time your visit with a tour, but if that’s not possible you can still wander through a small exhibition that takes up several of the old drawing rooms beside the Marble Hall. This tells the story of Suffolk House’s restoration. It was so interesting to find out about the project and all the work it involved. I’d also make sure you try to spend some time enjoying the grounds – just outside the entrance I fell in love with a magnificent old tree, which is probably so ancient it watched the original building of the mansion!
High Tea at Suffolk House is available everyday between 2.30-5.30pm and costs RM90 for two people. Our afternoon tea was complimentary for the purposes of this review. However, as always, all views are my own.