Three hot neighbourhoods are making Singapore even cooler
Singapore is cementing its position as one of the region’s coolest cities, as trendy cafés, stylish boutiques and hip restaurants mushroom all over the city-state. Neighbourhoods are given face-lifts as fresh businesses set up shop among time-honoured establishments.
For a start, we pop into Tiong Bahru, the emerging hot neighbourhood that is also one of Singapore’s oldest. This charming neighbourhood bordering the city centre was the country’s original model of the ideal housing estate. Designed in the 1930s after the prevailing Streamline Moderne style mixed with the local Straits Settlement design, it has undergone a renaissance to attract young, vibrant businesses and an equally enthusiastic crowd.
Tiong Bahru Bakery (facebook.com/tiongbahrubakery) landed a corner spot here in 2012 and immediately attracted a loyal clientele lured by its buttery croissants, golden raisin rolls and kouign-amann, a Breton cake. Opened by the Spa Group in collaboration with celebrity chef Gontran Cherrier, this artisanal bakery has a bustling ambience to go with its coffee and pastry. Similarly, The Spa Group has applied its winning touch to the Forty Hands café (40handscoffee.com) and Open Door Policy restaurant (odpsingapore.com) over at Yong Siak Road, where another Tiong Bahru stalwart, Books Actually (booksactually.com), is located.
Books Actually is a wonderful independent bookstore with an impeccably curated selection of literature, non-fiction and compulsory reading material. The selection also offers the bookshop’s self-published books from its Math Paper division, publishing essential Singaporean writers and poets.
Another favourite is The Orange Thimble, a cheerful café with rotating art on its walls and a friendly attitude to long stays. “We are unique for the art and the ambience,” agrees manager Dewi Hajar. “It’s very relaxed and casual here. We welcome our patrons to stay and relax.”
We also discover Bloesem (bloesem.co), the bricks-and-mortar version of the popular home and design blog by Irene Hoofs. In this Spartan but chic shop is a well-edited collection of gifts, jewellery, home decor and clothes from designers Hoof has met or dealt with online.
Elsewhere, Chinatown is getting its groove back. The opening of Indonesian outfit Potato Head Folk (pttheadfolk.com) at Keong Saik Road is upping the voltage of this busy wining-and-dining street. Reservations are essential for Potato Head Folk’s colourful second-floor restaurant, but seats are usually available for kerbside dining. Gourmet burgers rule at this fun, smart-casual restaurant.
The food options on Keong Saik are as trendy as they are varied. You can find Modern British cooking at The Study (the-study.sg), vegetarian fare and raw food at the newly opened Afterglow and a burritos bar at Muchacos (facebook.com/muchachos.sg). Not too far from the main strip is Jason Atherton’s standup tapas bar, Esquina (esquina.com.sg), which serves a wonderfully inventive mix of salt-baked beetroot with truffle honey, sea urchin and crab bisque and popcorn milk with chocolate mousse, among many other offerings.
For nightlife antics and more food options, a short stroll away is Ann Siang Hill, a little warren of streets lined with trendy restaurants, bars and shops. On weekend nights, Club Street and Ann Siang Hill are closed to traffic as diners and revellers spill out onto the streets for a spot of alfresco dining and partying.
Top on our list of places to go here is Oxwell & Co (oxwellandco.com) for its extensive attention to decor (think naked bulbs by the dozens, artfully stained walls and gold-panelled paintings, including a wall lamp of light-carrying squirrels). The food is contemporary European with Asian influences, thanks to its youthful chef Nicholas Scorpion. “I aim for fresh ingredients, sustainability and accessibility,” says the chef, who picks fresh herbs from the restaurant’s rooftop garden.
Similarly at neighbouring Lolla (lolla.com.sg), only the finest ingredients from seasonal produce are offered as small plates. A hot ticket in town, Lolla evolved from a Singaporean gourmet supper club known as Lolla’s Secret Supper. On the street level, an open kitchen lets you see the chefs cut, slice and plate luscious duck rillettes, Hokkaido scallop carpaccio and beef tongue escalopes for your dining pleasure. At the basement-level dining room, you share joyous meals with old and new friends at a communal table.
As for the younger crowd, they head to Haji Lane, hemmed in between Beach Road and North Bridge Road, and the neighbouring Kampung Glam. The vibe here is indie and youthful with fun shops and cafés lining the streets. Dulcetfig (dulcetfig.com) carries an eclectic mix of products from crafty Singaporean and international designers. Among the wares you can find here are handmade jewellery by Dancing Dangles, cute slogan postcards from Keepcalmgallery, and BFF-crocheted soft toys. Meanwhile, shops like Grammah (facebook.com/Grammah.sg) are riding on the retro wave that has hit Singapore’s trend radar.
A perennial favourite here is Maison Ikkoku (maison-ikkoku.net), which lies off Haji Lane on Kandahar Street. Maison Ikkoku has been offering single-estate specialty coffees since 2011, when kopi ais (local iced coffee) was more commonplace. The café, rocking an industrial chic decor, continues to attract a diverse crowd of trendsetters, office workers, students and everyone else in between. The gorgeous bar upstairs comes alive especially on weekends.
In the past year, a glut of cafés has cropped up in the area, including I am… (facebook.com/Iamathajilane), La Marelle (facebook.com/lamarellecafe) and Cad Café (cad.sg). Chad Samson, an industrial designer by trade, opened Cad Café as a destination for food, drinks and design, with good music to boot.
“This area has been left to do its own thing and the feel is more organic. It’s like a little, off-the-beaten track in the middle of the city,” says Samson.
With this influx of things to do, see, eat and drink, it’s likely that more people will be beating a path to explore Singapore’s brand-new cool.