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Shedding its seedy image
Walking down Circular Road in search of a good craft beer used to be an unpleasant experience for 44-year-old Deron Herr. He recalls how he would often get harassed by ladies perched outside their seedy KTV bars, trying to invite him in as he walked down the street at night.
It might be a little ironic then, that Mr Herr and his wife now run a Southern Californian restaurant and craft beer joint on that same street, called Draft and Craft. The month-old restaurant is one of 26 units on the street that were taken over by lifestyle and hospitality group Limited Edition Concepts (LEC) in October 2013 in a major project to clean up and gentrify the area.
Under the project - which has officially ended - LEC took over the leases and in turn, sublet the units to a carefully "curated" tenant mix to attract a different target audience, namely, families on weekends, professionals who work in the area, and tourists. Besides Draft and Craft, other businesses that have come on board include Italian dining concept Marco Marco, +39 Gelato Bar, and LEC's own club Refuge.
LEC also worked with the not-for-profit organisation Singapore River One, to get the street closed off to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights so pedestrians can walk around more easily.
All 26 units have been filled and comprise mainly F&B outlets. A handful of KTV bars still remain, which means LEC's job is not yet complete, according to its director and co-founder, Godwin Pereira.
He says, "We've been at it for close to 18 months now, and I think we've achieved about 70 per cent of what we want . . . generally, the street is already better than before - when you would walk up and down and see girls standing outside, clapping their hands and trying to get you in."
Mr Pereira adds that the plan for now is to wait until more leases are up so they can take over another 10 to 15 units in the next year or so.
Already, some results are evident. Michelle Koh, executive director of Singapore River One, notes that the "footfall to Circular Road during the weekends has increased by 45 per cent in 2014 as compared to 2013", while "Saturdays saw a 100 per cent increase for the same time period".
This increase in human traffic, as well as the slowly-changing customer demographic, has also been noticed by business owners such as Rick Bower, who has run Mogambo Bar & Restaurant since 2011.
"(The road closures have) changed the whole dynamic of the street," says Mr Bower, who recently became one of LEC's tenants when he opened his second eatery on Circular Road - a live music and sports venue called Hero's.
"We have always thought that Boat Quay is an amazing area for bars and restaurants and the fact that it is going through these major changes just makes it more appealing . . . I believe in the next few months Circular Road will take on its own identity," he adds.
With the existing road closures, some plans in the works include festivals and parties that will take place along the entire street, and involve its tenants. According to Mr Pereira, this includes an upcoming busking programme, a newsletter, and some street art events that they will reveal in time to come.
Mr Herr, for one, is all for it, and intends for Draft and Craft to be a part of the street's projects so they can contribute to the community.
He says: "I think it's important because if the whole street gets gentrified, we're only going to benefit from it. We're still kind of surrounded by seedy bars right now, but they're slowly being pushed out. Changes like that don't happen overnight, and anyway it kind of adds to the colour, as part of the recent cultural history of Circular Road."
Childhood inspiration from France
79 Circular Road Tel 6534-7645
Opens Mon & Tue, 11am-midnight; Wed to Thu & Sat, 11am-2am; Fri, 11am-3am; Sun, 11am-10pm
THE fact that you can't miss this building at the corner of Circular Road and Lorong Telok is one reason why the owners of O Comptoir decided to locate its French creperie there.
The building's architecture caught the eye of Marie and Antoine Rouland while they were on the hunt for a venue to start their second F&B venture. They also own the wine bar O Batignolles, which opened three years ago on Club Street.
Both places reminded them of the bistros and cafes back home in Paris, says Ms Rouland. But rather than open another wine bar, O Comptoir focuses on French crepes - a concept inspired by the couple's own childhoods.
"Both of our families are from the Normandy region in France, so we spent our childhoods facing the sea and eating crepes," says Ms Rouland, who now runs both outlets with her husband under their company Frog'ys.
"One day, while picking wines for O Batignolles, we had a chance to meet a really interesting cider-maker from Normandy and thought: 'What would go well with cider? Crepes, of course!' And that's how we got our second concept."
O Comptoir serves at least 20 different buckwheat flour crepes, with classic combinations such as cheese, ham, and a fried egg (Menage a 3, S$14), as well as sweet crepes such as the caramelised apple and homemade salted butter caramel (I'm Famous, S$8).
They also serve some unusual flavours with Asian twists, such as the Khao San Road (S$20) with prawns, tomatoes, garlic, bean sprouts, egg sunny side up, mango and mint, and Chase the Spices (S$18) with masala chicken, ginger, onions, peanuts, chilli, tomatoes and fresh cheese.
So far, business has been doing well, according to Ms Rouland, although one challenge they've noticed is how their target audience - professionals who work in the area - often prefer to stay away on the weekends.
To that, she says: "We need to make CBD workers understand that coming back over the weekend is not a torture. We have good brunches, party nights and live music - we have lots to offer them."
Tastes of San Diego
Draft and Craft
31 Circular Road Tel 6532 0604
Opens Mon to Fri, 12pm-midnight; Sat, 4-10pm; closed on Sun
FOR both Deron Herr and his wife Keira, their days and nights see them wearing two very different hats. By day, they are scientists - he is an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) School of Medicine, and she is a post-doctorate research associate at Duke-NUS. By night however, the couple runs the Southern Californian restaurant and craft beer joint Draft and Craft, which opened on Circular Road about a month ago.
They serve a basic menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and tacos - staple fare in San Diego where Mr Herr is from. He says: "I met Keira when she was studying there . . . we came to Singapore almost four years ago and have been living and working here ever since. Before we left San Diego, we went around to all our favourite places and always said how great it would be to bring them back to Singapore. It was all just idle talk and fantasy at the time."
This fantasy has now become reality and Mr Herr traces the inspiration for their grilled cheese sandwiches and tacos to those same restaurants in San Diego. As for their range of craft beers, he says: "(They) are typical of a bar in San Diego, where you have to have a dozen taps or so because people don't drink mainstream beers any more, they want interesting local ones."
Of the four grilled cheese sandwiches (S$10 at lunch and S$14 at dinner), the bestsellers so far are the Italian with mozzarella, prosciutto, tomato and basil, and the American with bacon, sharp cheddar, tomato and orange marmalade. As for tacos (S$11-12 at lunch and S$16 at dinner), they serve a tasty baja fish taco which is made up of beer-battered fish, fresh salsa, and shredded cabbage, and a steak taco which contains grilled beef, fresh salsa, corn and cheese.
According to Mr Herr, juggling both his day job while helping his wife run Draft and Craft has been quite the challenge, but it helps that their team is led by a chef with 20 years of experience in the industry, and who knows the ins and outs of daily operations. He adds: "We'll always be somewhat hands-on with this, especially Keira, because this business is her baby. For me however, I don't want to be obligated to come in every day and manage it because it's going to be disruptive to my job, which is still my No 1 priority, but I do still enjoy it."
When asked if they intend to venture further into F&B however, Mr Herr shakes his head with a chuckle. He says: "We didn't do this to make a bunch of money, we did it because we like the culture, and we made a commitment to our financial backer. But we didn't do this to become restaurateurs or build a restaurant empire - it's just a small family-type of restaurant and I think people respond well to that."
Burgers with an Asian twist
72 Circular Road Tel 6438 4410
Opens Mon to Sat, 11am to 9.45pm
BURGERS don't always have to have beef patties between their buns - pork burgers are just as good and Janice Tan is out to prove that.
Having founded the Malaysian burger chain Ninja Joe in 2009, Ms Tan recently opened her spin-off burger bar Dojo here in Singapore, serving their specialty pork burgers along Circular Road. Unlike most of the other new eateries however, Dojo takes up an independent space that is not part of LEC's units.
"We always wanted to enter the Singapore market, but we knew it was really competitive with the amount of food choices . . . but during our market research, we realised most pork burgers in Singapore are pulled-pork burgers with Western flavours. Ours have mostly Asian flavours which goes against that norm," she says.
Dojo's menu carries 11 burgers designed by Ms Tan herself. Out of the 11, at least seven are made with their in-house pork patties, and prices range from S$10 to S$14.
They also serve sides such as komba bao - also known as kongbak pao or braised pork belly in mantou buns (S$6 for two), pork grillets served with onion rings and honey mustard dip (S$7), and assorted grilled skewers, or yakitori (S$3-4).
One of their classic burgers is the Little Dragon, which comes with a grilled pork steak, lettuce, tomatoes and melted cheese. If you prefer something more "Asian", try the Sumo, which has a roasted sesame dressing and crispy batter-fried pork belly to go with its pork patty. And for the more adventurous customer, there's the Elvisu, which is a twist on the classic PB&J, so it's served with a pork patty, bacon, as well as (you guessed it) chunky peanut butter and strawberry jam.
It's a bit of an unusual and slightly risky menu, especially since most burger bars in Singapore focus heavily on beef, but that's just the way Ms Tan likes it. She says: "I definitely wouldn't have started this business if it was just another burger bar. The idea is to serve pork burgers with an Asian twist - that's unique."
What else would you expect from a born-and-raised pork-lover, especially one who was raised in Malaysia by the son of a pig farmer.
Explains Ms Tan: "(My love for pork) started when I was a child. My dad would often impress us by identifying which cut the pork came from and we would challenge him by asking why it is tender or sweet or tough. Plus my mum was a great cook, so add a pork expert to a good cook and you get a daughter who's crazy about pork!"
79 Circular Road, #02-01, #03-01
Bar opens Tue to Sat; Club opens Wed, Fri and Sat;
TWO years into running Kyo on Cecil Street, lifestyle brand Limited Edition Concepts (LEC)'s co-founder Godwin Pereira has opened a second club, Refuge, this time putting the spotlight on hip-hop and RnB music.
Refuge, which opened in mid-April on Circular Road, is the latest addition to LEC's plan to transform the entire street's negative seedy reputation into a positive one with more dining options and nightlife. The 3,500 square foot-space consists of a bar on the third storey, and a club on the second storey of the iconic corner building which also houses the French creperie O Comptoir.
Mr Pereira describes the space as "very androgynous - kind of polished in certain places and muted in others, but quite flamboyant as well". According to him, the idea for Refuge has actually been on the back-burner for a while - ever since Kyo opened.
He explains: "Thursdays at Kyo are one of our more successful nights, and that's when we're more hip-hop and RnB-focused. So we saw a gap in the market for these guys that really wanted that kind of music but had nowhere to go."
So when the previous tenants gave up their space under LEC's lease, Mr Pereira and his team took the opportunity to start something of their own.
"Stategically, we would be the only full dance club in the whole area," he reasons. "Circular Road has more of a bar culture, and we realise that challenge. That's why we have a product with two principles to it - a bar on the third floor to cater to what the neighbourhood wants, and a club on the second floor to give them another option."
They are unlikely to stop at just one outlet on that street, says Mr Pereira. In fact, LEC is working towards opening an eatery there, in order to get a better footing in the street where they are the anchor tenants.
Says Mr Pereira: "At the end of the day for us though, it's still giving our customers a premium product at an affordable price. That is still one of our key goals for both Refuge and for Circular Road."