SLEEPY Tras Street is waking up.
Once home to a string of bridal shops, blink-and-you'll-miss-it corporate offices and KTV bars that keep all their unmentionable activities indoors, the shophouse-lined Chinatown lane has been stirring with new activity in recent months. Shortly after former St Regis Hotel head chef Frederic Colin broke out to set up Brasserie Gavroche and Cafe & Bar Gavroche on the street 18 months ago, a string of former fine-dining and hotel chefs have gradually streamed in to set up shop, too.
Among them are Stephan Zoisl, formerly of modern European fine-dining restaurant Novus, who now runs private cooking school, My Private Pantry; Stephane Istel, formerly head chef at DB Bistro Moderne in the Marina Bay Sands who set up Bar-Roque Grill in the Amara Hotel in July; and Sushi Mitsuya's Ryusuke Harada, who used to head Sushi Sora in the five-star Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. "When I first opened here, everyone asked me why I picked this street that has no other restaurants around, but I fell in love with the street and I trusted my feelings," says Colin. Six months later, more chefs and restaurateurs came looking at units on the street, he adds, "and I knew that at one point, this street would take off."
And as far as trends go in Singapore, it never rains but it pours, it seems.
Last month, fellow St Regis Hotel alumnus Alex Lozachmeur joined in the fray when he set up Fleur de Sel, a 40-seat classical French restaurant at number 64. Two cocktail bars, Jekyll and Hyde at number 49 and House of Dandy at number 74, will open this month, and in November, former chef de cuisine of the now-closed Santi in the Marina Bay Sands, Pepe Moncayo, will also set up his own restaurant, BAM!, at one end of the street.
The Spanish chef left Ola in the Marina Bay Financial Centre in August this year when its Italian owner Osvaldo Forlino sold his shares to a local investor, and Moncayo's upcoming 25-seater tapas bar will be run in partnership with veteran local photographer and sake enthusiast, Derrick Lim.
The climbing rents and increasingly strict licensing regulations along established dining strips such as Club Street or Keong Saik Road have pushed young start-ups and chefs striking out on their own budgets to explore less explored areas, say most, which is where Tras Street steps in as an ideal destination. Rents for ground floor units on Tras Street are currently going for between $7 and $8 per sq ft.
Jekyll and Hyde's co-owner Justin Chow explains: "It's a slightly boutique area, which fits our company's identity. We like to get people to discover us by word of mouth. And being off the main entertainment belt of Chinatown means that we have to come up with products that speak for themselves a lot more, and have to take our craft more seriously."
The street is also conveniently sandwiched between historical Chinatown and the corporate diners from the Central Business District. On top of that, it has a large - and growing - residential pool to draw from, such as the Pinnacle@Duxton, Icon and upcoming condominiums such as The Altez and Onze in Tanjong Pagar, along with hotels such as the Amara Hotel, Orchid Hotel and the recently opened Carlton City Hotel. Ample streetside parking lots and proximity to Tanjong Pagar MRT round out the attractive package. And with Singapore's tallest building, the Tanjong Pagar Centre, expected to hold 28 storeys of offices and over 200 residential units when it is completed in 2016, "there's no reason why this won't be the next hip area in Singapore," says Cafe & Bar Gavroche's bar manager and former St Regis sommelier, Manuel Rodrigues. "We're going to see an increase of more than 10,000 people in the next three years, this will definitely will be an interesting time for the street," adds Colin.
A community of chefs
Chief among the attractions of the street is the synergy and sense of community between the newer tenants that have moved in, say others.
"The units are all big spaces, all typically above 2,000 sq feet, which not everyone can commit too; so thankfully the people who are coming in have so far been professionals who are really serious about F&B," says Colin.
And though the chefs each have their own busy schedules to keep, they greet each other daily, and don't mind swapping tips on suppliers, or sending clients over to each other's restaurants when filled to capacity, say Lozachmeur, Colin and Istel. Though all three run supposedly competing French restaurants, they insist they have different target clientele: Fleur de Sel focuses on classical French cooking, while Gavroche offers a rustic, Parisian brasserie experience and Bar-Roque Grill works in more international flavours.
"It's hard to become a dining destination when you're all alone," Lozachmeur states.
Little Europe or another Club Street
House of Dandy's Zara Fenley thinks Tras Street has the potential to become the Little Europe of Singapore. "Singapore has a Chinatown and a Little India, so why not a Little Europe? This street has so much European character," says the Singapore PR of Thai-Chinese and British-Spanish descent. Stephan Zoisl has a bigger vision. He believes the street has the potential to be pedestrianised when it picks up in one or two years, just as Club Street has been on a trial basis since April this year. "It's got a nice European feel and beautiful architecture, which people can get to appreciate better if they can dine and drink on the street," he says, estimating that the street can hold about 20 more restaurants before reaching saturation.
But not everyone agrees. "Club Street can feel a little too congested if everyone is out on the street, and having one restaurant after another for an entire row will take away its charm," says Istel.
Colin adds: "For a one-way street, you can't do much more, and pedestrianising Tras Street might give it a very commercialised Clarke Quay feel, which would be boring. I like the idea that people can drive right up to the restaurant if they want. I like the organised mess."
As for the seedy karaoke outlets that once dotted the street, Zoisl observes that even most of them have already moved out or spruced up their frontages in keeping with the street's increasing upscale vibe, while Fenley predicts: "Once there's more activity on the street, the people who patronise the KTV bars might not want to be spotted and will naturally move away."
Still, the chefs agree that the KTV bars add local flavour to the street - and some much-needed vibrancy, especially after office hours.
"If it weren't for the KTVs, the street will be dead at night, and it's not nice to step out of a restaurant after a nice meal to a deserted street," says Colin, which is where he hopes the incoming cocktail bars can plug the gap.
Sushi Mitsuya's Harada hopes that a few more Asian chefs will take up units along Tras Street to make it a truly international dining stretch. Office workers in the area, meanwhile, such as public relations firm GHC Singapore's account director, Chisato Nishiyori, cheered the growing selection of venue options for media events such as media luncheons and cocktails a hop away from her office, but hopes to see more fashion boutiques stocking independent and upcoming labels, and boutique spas and salons, "then we wouldn't have to leave the street at all," she jokes.
Weekends are quiet for now, too, and walk-in traffic to the cafe and restaurants is still low, despite a heavy passenger flow to and from the MRT to the office buildings daily. Only 20 per cent of the people who pass by currently stop in for a coffee, says Cafe & Bar Gavroche's Manuel Rodrigues, and weekends are relatively quiet too.
And though everything seems to be coming up roses for Tras Street, there are hidden thorns too, such as the rental hikes that the area's growing popularity will inevitably usher in.
Rodrigues adds: "Bars on Club Street can keep their prices low because they have volume, so if the crowds come in proportionately with the rent increase on Tras, then we will be all right; but if not, we may have to reflect the higher rental on the selling price of our items."
Lozachmeur surmises the sentiments succinctly when he says: "Let's see what will come up, I can't read the future. No one can."