THE easing of pandemic restrictions to allow more people to dine-in, enjoy a drink beyond 10.30pm and the resumption of live performances couldn't have come at a better time for Singapore's beleaguered bar scene.
Battered harder than restaurants per se because many didn't offer proper food menus pre-Covid, top cocktail bars - including those listed on the Asia's 50 Best Bars list - spent the past 2 years soul-searching and reinventing themselves to prepare for a new normal. The ability to adapt quickly to an ever-changing situation has seen them come back from the brink with refreshed concepts and a greater emphasis on food.
The new measures may be cause for celebration, but with higher operating costs and manpower shortages looming, bar owners aren't popping the champagne yet, although they are certainly hopeful about the future.
"We definitely welcome the change which is good for everyone in the industry," says Colin Chia, founder-owner of Nutmeg & Clove. "But we still want to be cautious and socially responsible." Having said that, Chia is confident that events can be activated now; he plans to invite guest chefs and renowned bartenders in the upcoming months. "May will be Nutmeg & Clove's 8th anniversary, so we're planning a series of events," he adds.
It's certainly a far cry from the past 2 years.
"During the 2 Heightened Alerts when we had to close and only do takeaways, our revenue was down by 90 per cent," shares Chia. However by December's festive period, he saw a 50 percent increase in revenue.
On Dec 31, 2021, he took the plunge to open a new bar. Christened Last Word, this intimate space is located above Nutmeg and Clove at Purvis Street. He describes it as "a classic cocktail bar inspired by the Japanese way of bartending". Complementing the drinks is a variety of izakaya food. When things are more settled, he has plans to expand Last Word later this year.
Sharing Chia's sentiments is Vijay Mudaliar, owner of Amoy Street's eco-conscious Native Bar. "We believe everyone is excited. We're definitely ready to go back as per normal and looking forward to bigger groups of customers and tourism. We do anticipate a jump in bookings," he says.
Business plunged by 50 to 70 per cent during the period when Native could only do delivery/takeaways. Despite their high rental, the 5-year-old business managed to pull through. Native had the opportunity to take over the ground floor space, left vacant after noodle eatery Wanton Seng moved out in mid 2021. "We have a full-fledged kitchen space now. We've taken over the first floor as a restaurant (launched in early March), and the second and third floor will remain as a cocktail bar," says Mudaliar.
For Michael Callahan, director and co-owner of Compound Collective who runs Barbary Coast at North Canal Road, the last 2 years had been incredibly tough. Barbary Coast takes up a huge space of 4,700 sq ft with 7 rooms across 2 floors, and was "affected in the most brutal ways". Sales were down by 70 per cent and they were in survival mode for months.
Since the Mar 29 announcement, things have turned around, he says. Callahan shares, "The phones were exploding with people asking for extended seating on existing bookings, or asking to increase to larger groups. The increase in overall interest was instantaneous."
He adds, "We will go slow and ease into the new extended hours to let our staff reacclimatise to the later nights. More importantly, we need to make sure we are not overworking them. So until we can settle into a new routine and when we have more staff, we will roll out slowly."
Over at Amoy Street, the dual concept Stay Gold Flamingo which launched in September 2021, has "stabilised" over the last 6 months, and the owners plan to launch a few exciting collaborations and seasonal promotions.
The coffee joint and bar venture is founded by Jerrold Khoo, bar manager and founder, and Bai JiaWei, head bartender and co-founder. With the easing of restrictions, Khoo says, "we are pretty excited about the interest coming in and have received calls for later timings as well as big group bookings."
He adds, "We will be implementing our plans slowly and feel the sentiment on the ground so as to not overload our team."
Today, bar owners recognise that integrating a strong food programme is essential for their businesses. Permit-wise, all new bars must now apply for a food licence in order to operate.
"In our cocktail bar community, we've done very well for the last 15 years to put ourselves as one of the top cocktail capitals around the world," says Chia, who sits on the board of the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association.
"It's the new way of living. All cocktail bars must have a food programme, based on what I've heard from dialogues and speeches by government officials." Although Nutmeg & Clove started as a bar-centric venue, they have embraced the need for a solid food programme to complement their cocktails.
Initially it was challenging for Chia because his bar team isn't kitchen-trained, which means he had to hire a whole kitchen team. "But this shows how serious I am about my food programme - to make sure that our food menu is of top quality," he adds.
Nutmeg & Clove's dinner menu continues to pay homage to Singapore's rich history, and feature innovative renditions of classic local dishes. Many of the Singaporean,Peranakan and Teochew recipes are from Chia's late father. In the last quarter of 2021, Chia also launched sister bar Chuan by Nutmeg at Sichuan Dou Hua UOB Plaza, although its food is prepared by the restaurant itself.
Chia believes that it's good for consumers as they don't need to travel between different places. "They can come to one place to have dinner and cocktails."
Mudaliar agrees that these days people are looking for one venue to eat and drink. "Restaurants need a strong drink programme, and bars need a strong food programme."
He says that after 5 years of running Native, it made sense to extend his ideology beyond just drinks. Chef MJ Teoh, formerly of Nouri, joined Native in September to set up the kitchen. "Vijay wanted the concept to be vegetarian and pescatarian-centric. Our team is mostly Singaporean, and a lot of the dishes are linked to nostalgia," says Teoh.
The team also seeks to minimise waste. "For instance, we use jackfruit (flesh) for the dessert, and we then simmer the seeds for the massaman-mole curry, which gives a nuttiness to the dish," says Teoh.
In late 2021, Mudaliar also launched a brand new concept: Analogue, a plant-based bar and restaurant, at Chijmes. "Analogue is about looking at the food system with a different lens. It is entirely plant-based as we hope to eradicate over-farmed produce, especially meats. We also look at different forms of sustainable materials such as our bar top which is made from 1600 kg of 3D-printed recycled plastic bottles."
Callahan says that nowadays, most cocktail bars serve more food than the standard café and give restaurants a run for their money. "At Barbary Coast, 90 per cent of guests order food. Places like 28 HongKong Street, Employees Only and Atlas also offer fantastic food and proper dining experiences," he adds.
This month, Barbary Coast will introduce a new food menu, and the adjoining Deadfall will roll out new drinks. Meanwhile, Callahan and his team will also unveil a new neighbourhood concept at River Valley. "Revival serves as an unassuming, casual and intimate place to explore aged spirits. It is backed by a cocktail menu programme that comprises 33 custom drinks," he shares.
Indra Kantono, owner of the Jigger and Pony group agrees that the pandemic set in motion opportunities for cocktail bars to offer exciting food programmes, "to make the evening experience a more complete one."
A new way to party
Kantono and his team recently revived Sugarhall at 19 Cecil Street (the heritage building formerly housed Black Swan) after shuttering their Amoy Street outlet 4 years ago.
He says, "Rum cocktails have always been enjoyed by many in Singapore, even if the bars do not place a heavy emphasis on the spirit category. In the first iteration of Sugarhall, when it was open from 2014 to 2018, we saw a growing demand for them. And in the last four years, the interest in rum has continued to grow, both in cocktails and as a super-premium sipping spirit."
Food-wise, Sugarhall offers a menu of elevated, classic pub-comfort food including a Snapper, Fennel and Laver Pie using local mangrove snapper, and a Cheeseburger using a dry-aged beef patty.
Stay Gold's Khoo, who spent the bulk of his bartending career at Jigger & Pony says, "We have updated and expanded our food menu at Stay Gold to keep things fun and our regulars surprised, as well as refined the concept of Flamingo into a funky neighbourhood coffee bar."
He adds, "At Stay Gold, we serve food with Pan-Asian flavours as we want to stick to our roots. Our head chef is from the Philippines so there are pronounced Filipino influences in our dishes such as the Mussels Sinigang and Chicken Adobo." Their objective is for guests to enjoy a satisfying and substantial meal along with their cocktails. Soon party-goers can swing by Stay Gold Flamingo for live music too. "We will be inviting DJs to spin at Stay Gold Flamingo," says Khoo.
And with that, the party for the bar industry may finally begin.