You are here
LATE night supper haunts, roadside durian sellers, old hardware businesses, and "pop-up" sex pill stands - these are common sights when strolling around Geylang in the evening. But also scattered among the dodgy nightclubs and brothels that line Singapore's infamous red light district are spanking new condominiums popping up on every other street corner. Along with them, new modern eateries catering to a growing residential crowd have also mushroomed.
Gwen Peh of the three-year-old cafe Brawn & Brains on Guillemard Road which borders Geylang, finds that the close proximity to the CBD is an attractive draw for both residents and businesses.
"I think Geylang has evolved quite a bit - they've cleared out some of the 'lorongs' and torn down some shophouses. We've got a good mix of locals and expats moving into the condos," says Ms Peh.
"Some people say this place is becoming hipster, but I don't think so. It's just being cleaned up. (Previously) there was a taboo about being in Geylang, and when we first started, our friends said we were crazy for being so near the red light district. But if you really explore it now, it's not that bad."
It helps that they aren't alone in the area anymore. At least four new F&B establishments set up shop just within the last six months or so. They include a Japanese yakitori-inspired outfit called The Skewer Bar, a new cafe named Builders at Sims, and a British bistro called Monkswood by Char.
Also new is Blanco Court Traditional Hainan Beef Noodles - run by 24-year-old Mike Loh who took over the brand from his aunt. He chose to open his 1,500 sq ft restaurant near Geylang as it offers him cheaper rental than in the CBD. Though he opened his restaurant only a few months ago, Mr Loh is actually more familiar with Geylang than most people his age, because his father used to own a nightclub in the area when he was younger.
He recalls: "At that time, there were hundreds of girls lining the streets, unlike now where the girls are only found inside the brothels. It started changing about six or seven years ago after the police kept raiding the area almost every night for a few months. My dad sold off his nightclub because no one dared to work there anymore... Not only that, coffeeshops can no longer put tables and chairs along the roadside, and you cannot sell alcohol after 10-plus."
Mr Loh adds that after noticing the weak night-time crowd, he even adjusted his opening hours from noon to 3pm and 6pm to 3am, to 7am to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm. "It's quite funny, but my morning business is much better than back when I opened late at night. Even the brothels start closing by about one or two in the morning nowadays - there just isn't much demand anymore," he says.
Agreeing with him is 53-year-old Winson Ko, manager of three-year-old restaurant Fansida Wine and Dine. He notes that Geylang has become quieter and less vibrant than it was before, though it still manages to retain some of its old vibe. He says: "Despite its shady reputation, Geylang is still known for its traditional local cuisine. So youngsters still come here for food, like my kids come here for the frog leg porridge and claypot rice."
Ultimately, even though Geylang is generally now safer and cleaner than it used to be, some restaurant owners express hope that it doesn't become too sterile.
Karan Low, director of two-month-old British bistro Monkswood, says it would be sad if the area totally loses its past history and whatever charm that came with it.
Before opening Monkswood, she used to run a Cantonese eatery named Char at the same location, and chose to keep the unit even after moving Char to a larger space in Jalan Besar.
"I like this place for its culture and old charm. We've great neighbours here - the lady at the tyre shop, the old-school bao shop, even a fortune-teller down the road. I love this neighbourhood, and I hope after it gets cleaned up it won't be completely 'hipster'. I hope there'll still be a mix of old and new blended together to make the landscape even more colourful."
Mad about British pies
Monkswood By Char
393 Guillemard Road
Tel: 6493 2907
Open Tues to Fri, 11.30am - 2.30pm, 6pm - 10pm, Sat to Sun, 11.30am - 10pm
EVER since Anthony Ung came back from the UK almost two decades ago, he has missed British food, especially its meat pies. When he couldn't find many existing options out there to satisfy his cravings, he decided to just do it himself.
Only two months ago, he opened Monkswood By Char - a British bistro at Guillemard Road. It takes over the space that housed Mr Ung's two-and-a-half-year-old casual Chinese restaurant Char - known for its char siew and other Cantonese-style roast meats. Char has since moved to a bigger space in Jalan Besar.
He runs both restaurants together with his wife, Karan Low, and his elder brother, Alvin.
Explains Ms Low, director of Monkswood: "The pies in Singapore have things like peas, carrots and potatoes, but the UK pies have pure meat, and maybe just a bit of vegetables to add sweetness. That's what he missed."
The range of pies on the menu includes a steak and ale pie (S$19) that's made with beef, ale, Worcester sauce, and thyme; a fish pie (S$18) made with white fish, smoked haddock, and a creamy sauce; and the more unconventional pork pie (S$16) made with pork and pork stock and served cold.
They also have traditional English mains such as fish and chips (S$22) with optional malt vinegar, and Toad In The Hole (S$18) which is pork and beef sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding batter.
According to Ms Low, they even bring in certain specific ingredients from the UK wherever possible, such as beef cubes, stocks, black pudding or goose fat, to make the pies taste as authentic as possible. It's not always easy however, because certain things cannot be imported, like beef kidney for a steak and kidney pie.
But Ms Low adds: "The response has been quite good, even with the locals. I think they're surprised also that pies taste like that. On Sundays we do a roast, like in the UK where families go to pubs for beef or lamb with potatoes and gravy. We try to get as close as we can to that. So far, the British expats are quite happy because they say it's quite close to home."
By Rachel Loi
Preserving a heritage
Blanco Court Beef Noodles
92 Guillemard Road
Tel: 6348 1708
Open 7am - 3pm, 6pm - 11pm daily
THE Blanco Court Beef Noodle brand has been in Mike Loh's family for over three decades, but the 24-year-old did not find it easy to convince his aunt to let him take over the eatery about three years ago.
"I did a proposal and gave it to my dad and my gu ma (aunt) and said I wanted to maintain this heritage and brand, and continue the family business. It was only after two years of washing bowls, scrubbing floors, and making gravy every day, that my gu ma saw that I was serious and let me open my first outlet," says Mr Loh, who opened Blanco Court Beef Noodles on Guillemard Road last December.
There, he serves traditional Hainanese beef noodles made with a recipe that his aunt picked up after many years working as a helper at a roadside stall during the 1960s. She opened her own stall at Blanco Court in 1979, and closed it in the early 2000s because no one was able to take over at the time.
Recalls Mr Loh: "My dad always took me there to eat, and I loved her beef noodles. When she retired I was too young to take over, but when I got older I realised there were other heritage businesses out there that were doing so well, and we were wasting ours."
Mr Loh tries to stick as closely to his aunt's recipe as possible, and has so far received validation from middle-aged customers who comment that the taste of his beef noodles reminds them of what they used to eat when growing up.
As for what makes a bowl of Hainanese beef noodles authentic - aside from being cooked by a Hainanese - Mr Loh says it can be distinguished by the use of specific ingredients such as peanuts, salted vegetables and chinchalok, as well as some secret spices in the soup.
It's a tough act to juggle however, because as the second generation to perpetuate the brand, Mr Loh also has to take into account evolution in order to make sure his food can cater to the taste buds of younger folk.
He says: "Although I intend to maintain the traditional taste, what I can do is change the meat to something that's more popular with youngsters. For example, older people like to eat lean meat, but youngsters prefer things like wagyu, or shabu shabu meat. If that's what the market wants, then I will consider it. But I won't change things too much because I don't want to lose the essence of my food."
By Rachel Loi
The Skewer Bar
489 Geylang Road
Open Mon to Thurs, 6.30 pm - 1.30 am; Fri to Sun, 6.30pm - 2.30am
THE Skewer Bar operates out of an ordinary-looking coffeeshop along Geylang Road but pop in and you'll find Japanese craft beer and grilled oysters being served.
Opened earlier this year by a group of five friends who have a "strong passion for the F&B business" and "love to eat", the bar, as its name implies, is based upon the Japanese yakitori concept of fresh meat grilled on skewers.
For co-owners and chefs Tan Jun Ann, 33, and Vincent Low, 32, starting their own eatery and creating their own concept has always been a dream. They spent seven years as suppliers before they felt they were ready to open their first stall.
It might be an unusual choice to run a bar in a coffeeshop but Mr Low explains: "Unlike shopping malls, the coffeeshop operates round the clock and there aren't restrictions on opening hours."
He also points out that yakitori is usually eaten as supper food, so the coffeeshop hours suit their concept.
As for their specialties, the Skewer Bar serves grilled Canadian oysters with citrus sauce at S$11 for three pieces. They also have homemade skewered meatballs at S$2.40.
Mr Low says that 80 per cent of their food items are homemade. They have even created their own chilli sauce which is "a bit like sambal" but "more to the Peranakan nonya style". This sauce is served with their specialty stingray, sea bass and egg plant.
To complete the bar experience, the Skewer Bar serves Sapporo on draft and other Japanese craft beer to go with its food. It also has an indoor dining area that seats 20 people.
"The hole-in-the-wall concept makes you feel as if you're not even in Geylang but in a little stall in Japan," says Mr Low.
As for future plans, he prefers to take things one step at a time. The business has fared well so far, with around 80 to 120 customers per night. "We have to build up the foundation first," he explains. "We don't want to just have the initial hype and then disappear."
By Sue-Ann Tan
A little French flair
Builders at Sims
53 Sims Place, #01-160
Tel: 6747 1837
Open Mon to Sat, 11am - 9pm
TUCKED away under an HDB block at Sims Place, opposite the bustling Sims Vista Market and Food Centre, is an unassuming eatery that sells ratatouille and carbonara.
The Builders at Sims cafe offers a quiet, cosy respite from the hive of activity that is Geylang. Owner Joey Lim acknowledges that his French-inspired cafe stands out in a neighbourhood filled with coffeeshops and old-school eateries, but he appreciates the crowds that spill over from the market and offices around.
"The light industries nearby provide us with our customers," the 29-year-old says. "The fact that our cafe is air-conditioned also means that office workers like to have meetings here with their clients."
While Mr Lim knows that his prices can't quite compete with the market just across the road, he tries to keep most of the items on his menu below S$16 so customers can enjoy affordable modern food in an old-school housing estate.
The cafe is Mr Lim's first business venture into the F&B industry. Previously, he was the head chef of Tiong Bahru Bakery, after studying culinary and patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Mr Lim followed his dream to open his own business despite knowing it would be risky. "I have the energy now and I just had to try soon before I grow old," he says with a laugh.
Having seen many cafes popping up and then shutting just as quickly, Mr Lim knows that the easy part is setting up, but the challenge is really maintaining the business. "I have to stay in the game, and offer quality food and service," he points out.
For now, his business is fairly successful, drawing a lunchtime crowd of around 40 customers that overwhelm his 32-seater cafe.
He also sees older folk - those who typically like their kopi-O at coffeeshops - trying espresso along with their children and grandchildren. "I hope more young people come, especially when condominiums come up and the older HDB blocks undergo en-bloc," he says.
To draw the young, social-media-savvy crowd, he has "Instagrammable" specialities such as latte in a waffle cone, that costs S$7.
"I hope to continue serving modern comfort food in a casual setting like this," Mr Lim says. "I'm also looking to expand the cafe into other tiny neighbourhoods like Sembawang."
By Sue-Ann Tan