Tell anyone you are going to Singapore and the first question they will ask is this: ‘What are you going to eat?’.
Dining out is a way of life in the Lion City, treated with near religious levels of devotion. Everyone has an opinion on where to go: where to get the best chicken rice, the best Peranakan sweets, the best char kway teow, the best chilli crab, the best kaya toast, the best satay, even the best coffee (Tolido’s Espresso Nook). You won’t ever go hungry in Singapore.
It’s been three years since I was last there and returning to the island brought a cascade of emotion. Weaving through the Maxwell Food Centre hawker market on my first day, loading up a plastic tray with sticky sweet char siu and sheaths of flaky roti and an Iced Milo, just because, felt like coming home.
When it comes to dining out, Singapore offers a buffet of both high and humble dining, the high reaching the loftiest heights of fine dining. Forget Michelin stars, Singapore has a Michelin constellation, with some 42 establishments boasting the coveted designation. This includes two for storied Sri Lankan-born, Australian-trained chef Rishi Naleendra’s Cloudstreet
, one for Burnt Ends
, the Australian barbecue restaurant helmed by Dave Pynt and one for Candlenut
, where you can eat tiger prawns in lemak sauce with Sarawak pineapple. Candlenut also happens to be the only traditional Peranakan restaurant – based on the cuisine of Chinese immigrants to Singapore – to receive a Michelin star.
La Dame de Pic
, the first Asian outpost for decorated chef Anne-Sophie Pic housed in a corner of the revamped Raffles Singapore hotel
lobby, also boasts a star, and it’s well deserved. Pic was here just last week, manager Leila Bernardino tells me, and she dined on the same delicately balanced caviar and pumpkin entrée that I am eating. “I’m glad you had the chance to try it,” she smiles. A procession of dishes follows: berlingot pasta parcels, like puffed up ravioli, a langoustine tail swimming in Madras curry bisque, a dessert of inverted millefeuille, the finest pastry layers covered in a glossy shell of earl grey cream. The meal is exquisite, course after course arriving with just the right amount of theatre. “This is the last, we promise,” jokes Clovis, a waiter brandishing a plate of petit fours: mango tart, matcha roulade and a chocolate and bergamot truffle.
The other end of the dining spectrum is cheap and cheerful: Singapore’s hawker centres. These open-air food courts form the backbone of the island’s street food culture, many of them dating back to the mid ’70s. Which centre you frequent is a matter of fierce pride and interrogation.
Maxwell Food Centre is known as one of the best and for good reason, home to two of the city’s most popular chicken rice stalls: Tian Tian and Ah Tai, side by side and locked in a longstanding feud. For my money, Ah Tai nudges the win, courtesy of their tenderly poached chicken, sweet rice and the lightly fermented ginger chilli sauce, just the right side of bitter. Neither will set you back more than a few dollars. Down at Lau Pa Sat, another historic centre that has recently undergone a glossy renovation, the drawcard is satay. The smoke hits you first, a cloud of char congregating over an alley of grills, all lined up in a row. The suggestively named Best Satay 7&8 has the longest line, so that’s where I stake my claim, grabbing a plate of chicken, beef and prawn skewers and a bowl of that rich, spicy peanut sauce. It’s so good I could eat another tray.
It’s 10 o’clock on a Sunday night when I walk into Jigger & Pony
, but it feels more like midnight on a Friday. Singaporeans are not one for a sleepy end to the week. Instead, they’re packed into this award-winning spot – currently 12 on the World’s 50 Best Bars – ordering cocktail after cocktail. I note how busy it is, but Emily, my drinking partner and the company’s marketing manager, simply laughs. “This is quiet for Jigger!” she exclaims. We order all the greatest hits: a zingy yuzu whiskey sour, the pretty – but potent – Sakura Martini, and an Espresso Martini with a cocoa bean crisp surface which you smash with a little spoon, like a boozy crème brûlée. Each are served up ice cold within six minutes; no matter how busy the bar is, Jigger & Pony prides itself on getting drink orders to you faster than a Frank Ocean song.
And they go down just as easy. Singapore is a great spot for cocktails. At Analogue
, nestled inside the CHIJMES complex – you might recognise the building as the location for the wedding in Crazy Rich Asians
– innovative cocktails pair well with the plant-based menu, while Nutmeg & Clove
spins local flavours into unique drinks, such as its Claypot Negroni. There’s even a natural wine bar: the buzzing RVLT
with its ever-present disco ball, which serves chicken nuggets with a home-made sriracha and has a wine list that would make P&V
Then there’s Atlas
, a sprawling throwback to the heyday of the roaring ’20s, housed in one of Singapore’s only art deco buildings. Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? Is it a decadent den of iniquity? Perhaps a combination of all three. “It’s very grand and opulent,” remarks head bartender Yana K with a grin. She comes bearing Atlas’ signature Martini flight – three mini tipples of varying degrees of lethalness, an elegant deluge of gin, of which Atlas boasts an encyclopedic menu some 1700 bottles strong. “If I’m having a bad day, I come to Atlas. Friends’ dinner, I come to Atlas. Mum’s birthday, I come to Atlas,” she jokes. “I don’t think about going anywhere else.”
There is so much history at Raffles Singapore
, they employ a full-time historian. Leslie Danker has just celebrated his 50th year of employment at the hotel they call the Grand Dame of Singapore, and meets me in the lobby on my first morning in residence in a suite overlooking the lush, palm-shrouded internal courtyard, a private space cordoned off for guests. The stories you’ve heard about Raffles are all true: yes, a tiger once escaped from the zoo and sheltered underneath the bar and billiard room. Yes, the Singapore Sling was invented here in 1915. Yes, the queue to get into the Long Bar, where they are served up by the trayful, is as dense as everybody says. And yes, Raffles is every bit as majestic and completely luxurious as you imagined it would be.
Raffles is a very special hotel. After an extensive two-and-a-half year restoration spearheaded by interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud – only the second in its 136-year history – the property re-opened in 2019 sparkling like a jewel. The main building is all white marble and soaring columns with a larger interior veranda encircling the secret courtyard. I am staying in the second oldest wing of the hotel, Danker tells me, which was added in 1814 and even features some of the original ceiling work. The restoration is as elegant as the service, which is faultless. The second my handbag is placed on the floor of the Writers Bar, a stool materialises to rest it on; my coffee comes just how I like it every morning without me uttering a word.
One afternoon, a pot of tea is quietly deposited in my suite with a note from my butler. (Each room at Raffles is called a suite, and each comes with personal staff to help facilitate your every need.) “If there is anything at all that we can do to make you more comfortable, please do not hesitate to let us know,” it reads. I take my tea and sit on the balcony at dusk. An hour to slow down in a city that never stops, a pause in between a busy itinerary of eating and eating some more. Raffles knew what I needed even before I knew it myself.