When in Singapore, go to a hawker centre. Hawker centres are food courts filled with stalls selling different types of food — Chinese, Peranakan, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino and more. Many stalls specialize in one thing only and that is what makes them good. Singaporeans are very opinionated about which stall sells the best tapioca cake, nasi padang, lechon, porridge or chicken rice. Some hawker centres, such as Lau Pa Sat (photo above) in the central business district and Newton are considered “too touristy” by Singaporeans because that is where many expats and tourists eat, but if they are more convenient for you, by all means go there because they do have good food (in my opinion). Neighborhood hawker centres such as Maxwell in Chinatown and Bedok (out in Bedok) are more authentic.
How do you choose from dozens of food stalls in a hawker centre? Follow the queue. It doesn’t matter what they are serving. If there is a very long queue, it is going to be good. Don’t be intimidated by the lack of English signs (see below).
Just ask the person in front of you what’s on the menu (critical, if you want to avoid pig intestines and chicken feet). Incidentally, the above photo shows the menu of Zhen Zhen Porridge in Maxwell hawker centre.
Another positive aspect of the hawker centre is that the food is very cheap (S$3 to S$5 for a filling meal). And every hawker centre has a stall or two selling fresh fruit, desserts and fresh juices, for your after-lunch or after-dinner treat.
Food in shopping malls: The food in shopping malls is quite good, to my surprise. Malls have dozens of self-service and sit-down restaurants serving all kinds of cuisines: Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Western food, Indonesian, Peranakan, Malaysian, Filipino, Burmese, etc. The food in malls is more expensive than in a hawker centre but it’s still much cheaper and better than anything I’ve had in a shopping mall in the US or in Europe.
Vegetarians, rejoice! Singapore is a food paradise for vegetarians because a large number of people (mostly Indian) are vegetarian. And you won’t get the bland Western veggie food here either. Go to an Indian restaurant and you will see that the vegetarian options are amazing. I always order the southern Indian (vegetarian) thali which comes with rice, rasam (a spicy soup) and several small vegetable dishes (my favorite restaurant in Little India is Banana Leaf Apolo on Race Course Road).
Komala Villas is another good place in Little India. Even Thai Express, a chain of restaurants operating in malls, has a vegetarian menu – for example, if you ask for papaya salad, they won’t serve it with fish sauce or dried shrimp. They will serve it only with lime.
Now the hype, or rather, what to avoid: Sadly, the restaurants along the quays (Boat Quay, Clarke Quay) are quite terrible and overpriced. They cater to tourists and locals who don’t know any better. I went to Brussels Sprouts, a popular so-called Belgian restaurant, for Belgian beer and food. Although they have an excellent selection of Belgian beers, the food is decidedly NOT Belgian. How to tell? The “frites” (French fries) were extremely greasy and transparent (from having been soaked in oil). This is not how Belgians make “frites”! So it failed the primary test of authenticity. The meatballs were also disappointing and the mussels were not that great (pathetic shrunken little things). Worse, it is expensive for what you get. The mussels (small portion) were S$18; the meatballs were S$28. Only the beer (at happy hour, which is from 6-8 pm) was reasonable: 330ml of Leffe Blonde for S$6.50, a bargain in this city where glasses of wine typically cost S$15 or more and glasses of beer (not during happy hour) are priced like glasses of wine.
The other irritating thing about these quayside restaurants, especially those specializing in beer (like Brussels Sprouts and Brewerkz), is the intensely pushy waiter asking you a million times before you’ve even finished your beer whether you would like another glass. In this respect they don’t differ from their American counterparts who also push alcohol too aggressively.
Not sure what to make of it: If you want to dine in more luxurious surroundings than a hawker centre or a touristy quayside, there are “celebrity chef” restaurants in the brand new Marina Bay Sands hotel-casino-shopping mall complex.
There’s Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne, Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza, Guy Savoy with his eponymous restaurant, and other eateries bearing the names of famous chefs. No, the chefs don’t cook there of course, they only license out their names. These restaurants have all the right decor: one looks like a French brasserie, the other looks like an Italian trattoria. However authentic they make these places look, I cannot suspend my disbelief for the simple reason that they are located in a shopping mall. I find dining in a shopping mall to be supremely depressing; eating in a mall’s food court isn’t because that’s part of the “fast food” experience that I associate with mall shopping. Shopping malls just don’t have any charm or character and this bland, featureless aspect rubs off on the “celebrity chef” restaurants.
Districts with charm, but the food is expensive: So now that we’ve crossed out the shopping mall as a fine dining destination, what’s left? If you want to dine in a charming neighborhood with atmosphere, check out Club Street (and its surrounding area) in Chinatown, which has beautifully restored shop houses.
I like Club Street but the restaurants in this area, although quite good, are expensive, perhaps because of all that old world charm. My favorites on Club Street and its environs:
- La Cicala – very good tapas and excellent wine selection (very expensive);
- Le Carrillon de l’Angelus – French wine bar also serving small plates like charcuterie and cheese (on Ann Siang Road), go during happy hour for less expensive glasses of wine;
- Top of the Scarlet Hotel: open air relaxing place for drinks with good views of the city;
- No Name: Italian restaurant on Boon Tat Street (between Telok Ayer and Amoy St), also very expensive but very good.
Then there’s Duxton Hill and Duxton Road, which also have quaint shop houses turned into restaurants and bars. My favorite is Latteria Mozzarella Bar (on Duxton Hill) which specializes in dishes with mozzarella.
But what about Dempsey Hill? I knew that question was coming. Dempsey Hill is overrated. Formerly the site of the British Army barracks in Singapore, it has been transformed into a trendy area for art galleries, pricey boutiques and restaurants. Primarily patronized by expats yearning for the Whole Foods experience or Jones the Grocer (the latter does have an outlet on Dempsey Hill) and locals zipping around in ultra-luxury cars, the only redeeming value of Dempsey Hill is watching the “auntie” in a Porsche back into a Ferrari driven by a pencil-necked geek. I have been to Dempsey Hill twice (once to Samy’s, an Indian restaurant, and another time to an art gallery) and on both occasions, the place just left me wondering why anybody bothers to drive up there. Perhaps they’re just tired of the ubiquitous shopping mall.
Here are my other favorite places to eat in Singapore:
(1) Kilo: One of the newest restaurants in Singapore as of this writing. The food can be described as Japanese-Italian. The decor is minimalist but cozy. It’s quite small so reservations are necessary. This restaurant is difficult to find. We had to tell the taxi driver how to get there. It’s on the second floor of a building that was used as a warehouse near the Kallang River (closest metro stop is Lavender). Address: 66 Kampong Bugis. Voted Mapplr’s favorite restaurant in Singapore — read the review.
(2) Marutama Ramen: Tiny ramen place on the second floor of the Liang Court shopping mall on River Valley.
(3) Ippudo Ramen: Excellent ramen in the Mandarin Gallery shopping mall on Orchard Street, long queues.
(5) Inle Myanmar Restaurant: my favorite Burmese restaurant which is located in the Peninsula Plaza on North Bridge Road across the Funan Digital Life mall. Order the tea leaf salad and pennywort salad.
(6) Toby’s Estate (Robertson Quay): more cafe than restaurant, this is the perfect place to sit and sip a flat white or a Gibraltar on a lazy Saturday morning.
(7) Din Tai Fung: fresh dim sum and xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings) all made on the premises, this restaurant has several branches in Singapore and is worth the trip. It is reasonably priced and very popular so be prepared to queue up.
(8) Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice at stall no. 10 in the Maxwell hawker centre.
(9) Ondeh-ondeh and tapioca cake at Heng Heng stall no. 31 in Maxwell hawker centre: Ondeh-ondeh are glutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and rolled in freshly grated coconut. You need to get there before 11:30 am because they run out of everything very quickly.
(10) Porridge at Zhen Zhen porridge, stall no. 54 in Maxwell hawker centre: I waited in a queue for 25 minutes because I arrived around noon. If at all possible arrive early (11.:30am or later 1:30 pm).
(11) Tapa King: specializes in the Filipino “tapsilog” — tapa (marinated beef), sinangag (garlic rice) and itlog (fried egg), usually a breakfast dish but now eaten at lunch and even dinner. They have variations on the theme of tapsilog: baconsilog, longsilog (which has longanisa, a Philippine sausage), and more. Not exactly fine cuisine and not something I eat everyday, but once in a while I have a craving for Filipino food. They also make excellent kangkong.
(12) Ku De Ta: a bar-restaurant located at the top of the Marina Bay Sands with stunning views of Singapore. Drinks are expensive but worth it.