An Employees Only Guide to Eating (and Drinking) in Singapore
Whether you're looking for experimental craft cocktails or Michelin-starred hawker fare, there's never been a better time to eat, drink, and stay out all night in Singapore.
Despite being half the size of London or Los Angeles—and the second-smallest country in Asia—Singapore is spearheading the continent's dining and cocktail scene. Every day, two restaurants open up in the island nation, the backdrop to Crazy Rich Asians and the soon-to-be host of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019—a first for Asia. The Republic of Singapore is home to everything from the world's cheapest Michelin-star meal (hawker hall favorite, $2 Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle) to one of the World's 50 Best Bars, Manhattan, ranked no. 3 in 2018.
“The local talent is unmatched here, and I really feel like they're driving the scene in Singapore,” says Employees Only founder Igor Hadzismajlovic, who opened up his Singapore outpost two years ago. “People are also starting to see Singapore as a global destination, so you have a huge variety of culinary and bar talent coming from everywhere to try to make a go of it here—whether that be our little cocktail bar from New York, the legendary British chef Marco Pierre White, or giant nightclub operators like TAO Group.”
In April, TAO Group will debut the republic’s largest nightclub, Las Vegas transplant Marquee at Marina Bay Sands, complete with a three-story slide and eight-armed indoor Ferris wheel. On the skyscraper’s 57th floor, next to the infamous infinity rooftop pool (the world’s largest), you’ll find another one of the group’s popular lounges, one-year-old LAVO.
When the iconic Singapore Raffles reopens in August after a two-year renovation, two famous names in French fine dining will also debut their first restaurants in Southeast Asia: BBR (Bar & Billiard Room) by Alain Ducasse and La Dame de Pic by three-starred Anne-Sophie Pic. Singapore may be heralding in a few big names and enhancing one of its mainstays, the Singapore Sling (whose revamped recipe includes craft ingredients like Seattle-based Scrappy’s Bitters), but the dining and bar scene is “still in its infancy,” says Ricky Paiva, Bacardi’s regional brand ambassador and bar manager at the new Six Senses Maxwell’s Cook & Tras Social Library. “We’re only just starting to figure it out.”
In the span of a week-long visit in Singapore in February, hawker hall hotspots and starred eateries gathered for the MICHELIN Guide Street Food Festival; two much-anticipated bars debuted (global cocktail champion Andy Griffiths’ Idlewild at InterContinental Singapore and the second outpost of Hong Kong-based The Old Man); and Remy Savage (who helped Parisian institution Little Red Door rise to international fame) played guest bartender at Jigger & Pony’s Cointreau pop-up. “Everyone is learning together and everyone is growing together, so there’s no competition,” explained Justin Pallack, manager of speakeasy-style 28 HongKong Street, which many consider to be Singapore’s OG of cocktail bars. “You can walk into 30 bars in Singapore, and you’ll get an incredible cocktail experience.”
While touring Brass Lion Distillery, Singapore’s first gin micro-distillery that opened in November, founder Jamie Koh (also behind bourbon bar The Beast) said her Singapore Dry Gin is already featured in over 30 restaurants and bars around town, but her goal is to be stocked in over 200. “How many bars are there in Singapore?” I ask. Over 600, she responds, if you include the Thai discoes at Orchard Towers.
The best way to eat and drink like a local is to join them, so we caught up with one of the leading forces on Singapore’s speakeasy scene—Employees Only’s Hadzismajlovic and his wife (and unofficial brand ambassador), Helen Zhang—for the scoop on where to go in Lion City, and how to chope (Singaporean for stake your claim) once you get there.
For Local Cuisine: “Coconut Club has this nostalgic, old-school vibe that is elegant but unfussy all at once,” Zhang says. Chef-owner Lee Eng Su opened his wildly popular nasi lemak eatery three years ago focusing solely on the traditional Malay dish of spicy coconut rice because he “could only cook one dish, and every race in Singapore eats nasi lemak,” he explains, referring to the republic’s multiethnic culture. “I’d say the food was pretty shit when we opened,” the chef jokes, adding that while he grew up eating the dish, he didn’t have a Malay grandmother who could teach him how to make it. “Most Singaporeans would say the dish we make now tastes like nothing they know,” he says. Two years and nearly 20 recipes later, Coconut Club has mastered the recipe and earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand award to prove it.
For Traditional Favorites: In Malay, the term Peranakan means “born here,” referring to Straits-born descendants of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. At the world’s first Michelin-star Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut, chef Malcolm Lee hand-selects ingredients from Singapore’s wet markets for his tasting menu-inspired cuisine. If you’re looking for the best chilli crab (a must-try while in Singapore), locals will point you toward award-winning JUMBO Seafood, where the stir-fried shellfish is seasoned with 10 different Southeast Asian spices (and served with a bib). But it’s worth venturing out of the Central Business District to the shopping plaza housing “zi char” eatery Keng Eng Kee, which serves hawker hall-style, home-cooked Hainanese meals. Order chicken rice (the restaurant’s original dish) before sampling crab three ways: slathered in chili, pepper or salted egg.
For Fine Dining without the Fuss: When you’re ready for a break from chicken rice and chilli crab, take a seat at Dave Pynt’s Burnt Ends in Chinatown, a modern Australian barbecue inspired by the chef-owner’s East London 2012 pop-up, Burnt Enz. The eatery’s playful plates include smoked quail egg and caviar and beef tenderloin with burnt onion and bone marrow, paired alongside a hand-picked selection of natural Australian wines.
For Splurge-y Cocktails: “Igor is a Negroni guy and my go-to drink is Don Julio Blanco on the rocks, so we're very much about ambiance and vibe when we go out,” Zhang says. “For special occasions, nothing beats the beautiful, commanding room of Atlas.” Commanding is right; mimicking the grandiose Art Deco lobbies of 1920s New York skyscrapers, Atlas, which locals sometimes refer to as the Gotham building (a nod to Batman’s skyscraper-filled city) is lined with murals of Cleopatra and King Tut and features four original Dalí sculptures casually sitting in each corner. The centerpiece Gin Tower houses a library of over 1,200 bottles from 40-plus countries, and cocktails are served in stemware crafted by British glassmaker John Jenkins & Sons (also behind the drinkware at London’s The Connaught).
For Instagrammable Views (and Just as Gorgeous Drinks): “The Jigger & Pony group are dear friends of ours, and we love their venues because they put so much care into each of their concepts, but they never seem contrived,” Zhang says. Italian-inspired Caffe Fernet is a favorite for sunset Spritzes with a view over Marina Sands (in addition to being a local go-to for weekend brunch). Jigger & Pony, which recently relocated to a new location inside the Amara Hotel, was among the handful of bars that helped cultivate Singapore’s craft cocktail scene. Cocktails add Asian twists to Asian classics (the Singapore Sling—tweaked with smoky Chinese lapsang souchong tea—is deemed better than the original), in addition to modernizing some of the lesser known classics like the Stinger, blended with frankincense liquor.
For New Wave Cocktails: Native has earned a rep as one of the more experimental cocktail bars in Singapore, drawing inspiration from creative culinary pioneers like Noma. “We’ve taken philosophy and ideas from chefs like René Redzepi,” says Native’s head bartender, Leon Tang, adding that 95 percent of their experimentations don’t make it on the menu. What does make it to market is heavy on fermented flavors from ingredients native to the region. Think Phuket-based Chalong Bay rum mixed with fermented grasshopper paste and Shochu blended with yuzu and Oolong kombucha—a Japanese version of a whisky highball.
For Late-Night Snacks: It wouldn’t be uncommon to end the night at 3 a.m. singing karaoke in the back room at Skinny’s Lounge, an American KTV dive bar along Boat Quay that will bring back memories of your study abroad days (but with much, much better cocktails). But if you need to refuel (Singaporeans are always hungry or thinking about food), pop in Papi’s Tacos for a pre-midnight snack. The popular chicken tinga tostadas at Employees Only led to the birth of the year-old taqueria, one of the rare spots in Singapore you’ll find true Mexican. “Our chef, Mauricio, is from Central Mexico by way of New York, so we've got legit tacos on homemade corn tortillas, with a side of NYC spunk,” Zhang says.
For Hangover Fixes: “When the hangover hits, Park Bench Deli is not to be missed for their inventive and delicious sandwiches,” Zhang says. One of her top picks: the Reuben on rye stuffed with house-smoked pastrami that’s as authentic as a New York delicatessen.