Hunting for the best of Singapore cafe culture
As an ongoing social experiment, I’ve tried a new cafe every weekend. I say I like the adventure, but really I’m just a java junkie.
Over the years, like a Hobbit there and back again, I’ve haunted Seletar Airbase up north, where a quiet revival has been going on; Punggol in the northeast; Changi Village out by the airport; Pasir Panjang close to vegetable wholesalers. And, of course, Middle-earth Toa Payoh, stomping grounds of SPH News Centre denizens (and other factory workers).
Half the fun lies in sniffing out truffle fries among sundry shops and dhobis. The other half comes from uncovering their origins.
They aren’t just places, but living models of the millennial dream, the way a Mohamed Sultan bar symbolised a Gen-X aspiration in the 1990s.
Here’s what I have come to love best:
- The Tiong Bahru template
A nod to the district that started it all, where cafes like Forty Hands opened as creative agencies, antique outlets, boho types and jewellery makers moved in about a decade ago. The area is so pretty that Toa Payoh also wanted a piece. Then Clementi, Tampines and Bedok. Now there’s $7 coffees islandwide.
- Caffeine with chinwag
If the shortest distance between two people is a story, I need only start with, “so how did you get into this?”, before I find a friend. Off peak, cafe owners open up about why they started, which high-powered careers they hung up for their aprons, how many credit cards they maxed out, who supported their dreams (if not financially then in spirit).
Many outlets started as solutions to their owners’ problems, like Tiann’s bakery, whose whole egg muffin bears a gorgeous runny poached yolk and salmon inside. Great for fuelling up for a walkabout afterwards.
Tiann’s runny egg present inside a muffin is a treat
- The gumption
All face challenges of high rentals, low traffic in dour weather, and constant turnover of staff. Yet their appetite for risks is giving birth to new inventions, and creating diversity among small businesses. I loved tucking into the selection at Lynn’s Cakes & Coffee, especially its delectable rainbow cake that is fluffy, not dry. Lynn herself is a swell person, who personally delivers her cakes just to see where they wind up.
They are brave enough to be far out. And they’re worth the trek
Wheeler’s Estate‘s playground features an airplane out back, and photogenic camper van in front. The coffee is as lovely as the non-air conditioned venue, and the experience lingers long after the caffeine buzz dies out.
Writing on the wall
There’s always some modern, clean design aesthetic with nostalgic touches: balsam wood, white ceramic tiles, a semi-filled Ball Mason tip jar. And blackboards. Lots of ’em.
A world in one place
Wait staff sport ombré dos and more bronzer than a Nicki Minaj music video. Others speak English lilted with everything from Japanese to Tagalog. Their aprons, in 25 Shades Of Beige, are fashion statements, with singular words like “lit” on them.
Outlets are frequently wedged between old-timey mom-and-pop shops.But unlike mustier setups stocked with onions to Ovaltine, new kids on the HDB block are retro by deliberate design, not from being there a very, very long time. Like The Daily Press, where cold brew coffee comes in brown bottles you can swig. It’s cosy and unpretentious.
Who have, in fact, been there a very, very long time. That guy next door, parked under the barber’s pole, singlet rolled over his paunch, half dozing and sucking his teeth. You can almost read his thought bubble: “It’s 2.30pm leh. Take your bladdy blackboard and talk loudly elsewhere can anot?”
Proprietors see themselves as taste-makers. One’s gluten intolerance drove her to come up with tasty brunch alternatives. Another, an Italian chef who married his Singapore love, makes his own gelato. Then there’s Kombi Rocks Diner, a traditional outlet refreshed for a new market with vintage VW vans as a central theme. (Serves decent Wok-Hei Beef Hor Fun.) Listening to their everyday ingenuity is like listening to Adele sing The Cure’s Love Song: life affirming.
New, new normal
I’m pressured to take that Instagram flat lay, or risk offending the chef. (I’m aware this could all be in my mind…) Also, I can’t bring myself to call new generation cafes “small to medium business enterprises”. I’m compelled to use the word — argh, resistance is futile! — “artisanal”. Because blackboard. And avocado toast. The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough is one such refreshing experience, with its fresh bread to go and knowledgeable staff. Take away a loaf after you’re done with your cold coffee and open-face sandwich.
They serve things like selfie coffee. One called — what else? — Selfie Coffee, at Haji Lane, celebrates the height of narcissism. Call it your mug, in a mug. Print the perfect picture of yourself, taken by yourself, on the foam atop your latte. Then drink in your own selfie.
Sometimes, a lo-fi duo might perform acoustic Ed Sheeran covers street side. I like putting money in their receptacles because singing to a bunch of twitchy espresso sippers takes guts.
At Middle-earth Toa Payoh, this cafe is new blood bringing life to old. (This gif was made by our intern Denise Lim, who was helping the old…)
There’s a completely easier way to uncover java gems this weekend. Get tickets to the Singapore Coffee Festival 2017, as some of Singapore’s favourite coffee haunts make a beeline to set up stalls at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre from Aug 4 – 6, 2017 and hob-nob with coffee experts over Instagram-worthy cuppas.
Don’t forget to find out all you need to know about the event here.