Singapore's Best-Kept Secrets
Navigate the city's ever-growing array of cool underground spots like a pro.
Keeping things hush-hush is all the rage. Here in Singapore, it seems like every other new bar wants to keep itself a secret. Places with their entrances hidden within other restaurants, spaces tucked away in narrow alleyways and establishments you’ll need a password to enter—we've got all this and more.
“We keep a lower profile compared to the big and brash establishments because we prefer to focus on building a community and an audience rather than simply advertising for any customers to walk-in,” says Gan Kwok Yee, general manager and founder of cocktail bar Jigger & Pony. “I think it helps attract people who want a place that is not too commercial, and ironically makes them all the more excited to share this community with their friends and colleagues.”
Secret bars are far from a new phenomenon. Pioneering cocktail joints like New York’s PDT (aka Please Don’t Tell), Employees Only and Little Branch years ago set the trend for watering holes with a Prohibition era speakeasy vibe. London, too, has its share of hidden spots including Milk & Honey and Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, with unconventional and nondescript addresses. And it’s not just drinking haunts that have chosen to remain secret. From Melbourne soba specialist Yu-u to New York’s Burger Joint (concealed behind a curtain at the lobby of Le Parker Meridien Hotel), some of the best food in big cities is now found at purposefully mysterious locales. We've also seen the rise of guerilla dining clubs where you can eat with strangers..
It’s really no surprise that the cosmopolitan Little Red Dot has its own little mysteries. Not all covert locations are new. We’ve long had venues so exclusive that the general public barely knows about them (like the Pyramid Club, a semi-secret stronghold for the political elite at Goodwood Park). And in recent times, even more hidden haunts have joined the fold, all with the same under-the-radar buzz. Here we share some of the island’s best-kept secrets, so you too can partake in the underground scene.
These watering holes are as secretive as bars of the bygone Prohibition era, but that's precisely what adds to their appeal.
It’s all very hush-hush really (no signage, just a nondescript door), but this neat cocktail bar is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. The almost non-existent lighting from old-fashioned bulbs and cozy ambiance make for a great speakeasy vibe. Unlike most other cocktail bars, food here is actually pretty damn good. Try the truffle mac & cheese balls ($12) to go with the carefully curated menu of tipples including a barrel-aged negroni ($25). The crowd’s just as cool as the vibe: arty types, scenesters and chefs.
With its entrance hidden inside Malaysian restaurant PappaMia at a River Valley shophouse, this joint set up by the Association of Bartenders and Sommeliers of Singapore (ABSS) serves as a training space for barmen in the daytime. But what you might not know is that the place also switches into full bar mode in the evening. There’s a wide range of spirits and liqueurs stocked at the comfy, laid-back joint (with a video game machine and a pool table). Cocktails—mixed by trainees—start at a mere $9 and pack a real punch (though don’t expect anything too creative: it’s just classics here).
The latest bespoke cocktail bar on the scene is located along North Canal Road, a short walk from 28 HongKong Street. The entrance is tucked behind new eatery Shoebox Canteen, with discreet signage on the mailbox. With stripped bare walls and old-school floor tiling, the joint has an anti-establishment aesthetic. Owner-barkeeper Din Hassan whips up drinks to your taste, most costing between $17-23 nett. You might get concoctions such as the unusual Kaya Toast ($19), with dark Mount Gay rum, Earl Grey tea, fresh lemon juice, honey and kaya, as well as classics like the Penicillin ($22).
Hidden behind a curtain inside the rather unassuming Uma Uma Ramen is a door. And behind that door is a staircase. And at the bottom of that staircase is... a really rather pleasant bar that takes its cues from Japanese drinking dens (think: exclusive whiskeys, careful techniques and dark corners, courtesy of designers Asylum), but does away with the stuffiness (and the impenetrable menus) to create somewhere that for all its "exclusivity" is a reliable bet for a well-made drink. It's so easygoing, in fact, that Japanese clients from the adjacent kaiseki joint barely recognise it as one of their own; and don't tend to stay for long. Which means more limited edition Hitachino Nest beers for the rest of us.
47 Keong Saik Road
Those in the know head to the cool password-only bar right next to Jason Atherton’s casual Western eatery. You can get the secret phrase off their Facebook page or from the eager servers at the restaurant. Give the password to the bookkeeper who’ll let you in a mirrored door. Once in, brace yourself for serious drinks, care of Canadian bartender Stefan Ravalli who’s done his time at Atherton’s Pollen Street Social. Tiki fans will dig Piscotheque ($21), with passion fruit, pineapple, mint leaves and BarSol Pisco. The sake-spiked Moshi Moshi Umeboshi ($21) is a nice refreshing drink, too.
Throw back some top-notch sips at these occasional drink specialists.
Here’s a little known way to get your fill of suds from homegrown brewhouse Jungle Beer Brewery. The open brewery tour and free-flow deal happens every second Saturday of the month, 6:30-11:30pm, and no reservations are necessary. Beer master Aditya Challa will take you around the facility and show you the tools of the trade—tanks, malt and pungent hops—then you get to imbibe the fruits of his labor with an all-you-can-drink draft craft beer deal for $40. There’s a rotating lineup of flavors such as mango, orange and even coffee. The next one happens February 16 (it got pushed back a little for the CNY holidays).
For a little more variety, Cult Beer Club’s a hush-hush group of beer lovers who gather to taste progressive international bottles by cult favorite brewers (think names like Mikkeller, DeMolen and DeStruise). They sample the suds at tasting sessions which sometimes feature more than 40 labels. To sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brews of another sort can be found at Liberty Coffee. The coffee roaster is a familiar name around town, providing fresh java to cafés such as Artistry in Kampong Glam. But you might not know that they open up every now and then as a coffee bar. You can find the opening hours online on their website. (Though you’ll have to check in pretty regularly, updates are usually posted just a day before they open.) As they’re primarily a wholesaler, the team works their retail hours around the roasting schedule.
Some of the best food items in town aren’t on the bill of fare. Here are some great unlisted dishes that'll impress your dining partners.
Frutti di Mare
First cooked up at the request of popular food blogger Dr Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost.sg this briny seafood tomato pasta dish quickly became a hotly requested item. But Cugini has continued to keep it off the menu. Corrado Riccio, the group’s operations director says, “We believe guests always feel a bit special ordering an item using insider knowledge.” For extra credit, order up the less well-known white sauce version.
$29.90 at Cugini.
In addition to not being listed on the menu, you’ll have to order this eight-hour slow-roasted 2.8kg lamb leg about three days in advance. But it’s totally worth it for this fall-off-the-bone specialty. Plus it comes with bread, salad and a variety of dips including cheese and hummus. Bring friends; remember, sharing is caring.
$200 from Artichoke Café + Bar.
This dish started out as a Sunday special and isn't on the main menu. But you can do like the regulars do and make a special request for the hard-to-find Eurasian recipe comprising belimbing—a long oval fruit with an intense sour flavor—fresh shrimp and red chili gravy.
$20 at Immigrants.
Another worldwide phenomenon alive and well in Singapore is secret supper clubs. Check out these exclusive dining experiences for intimate evenings with like-minded foodies.
Known for hosting their events at exclusive spots like the Pyramid Club, this dining club reveals the location of each event to RSVPed individuals just two days before the dinner. Pang Hian Tee, one of its founders says, “We like interesting and off-the beaten-track places and usually work with spaces that will allow us to best showcase the talent or activity we’re presenting.” Priced from $130-250, the meals are prepared by well-known local cooks such as Jimmy Chok and Heather Barrie, with handpicked wines from fine producers like Champagne Legras & Haas. They’ve even had live performances by Romanian singer Maya Nova, Japanese jazz pianist Aya Sekine and local duo Zsa and Claire.
The fourth 2013 installment of this supper club goes down on February 13 at 7:30pm. Helmed by 28-year-old Zina Alam, the meals cost around $60 a head and are announced anything from two weeks to a month before the event. All are held at Alam’s family home in the west coast. Expect five to eight dishes at every dinner, plus a welcome drink such as homemade lemonade or tamarind juice. Recipes are home-style Bangladeshi recipes which Alam cooks with her mother. The upcoming supper will debut a family favorite of coconut, tamarind and crab.