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The best of alternative Singapore: an insider’s guide to exciting new bars, clubs, restaurants, beers and more

The Lion City has often seemed behind the times when it comes to nightlife. But things are changing, and now there are a few hidden gems worth checking out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 7:48pm

Thoughts of Singapore naturally turn to flatness – to its mostly level terrain, but also to its lack of edgy appeal. Many consider it a characterless city that’s always a couple of steps behind trendsetting metropolises, with nothing to offer but bland and overpriced entertainment.

But a sea change is under way, thanks in part to a wave of homesick Singaporeans – educated in the West and returning full of entrepreneurial spirit – who have breathed new life into some tried and tested classics. Local dishes, rooftop bars, underground clubs and independent boutiques have been ripped apart and put back together again in fresh and exciting ways.

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With Hong Kong beset by ever-rising costs and a government that forever impedes, the Lion City is stealing the charm from under it. Singapore might not have the trendy thrills of Tokyo or the seedy appeal of Bangkok – but on the backstreets, things are happening. Read on for our insider’s guide.

Old tastes, new flavours

Eating out cheaply is part of Singapore’s appeal, and local spots are everywhere. So what can we recommend?

Makcik Chicken (makcikchicken.com) isa takeaway-only spot a couple of blocks from the Golden Mile Tower. It claims to have reinvented chicken-rice, probably the country’s most popular dish. And it’s a boast that’s working, with its sous-vide chicken, ramen eggs, chilli, and burger proof of its focus on high-quality ingredients.

Little Bastard’s (thatlittlebastard.com) prices are in a different stratosphere. At first glance, and with its “hidden” door on King George’s Avenue, it comes off as just another speakeasy. But the 1960s Hong Kong-inspired aesthetics – Wong Kar-wai meets hipster bar starter-pack – do it a disservice. The mini-servings of fine Singaporean dishes, including duck confit penyet and chwee kueh (steamed rice cake) with tofu medallions, are innovative.

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While the dishes at Bincho In Hua Bee (bincho.com.sg) are more Japanese than Singaporean, we dig its sundown switch. During the day, the space near Tiong Bahru market is a local family restaurant that’s been going strong for 50 years. But at night, its back room turns into a dark, contemporary yakitori izakaya, with heavy use of metals giving the place a sci-fi vibe.

Rooftops and cellars

After hours, Singapore’s nightlife tends to fit firmly into two too-comfortable categories: sleek rooftop bars with overpriced cocktails and shimmering skyline views, and luxe modern clubs, where the city’s prettiest converge over watered-down mixed drinks. But sometimes, we just want a bit of grime in our nights.

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Start things slowly at The Great Escape (facebook.com/GreatEsc), a hidden rooftop bar in the Golden Mile Tower. It was built in a car park, and the bar and seating area take up what were formerly parking spaces. Its Marina Bay views and curated, affordable menu of craft beer, cider and cocktails appeal to a mix of young local and expat professionals

Next, make your way to Cherry Discotheque (cherrydiscotheque.com), an ’80s-styled fever-dream basement spot, hidden on a side street near the otherwise upscale Scotts Road. The grungy club features retro arcade machines and plays vintage dance tunes all night.

Escape the dawn light at Fleek (facebook.com/FleekSG), an unassuming space in Clarke Quay that is a neon-lit, disco-inspired shrine to old-school hip-hop.

Craft beers

Bypass the expensive, hop-heavy craft beers in Singapore’s hipster bars and seek out the city’s true brews instead. Head into the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and you’ll find two craft beer bars occupying bare-bones stalls: Smith Street Taps (facebook.com/smithstreettaps) sources its craft tipples from around the world, while On Tap’s (facebook.com/ontapcraftbeers) selection is all Singapore brewed, with a strong focus on English styles. Both serve beers for as little as S$6.

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Further afield, Good Luck Beerhouse (facebook.com/GoodLuckBeerhouse) is a no-frills dive bar on popular Haji Lane, with eight local and international craft taps. Also worth a visit is Blue Bali Brewhaus (bluebali.sg), a faux-Indonesian outdoor microbrewery buried in the Botanical Gardens. But be warned: both are slightly pricey.

Flea markets

Shopping has long been a national pastime in Singapore, but ever-increasing rents mean many independent boutiques have been replaced by luxury global brands. So how do local designers survive? By taking advantage of ample public space, of course, through a flea market.

Boutiques (facebook.com/BoutiquesSingapore) is one of the best for unique pieces, a regular market often held at The Pit Building and solely dedicated to goods from independent designers. A bit more downmarket, The Local People (thelocalpeoplesg.com) hosts frequent flea markets at different locations, with a focus on handmade goods.

And we love the anti-capitalist attitude of the Really, Really Free Market (facebook.com/srrfm) a place where local folks give away cast-off items from their wardrobes to anyone who passes.

Culture clubs

It may not be immediately apparent, but there’s a real cultural scene brewing in the Lion City. The Projector (theprojector.sg) is an alternative cinema tucked away in the unassuming Golden Mile Tower, open most nights of the week. It shows new releases, local films and most importantly, retro classics – from Edward Scissor hands and the original Blade Runner to matinees of The Sound of Music – in a spacious old-school cinema that was once Singapore’s biggest, with prices less than your average multiplex.

Kult Kafe (kultkafe.com) is another favourite space, an old colonial house mostly known for its cool cocktail bar, but also housing a permanent gallery dedicated to underground art and performances. They also hold the occasional outdoor screening. And just for sheer weirdness, the folks at AndSoForth (andsoforth.com.sg) put on some of the most surreal multi-room theatre events (think immersive spins on Alice in Wonderland), served with accompanying dinners that match the theme.

Getting there

Numerous airlines including Cathay Pacific, Jetstar, Scoot, Singapore Airlines and United fly non-stop from Hong Kong to Singapore.

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Staying there

Hotels don’t come cheap in Singapore, but you can still bag a decent bargain at a boutique hotel. Try the old-fashioned Amoy Hotel (stayfareast.com/en/hotels/amoy) in Chinatown, or the renovated shophouse Hotel NuVe Heritage (hotelnuveheritage.com), near City Hall.

For something a little more swish, or if you’re in the city for work, both The Fairmont (fairmont.com/singapore) and neighbouring Swissotel The Stamford (swissotel.com/hotels/singapore-stamford) offer a tasteful balance between business and pleasure, and are conveniently located in Raffles City.