Who would have bet that this area, once part of a sprawling Chinese cemetery could become one of Singapore’s top charming heritage estates? With its famous wet market, food court, great eateries and cute little shops, all tucked in 1930’s Art Deco buildings, Tiong Bahru embraces traditional and chic.
My PR maven friend Sandra nicknamed it “Marais Bahru” after the cool and posh Parisian district. Yes, residents here (and I am one of them) are the first to make fun of its reputation. So call it Upscale, Hobo, Bobo or Hipster, love it or hate it, but let’s face it, Tiong Bahru is above all a unique quaint neighbourhood gem. Where you can go tradi (it’s cheap) and chic (not that cheap).
- EAT CHIC -
TIONG BAHRU BAKERY - French Café
While exploring the neighbourhood, don’t be surprised if some French people stop you and ask their way to Gontran’s Bakery. They’re talking about… Tiong Bahru Bakery. French Master baker and ex TV star Gontran Cherrier had a good nose and opened his first Singapore joint in today’s famous Eng Hoon Street. Essentials are all displayed, croissant, pain au chocolat, baguette, sandwiches… The taste is not exactly like home, but good. Some eccentricities like classic croissants remade and packed with sausage, chicken or salmon would make a true French hit the roof. But it’s modern… Or is it?
ASK: For the brioche crusty cake “kouign amann”, a Breton speciality sometimes hard to find, even in France.
PLAIN VANILLA - The cupcake master
This is what I would call a “boutique bakery”, designed with a sweet rustic bucolic twist. On one side you have a high end delicatessen and kitchen products corner selling gourmet food. But what we really come here for is on the other side, cake paradise. Their goal is simple: Take our grandmother’s recipe to make it better. And it works… Their little cupcakes (a wide range of choice but I’ll go for the chocolate hazelnut) are just to die for. They put an accent on Sustainable practices, using recyclable paper for serving and packaging.
ASK: For a 6 or 12 cupcake box. If you return it after use, they’ll give you a free cupcake. They also rent lovely bikes if you want to ride around the neighbourhood.
FLOCK CAFE - No fuss at Flock
Flock aims to be the kind of cafe where you can relax and go every day, while most of Tiong Bahru’s other places are off on Mondays. Run by a Singaporean family, Gourmet sandwiches like Prawn avocado or Pork Cheek gruyere paninis are handcrafted. Breakfast is served all day and their coffee beans come from the renowned roaster Liberty coffee. A simple place with no fuss.
ASK: For the Genmaicha latte. Unusual.
FORTY HANDS - The coffee maven
Forty Hands is a pioneer in Singapore’s barista scene and has been one of the first coffee joints to facelift the neighbourhood. Founder Harry Grover who has been studying coffee farmer communities for his Masters in Asian Sustainable Development, believes that it takes 40 hands to produce a single cup of coffee from bean to cup. This is where you’ll find delectable ones, Aussie style, with fine latte art on top. Their Big boy breakfast (with organic smoked beef or pork sausage) is also a must-try.
ASK: For their Tau Sar Pau (Red bean bun). They claim to have the best in town though they are too cute to eat.
OPEN DOOR POLICY - Open door for Champagne
ODP’s dining space with a “behind a glass show kitchen” will transport you directly in Manhattan New York. Helmed by Chefs Daniele Sperindio and Ryan Clift (from Tippling Club), their globetrotting menu highlights the best of Modern bistro cuisine. With a focus on western and Asian fusion. From guacamole risotto, spicy lamb spring rolls to braised beef cheek, the dishes are startling, yet familiar.
ASK: Your friends to go during the weekend. They have a countdown champagne brunch. So chic.
PS Café Petit - Pizza Chic
Who said fast food wasn’t chic? Clink glasses at PS café while waiting for your Pizza in a Great Gatsby decor to prove the contrary. And if you feel too guilty with the pizzas and desserts they offer, choose to go light with their salad bowls. There are 6 PS Café altogether in Singapore and two of them claim to offer a gourmet takeaway prepared with a slow food sensibility. The wine shop has a curated selection of French bottles. Love it.
ASK: For the smoked mozzarella Margherita. Classic yet different.
BINCHO - 50 shades of chicken and Donburi
This hidden little gem is housemate with the traditional coffee shop “Hua Bee”. Feel like a spy and enter by a door at the back (from the parking) for the best of Osaka yakitori cuisine brought by Chef Asai Masashi, specialised in the art of charcoal grilling. For dinner, go crazy with a kind of 50 shades of chicken menu. Or be reasonable and gentle to your wallet with the Donburi set lunch. Famous Chef and boss Andre (Chiang) is never too far to check on the quality of the sashimi or wagyu beef.
ASK: for the green tea ice cream to finish the hearty meal.
- EAT TRADI -
HUA BEE - Seen in a movie
Here is where you can head to if you forgot your wallet and have some change left in your pocket. A bowl of mee pok starts from 3 dollars. The flat egg noodles are served with an accompanying bowl of soup with fish cake and fish balls. The stall has been operating for more than 70 years, but it’s Eric Khoo with his first movie “Mee Pok man” in 1995 that immortalized this traditional old fashion Kopitiam (coffee shop). Atmosphere hasn’t changed, nor the decor. Marble tables, pale blue tiles, While savouring your meal you could hear actress Michelle Goh shouting “Mee Pok!!” in your head. A journey back in time. Scene in a movie.
ASK: for some teh tarik (milk tea) to go completely local
Tuesday - Sunday 7am - 3 pm
TIONG BAHRU FOOD CENTRE - Crazy about hawker
What would be a heritage neighbourhood without its food legacy? The Tiong Bahru market was the first country modern market to be built inside a housing area. Located above the wet market, the Tiong Bahru food centre has over 80 stalls and it would take weeks to try them all. Very very traditional, some of them have been in the business for over 50 years. Like “Tiong Bahru Pau” (stall #02-18), who started on Seng Poh road in 1965 and now sells its dim sum in over 6 outlets all over Singapore.
ASK : For a fresh sugar cane juice, they do it right in front of you.
Most stalls closed on Mondays
LOO Hainanese curry rice - The Curry Institution
Loo is an institution. And mister Loo father and son have been serious about curry since 1946. The one only to be found in Singapore, as hainanese cooks learned from the nonya families. As curry alone takes three days to make, the result is a winning recipe. You can choose from the pork and vegetable chop to the spicy prawn and squids… A long queue awaits you during lunch hour, a sign that’s good.
ASK: For some cabbage to complement
8 am - 2pm. Closed on Thursdays.
NICHER - Comfort Cake
Inspired by the French verb “nicher” meaning “nest”. That’s precisely what “Nicher” is, tucked in a little space and sharing premises with Loo hainanese curry. This mini bakery would easily go unnoticed and it would be a shame actually. 1. Because their pound cakes and muffins are fresh baked in house and delicious. And 2. Because young owners Melvin and Lewis are super friendly. Their flavours range from orange to earl grey berries. Having the almond marble pound cake with a coffee from the kopitiam stall next door is one unpretentious simple pleasure.
ASK: For your cakes and muffins in advance as they mainly bake by order.
AH CHIANG PORRIDGE - Not boring
If you think porridge is boring, wait until you see this place. According to the queue it seems more like looking for the Holy Grail here. All those people waiting for their comfort food from this stall, well established since the 1970’s. Mr Cher Kee Chiang has retired since but Cantonese style porridge (smooth and gooey rice congee) is still cooked over gas and traditional charcoal from 4 am. You can customize it in a dozen ways.
ASK: For the Century eggs one if you dare
GALICIER - Candy Cake
This traditional Nonya Kueh, cake and pastries shop will make you feel like a kid in a candy shop. You’ll be stricken by all the colours and the wide range of choice. Don’t panic if nothing is familiar. Two of their specialties are a must try: The sweet Kueh dadar (pancake coconut roll) and salty lemper, Indonesian glutinous rice filled with chicken or shrimp. Affordable and delightful.
ASK: For the latest baked
9 am - 9 pm. Closed on Mondays.
- SHOP (CHIC) -
Shops here in Tiong Bahru regularly bite the dust. Lately, we had the regrets to see leaving Bloesem, but a few remain.
NANA & BIRD - The local Chic
Georgina Koh and Tan Chiew Ling opened this online store and Multi-label boutique in 2011. Their goal is to cater the best of what international and local emerging designers such as Yumumu and Aijek can offer. They sell “only what they would buy for themselves" and “want to help the modern, engaged woman build a strong, functional wardrobe with classic pieces peppered with the occasional “why not” piece with quirky details.”
ASK: To see what they have for kids. They have recently started to sell children wear.
STRANGELETS - Hipster Corner
This is the story of 4 interior designers and architect friends who travelled the world in order to create a shop that would gather charming and clever items. The result is this little design shop, a response to hyper-mega mass production. High-End. Think tableware by Astier de Villatte, Jewellery by Kiel Mead, lighting by Mark Product… Beautiful, quirky, and expensive.
ASK: For the singaporeans frozen treats “Popaganda”. And for the crafts from Heart works, part of a social project in Cape Town. They’re one of the few little affordable things to buy in Strangelets.
BOOKS ACTUALLY - One of a kind
Your attention please, rare specimen here. This Independent bookstore, unique in Singapore, almost went out of business several times but survived thanks to owner Kenny and his team’s passion and devotion. Specialised in fiction, they house the largest collection of Singapore literary publications and publish poetry, novel and essays under their imprint “Math Paper Press”. You’ll also go crazy for the wide range of magazines. Plus they have a vintage bric-a-brac at the back, like a tiny tiny flea market. If you have time for only one place in Tiong Bahru. This is it.
ASK: for the hand stitch notebooks and stationery they produce under Birds & Co.
WOODS IN THE BOOKS - Tintin & Co
Another Indie bookstore and neighbour of Books Actually. Woods in the books specializes in picture books for all ages. From comics to graphic novels, you’ll meet Tintin and The little Prince. And also gems from local authors, Illustration paradise.
ASK: For drawings and toys created by the shop owner and artist Mike Foo.
ONE OLIVE FLOWER - Haute Couture
This little “flower couture” shop is worth having a peep at. Old French songs are playing (ones my own grandparents won’t even recognize). Even if you have no one to buy flowers to, let yourself go to the romantic atmosphere and floral scents. Prices are up to 5 times the TB market next door, but it’s (haute) couture isn’t it?
ASK: to meet Sunday, their star cat even has a soft toy in his image.