Singaporeans don’t just love to eat – they live for it. Born out of its rich ethnic diversity, the city-state’s hybrid cuisine is the stuff of legend. From classic hawker centres to celebrity restaurants, we’ve rounded up the top spots to get a taste of the Lion City.
Hawker centres (open-air, or at least open-sided food courts) first sprang up in Singapore during the 1950s. There are now more than 100 across the island dishing up delicious local comfort food dishes from hokkien mee (egg noodles stir-fried with egg, pork and prawns) to orh lua (oyster omelette), biryani (spiced rice with marinated meat) to fish head curry.
A national monument since 1973, Lau Pa Sat is a popular lunchtime haunt for CBD workers; every night at 7pm, an adjacent street is transformed into a chaotic outdoor restaurant resembling Singapore’s fabled former Satay Club – there’s only one meal you come here to eat. Not far away in Chinatown, Maxwell Food Centre is the place to go for the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice (just look for the queue) while Old Airport Road serves some of the city’s cheapest chilli crab. Hankering for a south Indian thali? Head to Little India’s Tekka Centre. And if you’re waiting for a bumboat to Pulau Ubin, stop in at Changi Village Food Centre next to the ferry terminal for seriously good nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish). More touristy Smith Street (Chinatown) offers a great primer on Singaporean food for newbies.
Descendants of Chinese traders who took Malay wives, Peranakans (Singapore’s true locals) invented a unique cuisine that blends traditional Chinese dishes with Malay sauces and spices. Perhaps the most famous Peranakan dish is the distinctive laksa – head to the Katong/Jo Chiat area to slurp down the real deal; 328 Katong Laksa serves among the best.
Over in Chinatown, Blue Ginger is Singapore’s most celebrated (and authentic) Peranakan restaurant. From the kueh pie tee (a pastry cup filled with a spicy, sweet mixture of shredded vegetables and garnished with prawns) to the ayam buah keluak (chicken braised with turmeric, galangal and lemongrass cooked with Indonesian black nuts), fiddly Peranakan cuisine is executed to perfection here.
Fine dining and celebrity restaurants
While Singapore is still waiting for its first Michelin star, a rise in gourmet venues run by leading chefs has substantially raised the city-state's dining profile over the past decade. Two of the city’s top tables (Restaurant André and Waku Ghin) both made it in to San Pellegrino’s annual 2014 list of the world’s top 50 restaurants, and Singaporeans seemingly can’t get enough of haute cuisine – David Thompson of Bangkok’s Nahm (reputedly Asia’s best restaurant) will be the seventh top chef to open a restaurant in Marina Bay Sands (late October 2014), followed by Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen in 2015. But it’s not just about the expat stars, with local-born chefs such as Janice Wong (who plates up sweets like exquisite works of art at 2am Dessert Bar) and lawyer-turned chef Willin Low (of celebrated ‘Mod Sin’ restaurant Wild Rocket) both considered among the city's best.
Cafes and brunch
Not so long ago, breakfasting in Singapore meant stopping by a kopitiam (local coffeeshop) for a basic brew and a plate of kaya toast (filled with a jam made from eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan). But Singaporeans are never shy to embrace a new food trend, so when the Australian-style brunch concept arrived on the scene a few years back, it caught on like wildfire. From the mere handful of cafes that could reasonably be defined as brunch spots five years ago, there are now more than 100 cafes and restaurants across the island serving up everything from posh fry-ups (Common Man Coffee Roasters) to ingenious creations like pancakes topped with smoked salmon, egg salad, shaved onions, orange blossom honey and bourbon-infused sour cream (Artichoke) at the weekend. The hipster enclave of Tiong Bahru is the city’s most popular brunching neighbourhood; most cafes (try 40 Hands Coffee, Tiong Bahru Bakery and Flock Café) offer similar menus throughout the week.
At the other end of the spectrum, almost all of the city’s top hotels now put on a gourmet brunch spread on Sundays with free-flow champagne from noon until 3pm-4pm. Each restaurant has its own brunch signature, from ‘truffle hour’ at the The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Greenhouse to the six ‘show kitchens’ at the Grand Hyatt’s Mezze9.
With an average of two restaurants opening every day in Singapore, you’re never far from somewhere to eat. Aside from the aforementioned neighbourhoods, some of Singapore’s most popular and tourist-accessible dining destinations include Chinatown’s Club Street (try Oxwell & Co and Club Street Social), Duxton Hill (hot tables include Tippling Club, Luca Loco, Department of Caffeine), Dempsey Hill/Holland Park (from old favourite Long Beach Seafood to hip newbies The White Rabbit and Jones the Grocer), and the Quays/Colonial District (try Jumbo Seafood and Kilo, or dress up for high tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles).
Lonely Planet Destination Editor Sarah Reid's waistline is still recovering from her last trip to Singapore. Follow Sarah's tweets at @sarahtrvls. Sarah travelled to Singapore as a guest of the Singapore Tourist Board (yoursingapore.com) and Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies for positive coverage.