Finding a good coffee in Singapore: The Lion City's coffee revolution

"Everyone loves to go out drinking coffee and having brunch. Brunch is like a sport here; on a Sunday we have queues down the road."

If this sounds familiar, it is – and it isn't. For cafe owner Harry Grover isn't talking about the brunching multitudes of Melbourne or Sydney. As we sit within Common Man Coffee Roasters, he's explaining how Australia's indie coffee scene has caught on in Singapore.

"It's exploded here, and a lot of that came from Aussie influence," he says. "Many of the new generation of Singaporeans have studied in Sydney or Melbourne, and they've come back home and thought, 'I want to have the same quality'."

The result? Places like Common Man, a slick contemporary cafe in the River Valley district, with a mix of industrial and more natural timber elements.

"We tried to move away from industrial chic, toward a sleek design with an art deco feel," says Grover, who felt that the industrial look was becoming a cliche but couldn't entirely be avoided. "It's more upmarket and hopefully more timeless."

More importantly for the Aussie traveller, there's good coffee and food to be had. There's no problem ordering flat whites and long blacks here, along with fresh juice blends which arrive at the table in jars.

Among its choices, the breakfast menu has house-baked beans, green pea fritters, and eggs benedict served with ox cheek. I opt for the tasty Veggie Wonderland, which includes expertly scrambled eggs, halloumi, spinach and mushrooms, with pepita toast.

The next morning I find a distinctly local twist on the indie cafe at Chye Seng Huat Hardware, in the Jalan Besar area. As the name suggests, it's a former hardware store in an old shophouse, which in the past would have been split into a residence above and a shop below.

From the front it still appears to be a hardware outlet, its doors shuttered. Walk around the side, however, and a courtyard leads to the cafe within. 

A central horseshoe-shaped bar dominates a simple interior. Ceiling fans turn, exposed light bulbs dangle, and metal shelving is dotted with coffee paraphernalia.

This is my kind of place, I decide, and if I lived in Singapore I'd be haunting it. For breakfast I order the wild mushroom aglio olio, a mix of mushrooms and black fungus garnished with chilli and coriander, topped with fried enoki mushrooms. 

It's excellent, a kind of East-meets-West dish which is much spicier than expected.

Singapore's old shophouses may often be overlooked in favour of its grand colonial buildings and imposing 21st-century structures, but I'm starting to realise that they're the perfect place for a cafe. Not too big or small, with built-in authenticity and character, they provide a welcoming space which can be tailored to suit.

My next shophouse-dwelling cafe is Selfish Gene, in the Tanjong Pagar district west of the Downtown. Here a section of the ground floor ceiling has been removed, making a skylight of the exposed upper storey.

In addition to locally roasted coffee, there's a simple menu of sandwiches (the smoked salmon tartine version is a highlight) and dishes such as pasta and soup. For breakfast, the Valerie (toasted brioche, berry compote, cream cheese and scrambled eggs) catches the eye.

Further afield from the usual tourist haunts is Flock Cafe, in Tiong Bahru. This area is home to a 1930s public housing estate, built in an attractive art deco style. 

The blackboard menu of this small neighbourhood cafe is low-fuss, with all-day breakfast items such as Cheeky Eggs (poached eggs, braised pork cheek, rocket and hollandaise sauce on a muffin).

The coffee here is good, though my long black is, like all Singapore coffee, a bit pricey at $4.60.

To complete my Singapore coffee experience it seems fitting to visit a kopi tiam, the traditional Malay-style coffee shop.

For this I head to Nanyang Old Coffee in Chinatown. 

Its kopi starts with sugar-glazed beans which are ground, brewed and passed through a filter, before the resulting beverage is poured over condensed milk. It's served in a traditional ceramic cup decorated with a blue flower pattern.

Accompanied by toast spread with kaya (a coconut and egg jam), it's quite refreshing. And you can't knock the price, a mere $1.45 for the coffee.

Having said that, I think I'll stick to my beloved long black. 

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board; read his travel blog at www.aerohaveno.com.

MORE INFORMATION

FLY

Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies Melbourne to Singapore, from $600 return.

STAY

The Sultan, 101 Jalan Sultan, thesultan.com.sg

Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen, 170 Bencoolen St, ibis.com

EAT & DRINK

Common Man Coffee Roasters, 22 Martin Rd, commonmancoffeeroasters.com

Chye Seng Huat Hardware, 150 Tyrwhitt Rd, facebook.com/ChyeSengHuatHardware

Selfish Gene, 40 Craig Rd, selfishgenecafe.com

Flock Cafe, 78 Moh Guan Tce, flock.sg

Nanyang Old Coffee, 268 South Bridge Rd, nanyangoldcoffee.com

Comments