SINGAPORE, Sept 14 — Specialty coffee bars are popping up all over the island nation faster than you can count them. But with so many, it gets a bit confusing for the casual café-hopper. Which to visit first, and why?
Here are seven of the best cafés in Singapore — from the most “hipster” to the friendliest. There’s even one hidden where you least expect to find it. Most, if not all, roast their beans in-house so you can be assured of a unique brew.
You would hardly consider an old hardware store a hipster draw, even with its Art Deco façade. Look closer though, through the square grilles of its windows, and you might experience an epiphany: here, the hardware is a Synesso espresso machine.
Specialty coffee purveyor Papa Palheta founder Leon Foo launched Chye Seng Huat Hardware (the original shop was a disused hardware shop that went by another name) in August 2012 as the flagship outlet of his café empire.
The space is divided into four major areas — the Coffee Bar (self-explanatory), the Roastery (where micro production methods are employed in roasting beans), the Workshop (for training and classes) and the Annex (a tasting bar for coffee appreciation sessions).
The décor is an industrial affair as hardware stores are known as wujin dian in Chinese or “five metals shops”, hence there is plenty of metal used here. A teardrop-shaped 360-degree bar is the centre of the action where one barista pulls shots of espresso while another grinds single origin beans for filter coffee.
Don’t miss out on their cold brews. The chilled coffee comes in dark brown medicine bottles; the Ethiopian Sidamo we tried had bright citrus notes with a clean aftertaste.
Fans of Australian coffee roaster Five Senses and Singaporean café stalwart Forty Hands will rejoice in Common Man Coffee Roasters, their spectacular collaboration.
Situated along Martin Road which Singapore’s burgeoning professional expatriate population call home, the café is headed by Forty Hand’s own Harry Grover, himself a native of Perth.
No surprise if you sense the characteristic Melburnian café vibes this casual coffee bar exudes. Besides seasonal single origin beans, Common Man has also developed a house blend called (appropriately enough if you pay attention to their address) 22 Martin.
Roasted locally from a mix of beans from India, Brazil and Peru, this blend has dark chocolate notes, a low acidity and hit of spice. Served as an espresso, it’s intriguingly complex (try catching all the different flavours); add milk and it’s a smooth cappuccino with real character.
Common Man is known for its weekend brunch crowds, and little wonder given their robust offerings. Their French toast is near perfect: crusty on the outside and soft as air inside, and served with a drizzle of maple syrup and a healthy portion of fruit.
For something to last you the rest of the day, try their signature Turkish Common Man Breakfast — a phyllo-wrapped soft-boiled organic egg served with olives, tomatoes, cucumber, hummus and pita bread.
Jewel Coffee has long been a jewel (pardon the pun) in Singapore’s Central Business District, proving that even busy bankers will take the time out to appreciate specialty coffee. The shop itself is unpretentious and Americana in its furnishing; bright lights and a clean white palette reign. Service is efficient without being fussy or inattentive.
Owner Adrian Khong ensures that all the beans used are single origin. Try the hand-brewed Sidamo Ethiopia; it’s lightly acidic with rich floral notes that would wake up even the most sleep-deprived financial analyst.
Every espresso-based beverage is made from a double shot of espresso, perhaps to give the corporate types the buzz they need to endure endless meetings. This decision to make every cup twice as strong also makes it twice as good. Indeed, it’s official: Jewel Coffee makes the best espresso I’ve had thus far in Singapore.
The menu is modest and no-nonsense. Expect salads and pastas for quick, nourishing lunches. It’s a breakfast treat that makes my visit: a muffin sandwich with a fried egg and thick slice of ham. Deceptively simple yet it hits all the right spots.
The three-storey high ceiling is the first clue that this is no ordinary café. The brainchild of Melburnian Michael Ryan, Jimmy Monkey Café & Bar has a funky lounge ambiance with raw, exposed beams, wood finishing and a custom-made poured concrete bar. The bric-à-brac décor invites customers to relax with a book or take playful Instagram snaps.
Some may mistake this sense of friskiness for monkey business but they are very serious about coffee here. Ryan was mentored by fellow countryman Ross Bright, a master roaster and a World Barista Championships-certified judge, and roasts his own beans sourced from independent and Rainforest Alliance farms around the world.
Jimmy Monkey has Singapore’s first Slayer espresso machine. Barista Keith Yee (the younger brother of Malaysian barista champion JH Yee) makes a mean espresso macchiato. Enjoy this with thick cut French toast topped with fresh banana, chopped pistachio and golden syrup, or cheesy toast soldiers dipped into a soft boiled egg.
And in case you are wondering: the café got its name from Ryan’s childhood soft toy monkey. How absolutely adorable!
Despairing of finding a café in Singapore that is not overrun by crowds? Almost every other spot is modelled after the indie hipster café look (complete with industrial chic décor and bearded, tattooed baristas).
Fret not; there are still sanctuaries remaining in this concrete jungle. Who knew there could be a tropical-themed café hidden in a hospital of all places? Make that the eighth floor of the Novena Medical Centre, a brisk walk from the Novena MRT station.
La Ristrettos itself is fairly typical: exposed brick walls, a communal table, hiss and hum of the espresso machine and the steam wand. It’s the space outside (“inside” the medical centre, that is) that astounds. Imagine lush greenery, from tropical plants to tall stalks of bamboo, wooden walkways and rattan furniture.
Sip on coffee made from organic FairTrade Arabica beans from Caffè Agust. (With a new coffee roaster on-site, brews ought to become more interesting soon.) Take your time between bites of crab cake and pancakes (the former arrive with an English muffin, avocado, lemon aioli and a fried egg on top; the latter adorned with banana, scrambled eggs, bacon and salted caramel sauce).
Finally, serenity in the Lion City...
The friendliest baristas in town
Located at one corner of a row of shophouses in Bukit Timah, Necessary Provisions may not be the most accessible of cafés. Yet coffee lovers in the know will find their way to this sleepy neighbourhood, and with good reason: their baristas are some of the friendliest and warmest in this always-on-to-go city.
Opened by Darren Chang of Smitten Coffee and Tea Bar (another excellent café), Necessary Provisions makes up for its limited space with plenty of easy charm. A large round communal table seats a dozen effortlessly while another table displays their freshly baked creations.
The view of the semi-open kitchen and roasting room should entice most to sample their menu. Freshly made pasta is available but for smaller bites, you can’t go wrong with their savoury scones (imagine warm nuggets of cheese melting in your mouth) and the banana Nutella panini.
Espresso lovers can enjoy their in-house Thumper blend which is a mix of natural Brazil Fanzenda Passeio, washed Honduras El Chollo and Guatemala Fince San Andres. Those who prefer pour over coffee have a choice of V60 and Chemex; ask the barista for their seasonal single origins. Tea devotees aren’t left out; they carry an array of exquisite Chinese and Indian teas.
Kopitiam meets specialty coffee
East meets West in this little Nanyang-style coffeehouse infused with a Third Wave coffee sensibility. Translation: enjoy your flat white in a kopitiam setting. Located in a refurbished Chinatown shophouse, Oriole Coffee Roasters is the third café by Singaporean barista champion Keith Loh and also serves as a roasting facility and a training school.
You enter via saloon-style doors and step immediately into a carefully curated slice of history — from old-school Guinness glasses to tiffin carriers and flannel coffee “socks” hanging from the ceiling as ornaments. Sit on square wooden stools and enjoy a late breakfast of kopitiam-style half-boiled eggs with white pepper and soy sauce. Unusual for Singapore, light soy sauce is offered instead of the more popular dark version.
If the eggs seem perfect, with the bright yolks running out when pierced, this is thanks to the sous-vide method of poaching the free-range eggs. For something more decadent, try creamy scrambled eggs spiked with black truffle. French butter and sea salt lift up their homemade pandan kaya butter toast.
As you might expect, hot coffee is served in traditional kopitiam cups made from china. How’s that for a shot of nostalgia?
Chye Seng Huat Hardware
150 Tyrwhitt Road, Singapore
Open Tue-Fri: 9am-7pm; Sat & Sun 9am-10pm; Mon closed
Common Man Coffee Roasters
22 Martin Road #01-00, Singapore
Open daily 8am-7pm
1 Shenton Way #01-07, Singapore
Open Mon-Fri 7am-8pm; Sat 8am-5pm; Sun closed
Jimmy Monkey Café & Bar
9 One-North Gateway, #01-51 One-North Residences, Singapore
Open Mon-Fri 8:30am-8:30pm; Sat & Sun 8:30am-6pm
#08-37 Novena Medical Centre, 10 Sinaran Drive, Singapore
Open Mon-Fri 8am-6pm; Sat 8am-2pm; Sun closed
21 Eng Kong Terrace, Singapore
Open Tue-Thu 10am-10pm; Fri & Sat 10am-12am; Sun 10am-6pm
Oriole Coffee Roasters
10 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore
Open Mon–Sat 8:30am-10pm; Sun 8:30am-6pm