Singapore’s love affair with Melbourne’s cafe culture

CAFES in Singapore are sprouting like mushrooms and the rise of this cafe culture has its roots planted in Melbourne. Natalie Ng muses on the Melbourne influence over Singapore’s cafes.

Tolido's Espresso Nook

Tolido’s Espresso Nook

Many people around the world know Singapore as a fast-paced, modern city; one that’s constantly evolving its ever growing landscape.

I left Singapore for Melbourne in 2013 to pursue a degree in Communication Design and with each return visit I make for the holidays, there always seems to be yet another change: new train lines, new malls, new condominiums – all to accelerate the already fast-paced lifestyle of Singapore.

Melbourne by contrast is known for being laidback and friendly, although one thing they do take very seriously is their coffee and food.

The city is ubiquitously known for its cafe culture yet as a non-coffee drinker, I’ve had friends from around the world who were horrified I was not partaking in one of Melbourne’s greatest exports.

So, it was with great fascination that I also observed during my visits back to Singapore, that the Melbourne cafe culture had found its way into the country and was evolving at a rapid pace.

Many of these cafes took their coffee very seriously. Some had baristas trained in Melbourne or Sydney. Others even had chefs from Australia coming over to Singapore to get a slice of the action. The Lokal, which shares a space with the Singaporean branch of the Goethe-Institut (hence the name, which is German for ‘casual eating house’), is opened by Sydney chef Darren Farr.

The Lokal, opened by Sydney chef Darren Farr

The Lokal, opened by Sydney chef Darren Farr

Cafe-hopping has thus become the new trendy hobby for young Singaporeans, who are no longer content with their mass market coffee drinks and have instead become budding coffee connoisseurs who are as dependent as Melburnians are for their daily coffee fix.

In my latest visit back to Singapore, I got my friends to take me around to these cafes in Singapore. Including its coffee, pretty much every cafe that has opened up in the last few years has been influenced by both Australian cooking and plating in one way or another.

Even the ‘fusion food’ craze that has lately popped up in Singapore is no doubt inspired by Melbourne’s food landscape, with the city’s large Asian community inspiring its cuisine.

Neon Pigeon, which opened just this year in Singapore, is helmed by chef Justin Hammond formerly of the Melbourne’s Asian fusion restaurant Gingerboy. They serve fusion Japanese food and cocktails.

Paddy Hills, another cafe that is doing booming business despite just opening in March this year, has a very Melbourne-influenced decor and menu. Standard brunch items like berry pancakes are on the menu, but brioche French toast is given a Southeast Asian twist with sweet potato puree and Gula Melaka syrup. Meanwhile, popular Korean street food like Kimchi fried rice is given an Australian twist with a side of hanger steak.

Berry ricotta pancakes and kimchi fried rice with hanger steak from Paddy Hills

Berry ricotta pancakes and kimchi fried rice with hanger steak from Paddy Hills

As an international student studying in Melbourne, I also discovered sense of kinship to the many owners of these cafes who had also studied in Australia.

The mood of Ronin, a hidden cafe near Clarke Quay for instance, had a definite Melburnian vibe with its dim lighting and industrial-chic feel. It came as no surprise that its owner studied in Melbourne more than 10 years ago.

It was amazing to see how these cafe owners all across Singapore had fallen in love with Melbourne’s coffee and food culture and brought home both experience and a fresh perspective on adding something new to the Singaporean culture and landscape.

Perhaps too, besides the coffee, they hoped to bring over some of that laidback Melburnian charm to Singapore – easing up the rat race culture prevalent within the country.

Coffee from Tolido's Espresso Nook in Singapore

Coffee from Tolido’s Espresso Nook in Singapore

Looking forward, perhaps the rise of cafe culture in Singapore would mean that the warm and friendly service that makes Melbourne’s cafe culture so distinct would also find its way to Singapore.

These cafes may be able to get their coffee beans from Melbourne, recruit their chefs from Sydney and source their decor from all over Australia, but what can truly make a dining experience worth revisiting is the standard of service, which Singapore is unfortunately not known for.

And courtesy goes both ways, between the service staff and the guests at these cafes. It is my wish that since Melbourne has been influencing Singapore in so many ways – from the coffee, the food, fashion and music – then perhaps its friendly charm will also find its way to Singaporeans.

That, in fact, would be the best influence Melbourne can have on Singapore.

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