With the Lion City due to celebrate its 57th year of independence this month, what better way to celebrate than to look back at its rich culinary history? From youngest to oldest, here are 10 of the best Singapore heritage restaurants to visit if you’re feeling nostalgic.
1. Shashlik Restaurant (1985)
You may have been to a Russian restaurant, but you definitely haven’t been to a Russian restaurant with a Hainanese flair. In 1986, when Singapore’s legendary eatery Troika closed down after two decades, its Hainanese staff pooled their money to keep the magic alive. Shashlik at Far East Shopping Centre still retains the same vintage decor, sharply dressed waiters and devoted following decades later. Once you’re done taking photos, sample hard-to-find Russian icons such as borshch, blinis and chicken a la kiev. Save room for the namesake beef shashlik, served sizzling and tender – no sauce required.
2. Red Star Restaurant (1974)
One of the few places in Singapore where one can partake in dim sum the traditional way – selecting bite-size treats from push carts – Red Star was opened in 1974 by four local chefs who were collectively known as the culinary Heavenly Kings. The decor and layout has remained largely unchanged, so dining here can give you a major case of nostalgia. Besides a large variety of dim sum, this restaurant also serves up affordable, authentic Cantonese fare.
3. Lai Wah (1963)
Famous for being the birthplace of yu sheng (raw fish salad), a must-have at Chinese New Year celebratory meals in Singapore, Lai Wah was opened in 1963 by Wong Kok Lum together with two of the four culinary Heavenly Kings. Today, this venerable Singapore heritage restaurant is operated by the descendants of Wong, and besides yu sheng, other must-tries invented at the restaurant include the yam pot with shredded meat and Mandarin stewed chicken.
4. Roland Restaurant (1956)
After a bountiful day of crabbing, Madam Cher Yam Tian’s husband requested that she try something new with his crabs. After this successful culinary experiment, they decided to start selling the novel sweet and spicy dish at their beachfront eatery in the East Coast. Little did Madam Cher know that decades later, her creation would become one of Singapore’s most iconic national dishes. When the couple migrated to New Zealand in 1985 they handed the reigns over to their son Roland who runs the restaurant till this day. While the chilli crab is a must try when you’re at Roland, don’t miss some of Madam Cher’s other creations like the deep-fried baby squid and you char kway (dough fritters) stuffed with squid paste.
5. ColBar (1953)
ColBar‘s history harkens back to 1953, where a Singaporean couple had originally built it as an eatery serving British Army soldiers garrisoned nearby. Despite the passage of time, the eatery remains unchanged, still boasting its bright blue walls and rustic wooden interiors adorned with vintage curiosities. Its menu today remains anchored to the past and features an array of Hainanese-Western classics like chicken chops, fish and chips, pork cutlets and more. They’ve also added a selection of craft beers for discerning drinkers. ColBar’s secluded location also adds to the eatery’s old school vibe. The minimal traffic and lush surrounds almost feel like Singapore in the ’60s.
6. Warong Nasi Pariaman (1948)
Possibly the longest-surviving nasi padang (rice with mixed dishes) establishment in Singapore, Warong Nasi Pariaman is well known for its faithful renditions of dishes like beef rendang (dried beef curry) and ayam bakar (grilled chicken). Set up by Jumrin Isrin in 1948, the restaurant began life as a warong (coffeeshop) before it grew into a full-fledged eating house. He has since retired and has passed it on to his children who still operate it at Kandahar Street.
7. Spring Court (1929)
Opened in 1929 by Ho Loke Yee, Spring Court prides itself as being Singapore’s oldest family-run restaurant. Serving what it calls Singapore Chinese Cuisine, it popularised dishes such as roast suckling pig and popiah (fresh spring rolls). Situated in an elegant four-storey heritage shophouse in Singapore’s vibrant Chinatown, it is now run by third-generation members of the Ho family. While the menu remains firmly rooted in Singaporean Chinese culinary traditions, the restaurant’s interior is stylish and unapologetically modern.
8. Ananda Bhavan (1924)
Open since 1924, Ananda Bhavan is Singapore’s oldest Indian vegetarian restaurant and a household name among aficionados of South Indian food. After exploring the cultural enclave of Little India, grab a seat at this unassuming little Serangoon Road restaurant for a hearty vegetarian meal. Its menu features vegetarian favourites like thosai, vadai and idiyappam but the star of the show here is undoubtedly the appam. This South Indian pancake is made with fermented rice batter and features a fluffy centre and lacy crisp edges. It’s best eaten dipped in coconut milk and brown sugar and washed down with a piping hot cup of masala tea.
9. Islamic Restaurant (1914)
If you’re in the mood for briyani, this is one of the best heritage restaurants in Singapore to check out. This well-loved restaurant – said to have been established in 1914 – has been dishing out richly spiced plates of biryani for over a century. Its patrons have even included royalty from neighbouring countries. Islamic Restaurant was started by chef M. Abdul Rahman and is now run by his grandson, who still serves up favourites such as chicken Mysore and roti Mariam. The must-try at this North Bridge Road mainstay, of course, is the biryani, which comes in chicken, mutton and fish versions.
10. Tiffin Room (1892)
Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel has been serving up impeccable North Indian fare served in classic tiffin boxes since 1892. You’ll also enjoy luxurious touches like tableside service by the chefs themselves. The restaurant’s array of dishes are inspired by the royal feasts of the maharajas of old and feature lavish takes on classic dishes like kebabs, richly spiced curries, biryani, tandoori dishes and more. The newly revamped August 2022 menu has been put together by Chef Kuldeep Negi who’s helmed the Tiffin Room’s kitchen for over a decade. New dishes include vegetarian mains like the gucchi methi mattar malai, a savoury white mushroom curry and balti gosht, a richly spiced lamb leg curry. The restaurant’s interior itself is a feast for the eyes and has been lovingly restored with period-accurate features selected by Raffles Hotel’s own heritage consultants.
– TEXT BY ESTHER AU YONG
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings on 19 June 2017.