Four Best Restored F&B Joints in Singapore

The city’s fascination with old spaces is evident with more and more F&B places and boutiques opening in conservation areas like Tiong Bahru, Chinatown, Haji Lane, Little India and most recently, Jalan Besar, over the past two years. While most are arbitrary and forgettable with minimal conceptual design input, a handful like lifestyle café-brewery Chye Seng Huat Hardware and modish bar-restaurant-retail space Broadcast HQ stand out for their bold creative concepts which merge elements from the past and present to create authentic, original spaces that are in step with the times, reflecting the city’s current urban blueprint and milieu.Chye Seng Huat HardwareWhat it was: A former hardware store, established in 1950.What it is now: The city’s grooviest new cafe located near famous Jalan Besar, opened in August. Preserving its original Art Deco façade with iron grilles and a giant side iron gate which is also its current main entrance, it is truly an archetypal representation of restoration in the modern age. Café founder Leon Foo even worked with the original owner of the space to come up with the final name of the venue (“Chye Seng Huat” means “to flourish” in Mandarin), and created new signboards based on original 1950s design templates. “It was essential that we kept to the original spirit of this historical area, which is not only home to numerous existing hardware stores now, but also old Chinese nightclubs, hawker centers and most recently, new architectural and design firms that have set up offices in the area,” says Foo. Step inside and you’ll be greeted by a hip new café concept—the city’s first 360-degree coffee bar and a thoroughly modern space which serves some of the best coffees in town.The Big Picture: “We wanted to keep the design elements simple and honest, evoking the vibe of the original space,” says designer Elita Ong. “Throughout, you will notice lots of metal, brass and wood elements used for various fixtures and furniture. For example, tables were designed in such a way to showcase their original metal bases, while basic plywood tabletops play up the whole idea of ‘authenticity’ and ‘naturalism’. As this was a former hardware store, we also wanted to keep the material palette masculine.”Old-meets-New: “The cream-colored walls and original iron gates were handed over to us as they were so we didn’t have to do much to them,” says Ong. “What was more challenging was to merge the spirit of the original space with Leon’s idea of incorporating a whole lifestyle coffee concept here. So we’ve decided to build different rooms and areas at the courtyard and on the second floor to hold workshops, coffee-tasting sessions and a giant roaster using lots of metal fixtures and wood too. Inside the main café area, the floor was also kept in its original epoxy-layered condition while the main island bar which holds two main counters and coffee machines was more contemporary in tone as it was designed to look like a giant teardrop.”The VaultWhat it was: An OCBC branch which operated since 1938 and ceased operations in 2001.What it is now: A hip and contemporary bistro and bar located in Chinatown. Owners Ross Glasscoe and Godwin Pereira, the latter who also holds DJ duties at the space, chose the venue for “its historical significance,” says Pereira. “Being located in a conservation shophouse means that we have a lot of responsibilities on our hands … because we have lots of preservation issues to adhere to.” (see Pipe Dreams, left) Like most conserved spaces, the exterior of the venue remains unaltered (Glasscoe and Pereira even maintained the bank’s original iron vault door at the entrance). Upstairs is where the main bar area is located (“We wanted to create a secret hideaway concept of sorts here”) while downstairs is home to the bistro, serving contemporary Western dishes for both lunch and dinner.The Big Picture: “We initially engaged design firm Upstairs to help us conceptualize the look of the place, which we knew was ‘industrial’”, says Pereira. “We gave them a mainframe on how to dress it up but we also wanted to set some parameters when it comes to budgeting. Budget was certainly tight for this project, as we didn’t believe in spending a bomb like the major clubs so we took matters in our own hands. We also wanted to preserve the building’s original elements as far as we could. Basically with a venue like this, the design and fittings will never be complete as we wanted a raw and unfinished look to begin with.”Old-meets-New: “We stripped down the walls’ plaster layers to reveal the original brick fittings inside at the bar area,” says Pereira. “We wanted to show off the history of the building but at the same time add a modern touch to the space. So we installed Chengal wood flooring upstairs and plush sofas that boasted a mod Chesterfield vibe to create a more luxurious vibe. We kept the original concrete floors downstairs and added some small touches like imported Malaysian tiles to demarcate certain areas and to break the monotony of the ground floor space. Lighting throughout was also kept warm, simple and basic.”Broadcast HQ & Open Door PolicyWhat they were: The former, an old trading company built in the ’20s and formerly Post Museum (2008-2011). The latter, an old HDB flat from the ’50s.What they are now: The city’s coolest restaurant-bar-retail concept store and a contemporary European restaurant-bar with a distinctive old world charm.The creative team behind both venues—owner Cynthia Chua and creative director Jerry De Souza—are adept at transforming old spaces into thoroughly hip and relevant conceptual venues (the duo was the first to make Tiong Bahru hip again when they opened 40 Hands back in 2010, and most recently Tiong Bahru Bakery in the neighborhood). But it’s their quirky and irreverent approach to two of their latest spots, contemporary European restaurant Open Door Policy, also in Tiong Bahru, and restaurant-bar-retail shop Broadcast HQ in Little India, that are most inspired. Both venues are completely different conceptually: Open Door Policy was based on a small church in Lisbon that the duo had visited together during a holiday, while Broadcast HQ was an amalgamation of different ideas—an opium den for a private bar space on the second level, an industrial art loft at the main dining space downstairs and a dome-shaped dining area at the back of the restaurant inspired by the movie Narnia.The Big Picture: “For Open Door Policy, we basically had to play with existing construction materials like bricks, tiles and steels, and rework these to make them look unique as their look had to be very specific,” says De Souza. “So a lot of time was spent conceptualizing the look and feel for each of the fixtures as I wanted the space to boast an old-world European setting and at the same time maintain some of its old elements like the giant iron door behind the restaurant, which we kept. For Broadcast HQ, the space itself was already beautiful and had lots of character, so I had the choice of making it a bit more playful for its interiors as there were so many rooms to play with.”Old-meets-New: “All the dining tables and chairs, including the steel chairs, were imported from Germany and the US as we wanted an old-school European air for Open Door Policy, while floors were also kept untreated,” says De Souza. “A lot of work was involved in making sure that the new brick tiles we used for the walls looked untreated and unpolished. I also single-handedly reworked various steel elements into lighting fixtures by twisting and coating them with gold lacquer, to give a more contemporary touch to the space. For Broadcast HQ, we decided to keep various elements like the window grilles, brick walls, old floor tiles and broad wood floors throughout, but at the same time inject lots of fun, by mixing and matching elements like lace curtains, sofas made from Lurex (a brand of metallic yarn, made of laminated aluminum foil) fabric, Persian carpets and a handmade chandelier made from 5,000 chains juxtaposed against a contemporary abstract artwork.”  Which new boutique hotel looks like it’s still stuck in the ’20s?