Two additions to the bar scene are breathing new life into locations rich in history.
Along Keong Saik Road – once known for its sordid past as home to brothels from the 1960s to 1980s – all-day bar, coffeehouse and restaurant No Sleep Club, which opened in October, has put a modern spin on a clan-owned three-storey shophouse.
With its open concept, raw steel finishes and use of natural materials and textures, the establishment has an easygoing hospitality, an antithesis to stuffy high-end bars steeped in decorum.
Meanwhile, dual-level bar Barbary Coast in Boat Quay plays off Singapore's trading and port history, while holding court in a space that spans three side-by-side shophouses.
Named after San Francisco's infamous but culturally rich Gold Rush town of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Barbary Coast – which opens its doors in the middle of this month – offers vastly different experiences on each floor.
Like the hastily cobbled together saloons, or "deadfalls" as they were called, of the original Barbary Coast, the first floor, named DeadFall, is characterised by concrete and exposed brick, and will pump out beers, wines and quick cocktails.
The luxurious second floor, called Barbary Coast Ballroom, draws on the exclusive dance halls and jazz clubs of the era and is fittingly adorned in richly coloured wallpaper, chandeliers and plush velvet seating.
The people behind No Sleep Club and Barbary Coast are veterans of the local and international bar scene, who are now striking out on their own in repurposed heritage buildings.
The Straits Times takes a peek into the new watering holes
NO SLEEP CLUB
No Sleep Club (NSC) on bustling Keong Saik Road does not have an immediately obvious sign marking it.
Instead, the all-day bar and restaurant is fronted by a hard-to-miss taupe awning printed with two emojis – one of a cross and the other of a sleepy face.
If you are walking down the five-foot-way that connects the historical shophouses on the street, the handwritten sign with the words "we got the dope" on a glass window beckons you in for coffee and cocktails.
The playful details are all part of NSC's fresh-faced and all-hours approach to hospitality – a concept co-founded by Ms Juan Yijun, 35, and Ms Jessica Hutchinson, 32.
"We wanted to create a neighbourhood bar because we're close to the residential area (of Duxton), but we're also on what has become a destination street," says Ms Hutchinson.
Keong Saik Road has become one of Singapore's hottest food and beverage stretches, populated by the likes of modern Australian restaurant Burnt Ends, contemporary Indian eatery Thevar and World's 50 Best Bar list-maker The Old Man Singapore.
NSC's founders have a combined 20 years of experience in F&B and hospitality. Ms Juan has been the head bartender at the likes of award-winning underground bar Operation Dagger, while Ms Hutchinson was part of the opening team of Singapore bar scene pioneer 28 HongKong Street.
"I come from a more modern, fine-dining kind of bar and she comes from the fast, high-volume style of bar, so we wanted to have a space that marries both," says Ms Juan.
In designing the space, which was formerly occupied by wine bistro Wine Mansion, they wanted minimal boundaries among the bar, the floor and the kitchen.
Hence, while the sprawling bar takes up most of the space, it was kept flat and free of accoutrements to keep the open concept. From the service perspective, this gives a clear view of the kitchen, allowing the front of house and the bar to communicate with the chefs easily.
The owners also wanted natural textures throughout the space – be it the imperfectly plastered walls, the cork bar back or the raw steel top bar that will age and gain character over time.
"Using different textures also softens the look because industrial or overly minimalist details would make it feel very hard. It's also so that if you come back and sit at a different section, you'll have a different experience visually," Ms Hutchinson says.
Hospitality is at the core of the NSC experience, with function taking precedence over form.
Referring to the history of the space, Ms Juan notes how that in traditional Chinese shophouses, the entrance was where most of the entertaining was done. Hence, there is a communal table extended from one end of the bar to near the front door – for bigger groups who want to sit at the bar.
"We lost space for more tables by doing that, but we wanted more bar seats because that's where you get the most attention and that's where people are taken care of," she says.
NSC also has a multi-purpose second-floor space – called Us and Them – where all the original windows and flooring owned by the landlord, the Chung Shan clan association, were kept.
Here, it will host cross-disciplinary food, coffee and cocktail collaborations and omakase menus for small groups, and even yoga or ceramics classes. The pair hopes to open the space in the first quarter of next year.
Ultimately, the space is meant to be welcoming. Ms Hutchinson says: "The word 'club' was chosen for the name because we always want it to be people-oriented, and the sort of place you can come in at any time of the day and feel welcome."
No Sleep Club is at 20 Keong Saik Road; open: 8am to midnight (Tuesdays to Fridays); 10am to midnight (Saturdays); and 10am to 6pm (Sundays); closed on Mondays. Go to www.instagram.com/ nosleepclubsg or call 8838-0188.
While the Boat Quay district might be better known these days for seedy KTV lounges, beer towers and happy-hour promotions, new dual-level bar Barbary Coast is looking to change the tide.
Its owners have established two venues that aim to be on a par with Singapore's best bars.
For industry veterans Michael Callahan, 41, and Celia Schoonraad, 33, the concept could work only in the Boat Quay area – given its trading and free port history dating back to the 1800s, when ships called and businesses set up private jetties, offices and warehouses.
On the other side of the world, San Francisco's Barbary Coast was also thriving in the 1800s, fuelled by the California Gold Rush of the 1840s.
Through research and working together with bodies like the National Archives of Singapore, Mr Callahan, an American, uncovered shipping documents – Dutch and British tax records – that showed boats from San Francisco were docking in Singapore.
He also found places listed as "taverns" just down the street from Commercial Square (renamed Raffles Place in 1858), alongside a wine and spirits merchant at the address of 1 Boat Quay, dating back to the 1830s.
"The more we uncovered, the more we're starting to realise Singapore has a really interesting drinking history that's four generations before the Singapore Sling," he says.
"We built this concept here because we were convinced there had to have been a history of drinking in Singapore in the 1800s," he adds.
Hence, housed in a corner lot of three side-by-side shophouses – one of which dates back to the early 1900s – Barbary Coast is as much a nod to the history of the area, as the buildings are.
Drawing on the area's past as a port of call for sailors from all over the world, the first floor, called DeadFall, opens out to the street and is decked out with exposed brick walls and beams, concrete finishes and upcycled furniture.
At this cheerful high-volume bar opening in the middle of this month, you will find competitively priced craft beers and coloured cocktails dispensed from big glass vats.
"What the 'deadfalls' (saloons) of the past served was cheap, sweetened coloured liquids that were sold based on how much you had. We're recreating that in a much more modern way, with stirred, shaken or swizzled cocktails priced from $14 to $16," Mr Callahan says. "But just like the deadfalls of the past, all are welcome as long as you can pay."
Go upstairs and it is a different world – one of opulence and exclusivity. The space, called the Barbary Coast Ballroom, is plastered in patterns of lavish wallpaper from three different design houses that are "contemporary, but a nod to the antiquated", says Ms Schoonraad.
"It's experiential because you could be anywhere in the world; you could be back then or right now," adds the South African. "It tips its hat to so many other influences, yet it's all a nod to Singapore itself."
As you move from room to room, the space is a feast for the eyes, decorated with plush velvet banquettes and ottomans, and velvet curtains cordoning off VIP booths.
Whether it is a candelabra from Hong Kong, cheetah-shaped bookends from London or an antique martini stirrer from Paris, the space is sprinkled with trinkets amassed from the founders' travels overseas – just like how the madams in San Francisco's Barbary Coast would collect bits and bobs to deck their ballrooms.
"If you struck it rich with a lump of gold, you got suited and booted and the ballroom was where you went," says Mr Callahan. "It's where titans of industry sat next to captains of boats, mingling and entertaining guests."
The extravagance is probably best encapsulated in a button you can press in the VIP booths, which orders a bottle of champagne to your table.
"We want to elevate the offerings available at Boat Quay without taking away the fun, so it continues to be a destination for all people, but just a little more respectable," says Mr Callahan.
"Right now, Boat Quay doesn't have that little something special and we'd like to see the downtown area have a kind of gem, like Atlas in Bugis and Manhattan in Orchard."
Barbary Coast is at 16 North Canal Road. DeadFall is open from 4pm to midnight (Mondays); 4pm to 1am (Tuesdays and Wednesdays); 4pm to 2am (Thursdays to Saturdays); and closed on Sundays. Barbary Coast Ballroom is open from 6pm to 1am (Mondays); 6pm to 2am (Tuesdays and Wednesdays); 6pm to 3am (Thursdays to Saturdays); and closed on Sundays. Go to instagram.com/barbarycoastsg.
Written by Anjali Raguraman for The Straits Times. Photos by Marcellin Lopez.