With a name like Jalan Besar (literally translated as ‘big road’), it’s very difficult to pinpoint where to begin your exploring on this eclectic stretch. Measuring about a kilometre and half, it runs parallel between two neighbourhoods on either side – Little India and Bugis on one end and Farrer Park and Lavender on the other. The distance alone may not seem that daunting, but once you consider the plethora of places to stop and visit along the way, we wouldn’t be surprised if you break up your mini-pilgrimage over two days.
Arguably, it is Singapore’s version of a ‘gentrified’ neighbourhood. In its hay day, it was much sketchier part of town (and still is, in some respects) but as is always the case with contemporary ‘revamps’, its dodgy past failed to deter many that sought to build their businesses here. In fact, while hard to believe, it was originally a swampy betel nut, nipah palm and mangosteen orchard that was bought over by the Norris brothers in the 1830’s for a mere 113 Rupees from the East India Trading Company.
As the road developed over time, more and more businesses cropped up in the area, from unpleasant abattoirs and refuse facilities to sawmills and farmlands. All walks of life from every ethnic background began to settle to create what is today a bit of a mish-mash of cultural influences.
Before we get into the who’s who of the dining and bar scene, take some time to visit some of the areas longstanding landmarks that characterise the area. The most obvious is probably Jalan Besar Stadium (100 Tyrwhitt Road). Opened in 1929, it was the main venue for all of Singapore’s national football matches before the opening of the National Stadium, and even hosted the National Day Parade back in 1984. Less obvious but also steeped in culture is the colourful Tibetan Buddhist Thekchen Choling Temple (2 Beatty Lane), which was built in the 1990’s and eponymously named after the monastery lived in by the Dalai Lama. Wander around aimlessly and you’ll inevitably stumble upon variations of the Art Deco shophouse architecture that is preserved throughout Singapore.
Even the street names have a great history. What many may not know is that a significant amount of the streets that branch off Jalan Besar are actually named after a series of World War I British and French army generals (like Allenby, Foch, Tyrwhitt and Kitchener). Lavender Street itself ironically earned its name because of its foul smell (as vegetable gardens in the area were fertilised with human waste); a cynical suggestion proposed to the council in 1858 by a resident in the area.
Fast-forward to now and it has a rep as being one of Singapore’s original hipster enclaves (after Tiong Bahru). It emerged as a slightly unconventional destination for locals looking to evade the oversaturated streets of Orchard Road on weekends.
Riddled with great restaurants, bars, coffee dens and enough hipster memorabilia to make it seem ‘mainstream’, this isn’t to say some of Jalan Besar’s original gems haven’t survived the transition. Swee Choon Tim Sum Restaurant (183-191 Jalan Besar) is nothing short of an institution. Opening from 6pm to 6am every day except Tuesday, late-night revelers flocked here for their dim sum fix the same way they continue to do so now. Cheap, cheerful, frill-less and fresh, Swee Choon is still considered one of Singapore’s top dumpling destinations.
A littler farther down is a bare-bones establishment, Beach Road Scissor Cut Curry Rice (229 Jalan Besar), where the food is as much of a mouthful as its name. The dishes won’t win any awards for plating but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in flavour. A hybrid of Hainanese and colonial origin (we hesitate to call it ‘fusion’), the curry rice consists of ‘scissor-cut’ fried pork or chicken chop pieces on a bed of rice drowning in curry sauce and rich gravy. This isn’t the dish your doctor ordered.
Equally rich but perhaps a more familiar classic is the laksa found at Sungei Road Laksa (01-100 Block 27, Jalan Berseh) that is famous for its $2 bowls of spicy coconut gravy noodles that is still prepared using a traditional charcoal burner.
With rich food like that for lunch, we’re sure a caffeine hit will be in order and when it comes to coffee, a café-hop in this hood will have you twitching with energy. There are just so many to choose from and you need only wander round to find them all. While there are countless competitors, the ultimate hipster den has to be Chye Seng Huat Hardware (150 Tyrwhitt Road), a warmly lit modern spot filled with bare-naked light bulbs hanging from the ceilings, old-style windows and enough barista equipment to make a mean cup of joe. Whether you’re here for brunch, a slice of afternoon cake or a cheeky bit of latté art in the froth of your cuppa, it’s an easy spot to relax and waste an afternoon in with a good book. There’s also a great little shop on the floor above the café – The General Company – selling plenty of knick-knacks, tote bags and leather goods that are worth a peek. Come nightfall, the space transforms into Incognito, a laidback bar selling craft beers and imported ales from around the world.
For more craft beer specialties, hop to Druggists (119 Tyrwhitt Road) just down the road, where 23 craft beers are on tap, with changing specials every week.
It doubles as a restaurant too, with monthly-changing Asian-inspired food menus that supposedly pair well with whatever is flowing out the faucet. Local-lites may prefer The 1925 Microbrewery (369 Jalan Besar), A Singapore-born group that brews all their own beer.
But before you go on a bit of a bender, line your stomach at some of the restaurants that pockmark the area. The dining scene here is constantly in flux, with new concepts constantly on the rise against a cluster of longstanding residents that show no signs of crumbling under the competition.
American-style fare is a popular option with places like Suprette (383 Jalan Besar) serving up juicy burgers, topped with sinful additions like melting gruyère, bacon, and blue cheese mayo. New to the scene is Red Eye Smokehouse (1 Cavan Road), an American joint specialising in all things meat – both barbecued and smoked. With a menu of over 30 cuts of meat (with seven or eight cuts available at any time) ordered by weight, plus all-American sides like coleslaw, mash, beans and soft rolls, it’s southern comfort at its finest. For a more formal eatery, head to 5th Quarter by Chef Andrew Nocente (formerly of SKIRT at W Singapore Sentosa Cove) at Hotel Vagabond, a carnivorous dining concept that splits its menu according to each meal’s preparation technique.
More modern but locally-inspired fare can be found at CreatureS (120 Desker Road), a pretty little venue run by an honest pair of Singapore foodies keen on sharing their favourite homemade dishes in a bistro setting. Fusion cuisine can be found at morsels (35 Mayo Street), where young chefs Bryan and Petrina have harnessed their culinary training (at Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America) to create beautiful sharing courses with ever-changing dishes and long-staying classics like the Charred House-Poached Octopus with squid ink risotto and salted egg sauce or the Steamed Venus Clams in fig broth with homemade kimchi and pickled wakame. Otherwise, head to The Refinery (115 King George’s Avenue) to get everything you’d want on a night out in one. Part designer workspace, part casual dining restaurant and part cocktail bar, this funky space has the kind of ‘cool without even trying’ vibe that everyone looks for when out on the town.
As we said before, to say there is a lot going on in this neighbourhood would be an understatement and it could easily take you two days to explore every nook and cranny along this ‘big road.’
Fortunately there are a few decent hotel options here, should you plan to stay in the area. Kam Leng Hotel (383 Jalan Besar) is a nostalgic boutique that originally opened in 1927, before re-opening in 2012. This early 20th century hotel has preserved much of its original character, albeit with more modern amenities. In total contrast, on the other end of the stretch is Wanderlust Hotel (2 Dickson Road), where every bedroom is modelled after a particular theme, whether it is inspired by a particular Pantone palette or even a tree house! We love this spot particularly for Cocotte, the restaurant that resides in its lobby. Serving up French-inspired cuisine on a roaming trolley every weekend, it’s definitely one of our favourite brunch spots. The newest hotel on the block is Hotel Vagabond (39 Syed Alwi Road), which has added an extra edge to the neighbourhood with its dark red, plush interiors and ‘femme fatale’ glamour. Alternatively, stay closer to Little India at the PARKROYAL on Kitchener (181 Kitchener Road).
Jalan Besar hasn’t been left behind in the development of so many of Singapore’s districts but there’s a hint of melancholy that many of the great stories that form the bulk of this area’s history are at risk of being lost. So, go out and explore, enjoy all the foodie hotspots, both new and old, but take a moment to understand how it all came to be.
Named after the wealthy landowner Chew Joo Chiat, who made