What was once a dust road through the plantations to the sea is now home to some of the finest examples of pre-war shophouse architecture in the country. A thriving centre for the Peranakan and Eurasian communities from early in the 20th century to the present day, this picturesque enclave was designated a ‘heritage town’ by the National Heritage Board in 2011. Ask a local about Joo Chiat and the response will invariably be connected to the area’s reputation as a food magnet. Whether it’s for laksa, chilli crab, curry puffs or just a simple bowl of wanton mee, this area is home to some of the best in the city. It’s not just traditional local food that draws the crowds either – in the past five years a number of international restaurants have opened along the street, transforming Joo Chiat into even more of a foodie haven.
A good place to start a walking tour of Joo Chiat is at the start of the road at Joo Chiat Complex. Fun fact: the great Chew Joo Chiat was so loved by the inhabitants here that he has more streets, lanes and buildings named after him than anyone else in Singapore, including even the island’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. This top part of the road retains more of an old-world local feel than the end at Marine Parade, so it’s almost as though you travel forward in time as you approach the sea.
Opposite Joo Chiat Complex is the Geylang Serai market – a must-visit first stop on any cultural excursion. Serving the area’s large Malay community, this wet market will be a surprise for those assuming Singapore is nothing but bland modernity. On the ground floor, bustling narrow alleys take your through busy stalls, overflowing with fruit, vegetables, exotic herbs and spices. On the second floor, the hawker centre specialises in Malay and Indonesian food, offering excellent meals at very low prices.
If you manage to resist the temptation for a plate of rendang here, make your way down Joo Chiat Road to Gandum Bakery and try their Beef Rendang Puff to get your fix. This delicious variation is just one of their popular pastries, lauded by their neighbouring hardware store as the “best curry puffs in Singapore!” In amongst the Muslim shops dotted around the local mosque, this part of the street offers more good snack options – for a sugary high, try the ondeh ondeh (glutinous rice dumplings filled with palm sugar) or pulut serunding (glutinous rice with spicy coconut) at Sweetest Choice by Yatie. Alternatively, try the Sardine Curry Puff at Imran’s Confectionery just down the street for another savoury pastry experience.
Another baking sensation, albeit of the more western variety, is the artisanal bakery The Bread Project. The location of this boutique bakery roughly marks where the traditional Malay businesses at the top of the street give way to what is sometimes referred to as ‘Little Vietnam.’ Amongst the many bustling restaurants located here that sell authentic Vietnamese cuisine at very affordable prices, The Bread Project offers a good selection of traditional French breads and pastries. These are made in-house without chemicals or additives. Their baguettes are delicious and the almond croissants are heart-stoppingly good. Across the street, Long Phung is the most popular Vietnamese restaurant on the strip, so expect to queue for your table. If you do make it inside, we say bypass the pho for their excellent Spicy Beef Noodle Soup, a highly recommended rich and hearty stew with tender chunks of beef simmered in a flavourful broth. If you cannot afford to wait, there are at least six other Vietnamese restaurants to chose from as you keep marching, so don’t despair if Long Phung is too crammed.
Those looking for a more healthy meat-free meal should try the vegan restaurant, The Loving Hut, just a few doors down. Here, a wide range of salads (try the Bali Bliss) and faux-meat mains are backed up by a ‘miracle juice,’ fresh coconuts and decent coffee. Heading towards the ocean, the street then meets the junction with Dunman Road and the much-loved Koon Seng Road, where a row of well-preserved pre-war shop-houses, each painted a different pastel shade, presents photographers with a stunning rainbow of architectural finesse. It also signals the start of more western-orientated businesses and restaurants. Past the traffic lights, where an impressive shop-house front now rather unimpressively houses a Giant supermarket, diners can choose between a host of international cuisines including Italian, Thai, French, Australian, German and American as the strip continues south.
Rest assured, gorging yourself on sinful snacking is not the only attraction of this area. In between bites, apart from enjoying the street’s fine architecture, there is an eclectic collection of shops to explore. Two favourites, both heavily guarded by felines, include the aptly named Cat Socrates and the charming furniture and bric a brac, Bangku Bangku.
For unique gifts or souvenirs, Cat Socrates offers a creative assortment of knickknacks and is well worth a visit. Bangku Bangku’s inventory originates in Indonesia, offering retro furniture and furnishings, antique-style fans and lots of quaint art pieces. It’s also home to perhaps the best-looking cat in Singapore.
Pets have a big place in the hearts of East-siders – it doesn’t take long to notice the abundance of pet stores and grooming businesses in the neighbourhood. Hoping to tap into this penchant for a furry friend is the recently opened 3 Barks Cafe. Here a shop-house offers a floor for pet owners and a floor for the pets themselves, each with its own menu and activities. For the humans, there is wifi, coffee and snacks on the ground floor and for the animals, the second floor is kitted out with a pet playground and a pet-friendly menu that might even tempt the owners.
For more concentrated shopping opportunities, you need to head further south to Marine Parade but there are other boutiques here worth exploring, including the jewellery shop, Choo Yilin and the florists, The Bloom Room… both ideal stops for the roaming romantic.
As you approach the coast, the pace of life on Joo Chiat Road increases, becoming its busiest at the crossroads where it meets East Coast Road. This busy street was once where Singapore’s rich escaped the city on the weekends for the quiet respite of their beachside bungalows. Now a major thoroughfare, it teems with restaurants, luxury condominiums and schools. At the crossroads sits Katong I12, a modern boutique mall with cinema, good restaurants, shops and a supermarket.
If you’ve built up a thirst, there are plenty of options nearby. Opposite Katong I12 is the Alibabar, a legendary hawker centre that is responsible for two of the country’s biggest restaurant success stories, Astons and Saveur. Both started their culinary careers in the tiny kitchens here, moving out to bigger premises when demand became too high. It’s also a popular watering hole, with a selection of craft ales and European pilsners. Across from Alibabar on Joo Chiat Road is Ninethirty, a bistro run by local chocolatier sensation Awfully Chocolate. Here a nightly Happy Hour offers possibly the cheapest Asahi in town, backed up by great finger food, more substantial mains and desserts to die for.
Across from Ninethirty lies Brotzeit, a German chain with suitably good beer and large plates of bratwurst and goulash. Wine lovers should head to Merchants Wine Cellar for a selection of boutique wines from Australia and New Zealand. This is also a good place for lunch or a boozy weekend brunch. Other popular bars worth a stopover on a Joo Chiat pub-crawl include The Cider Pit, Fatboy’s The Burger Bar and Hogs Bar. All serve food (burger lovers should definitely try Fatboy’s), offer cheaper drinks than their inner-city equivalents and have a good local vibe.
Faced with such a good choice of eating and drinking establishments, it’s no wonder that in recent years, locals here have invested in creative ways to burn off the extra calories. Apart from a couple of traditional gyms, Joo Chiat beckons bulging waistlines with creative ways to get back in shape. The brand new Spartans Boxing Club, has just opened and is already crammed with both male and female fighters, wanting to punch away a few pounds. Down the street, SURFSET Singapore has fitness enthusiasts springing onto mechanised boards for yoga poses and more, whereas at Flyte Studio, you can dance the calories away at a Zumba class or karate kick yourself into shape.
It’s hard to imagine Chew Joo Chiat envisaging his pathway through the coconut palms transforming into such a colourful charismatic street. One thing is for sure; Singapore won’t be forgetting his contribution to its development any time soon.
As international travellers continue to seek unique holiday experiences in