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In Transitional Times, the Evolution of Singapore’s Bar Scene

By Marisa Xin

At Shin Gi Tai, staff ensure good practices for safety and hygiene, as the bar continues catering to fully booked reservations since its reopening in July.
 
Marisa Xin
At Shin Gi Tai, staff ensure good practices for safety and hygiene, as the bar continues catering to fully booked reservations since its reopening in July.

It’s a Friday evening in mid-September in Tanjong Pagar, and the familiar sight of loitering people can be seen along the pavements of shophouse bars and cafés enjoying cigarettes and occupied with conversations. Occasional belches of laughter erupt once in a while. While this scene may sound like the normal world as we know it, the requisite masks — pulled down to their chins or hanging from their ears — say otherwise. 

As the time inches closer to 10.30pm, the restrictive reality of a hovering pandemic is even clearer: The neighbourhood’s restaurant and bar patrons begin leaving to call it a night. Bars have halted alcohol sales and are preparing to close up for the night — presenting a stark contrast to what would have usually been considered premature.

Singapore is acclimatising itself to the reopening of F&B establishments since the circuit breakers second phase in July. With a strict islandwide curfew that begins at 10.30pm, the experience of late night outs has been inadvertently affected. How are bars coping with the new regulations? How different are they? How have the parameters of operating restaurant bars affected the culture of drinking out?

Lim Jin XiA contrasting view: Here, Shin Gi Tai in its pre-pandemic days, where guests could freely converse and mingle in larger groups.
A contrasting view: Here, Shin Gi Tai in its pre-pandemic days, where guests could freely converse and mingle in larger groups.

For Anthony Zhong, the head bartender and owner of Shin Gi Tai, his ethos for operating his restaurant and bar is a social responsibility: to protect not just his guests, but his group of staff as well. He closed the Japanese-style classic cocktail bar a week before the circuit breaker was announced. The decision was perhaps a stroke of luck: The extra time allowed advanced preparations for bottled cocktail delivery, one of the earliest and quickest pivots that gained traction in the media. It exposed his range of cocktails to a new audience during the quarantine season.

Since its reopening in July, Zhong has continued to see an influx of guests, busier than before the pandemic. To accommodate earlier closing times, Shin Gi Tai starts preparing as early as 2pm to set up the bar and kitchen (an approach now common practice among local F&B joints). The string of events that typically follow a night out of drinking has been shifted, its timeline picked up and moved forward. By 4pm, doors are open and ready for service, two hours earlier than its pre-pandemic opening time.

Meanwhile at Operation Dagger, a hidden bar along Ann Siang Hill that prides itself in its unorthodox approach to cocktails — the bar’s low-waste drinks menu caters to the more adventurous connoisseur willing to try experimental tipples — patrons have substantially thinned out.

“We are not like a classic, speakeasy bar where they play fine music, [and the patrons would be] sitting comfortably. We have a bit of a party vibe,” notes Thomas Girard, the head bartender of the bar. “Now, people come earlier and they have to book a lot. The crowd has changed a lot.” Once, the night of a weekend could see the wide, minimalist open-concept floor teeming with standing customers and loud music blaring. Now that the bar’s seating capacity has been halved, the standing area would be unusually deserted and quieter.

Marisa XinAt Operation Dagger, its now-limited seating capacity creates an intimate and quiet atmosphere.
At Operation Dagger, its now-limited seating capacity creates an intimate and quiet atmosphere.

Despite the obvious setbacks, these businesses do not necessarily project bleak prospects. While at first glance bars look much emptier than before — strict social distancing regulations require seating capacity to be reduced with a maximum of five people per table — walk-in customers would be hard-pressed to find a table as most bars now deal almost exclusively with reservations.

“It’s the same as all the other bars and restaurants in Singapore. As of now, it’s very difficult to find a place without a reservation. But that also means patrons tend to stay longer,” says Girard.

A pleasant outcome of the earlier hours and small-group reservations is the extra time people spend in the vicinity. “As bar-hopping is no longer as practical, people stay in one place and they also tend to eat more, which means our kitchen is a lot busier,” Girard explains. These variables create more intimate, lengthy sessions among patrons who come with their close friends.

Shin Gi Tai’s Zhong as well as Eddy Montana, the manager of the newly opened craft brewery Heart of Darkness, a gastropub along Keong Saik Road, have attributed their bars’ surge of crowds to travel restrictions. Where Sundays were usually devoid of patrons, “now there’s life,” says Montana. “While the majority of the workforce is still under the work-from-home notice, it allows people to schedule their time more freely, so crowds are no longer limited to the usual Friday and Saturday nights.”

Courtesy of Heart of DarknessRecently opened in August, a few months after the second phase of the circuit breaker kicked off, Heart of Darkness has begun seeing returning customers.
Recently opened in August, a few months after the second phase of the circuit breaker kicked off, Heart of Darkness has begun seeing returning customers.

With reservations suddenly being a vital organ to the bars’ operations and revenue, last-minute cancellations or no-shows are more detrimental than they used to be. Heart of Darkness and Operation Dagger have faced many such incidents, especially during the period when the bars first reopened. This has led to reservations being more carefully monitored. Now, the bars follow up on bookings. Operation Dagger has even gone as far as texting patrons who have made bookings, directions to its inconspicuous location. “In a way, our service starts before you walk through our doors,” Girard remarks.

Of course, with a new set of rules come a new set of loopholes. Patrons have begun to skirt around the five-person limit by reserving multiple tables of five. It can lead to the closure of the vicinity if guests of different tables are caught mingling by government authorities. A slight misstep such as this can pose dire consequences for bars. Montana laments their precarious position in these circumstances, appealing to guests to understand and respect their constraints. It is, however, still a work in progress.

Despite the vexations of problematic customers, Montana can’t complain. Heart of Darkness has seen a rise of returning regulars. The warmer, more convivial atmosphere has given Montana and his team hope and optimism. “People are going to the same places more, and they recognise each other. They’ll even send a shot over as a gesture of solidarity,” he says. “In a way, it creates friendships — a community.”