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A New Act for Singapore's Dining & Nightlife Culture

By Guan Tan

Marina Bay Sands

It's literally time for a new spin on Singapore’s dining and entertainment scene.

It’s 12 noon on an easy Saturday out and I’m at brunch — a serving of fresh salad, crispy strips of bacon, one-pound meatballs and coffee. An hour and a half later, the plates have been removed from the table to make way for a massive bowl of fruit punch. The music slowly turns up, and my dining neighbours get to their feet, singing and shuffling comically with their hands in the air. Three waiters make their way towards our table with a tray of three dozen shots of tequila. Diners are dancing on the table, throwing neon light sticks across the restaurant to strangers-who-may-turn-friends. A quick time check tells me it is now 4pm. The lazy weekend brunch has morphed into a pulsing, electrifying party. We are at the seven-year-old Italian restaurant, Lavo, in New York City. And no one is leaving, at least not yet.

I take a good, long look around me. This is perhaps, an exact antithesis to the current dining culture in Singapore. “Most restaurants, you go in, sit down and eat. And everyone starts looking at each other. Okay, it’s time to leave,” observes Patrick Lang, vice president of the restaurant and nightlife arm to the casino and ho- tel group, Las Vegas Sands Corp. We all laugh at what he just said, only because it’s so true. On so many occasions, my friends and I would dress up, psyche ourselves up for a great night out, but end the night prematurely, stopping short at the restaurant-to-bar transition.

Marina Bay SandsOn the inside of Lavo Singapore, a curved tiled bar facing a series of leather booths.
On the inside of Lavo Singapore, a curved tiled bar facing a series of leather booths.

Why do we not just stay on at the restaurant for drinks? Because that’s how food and beverage spots are wired — it’s all about the food. Diners like us seldom stay at an establishment for more than a meal’s worth of time. You’re meant to gobble up the food, leave, and give up your spot to fellow hungry souls.

But Noah Tepperberg begs to differ, “You can’t just have great food... We don’t say, ‘Oh, the food is great. People will come.’ That mentality is out of the window.” Tepperberg is the man behind New York-based restaurant and nightlife company, the Tao Group, which is also the parent company of Lavo.

There’s a Lavo in New York, and another in Las Vegas. Now, the dine-to-party concept is in Singapore. Lavo Singapore, which officially opened on the last day of 2017, is perched 57-storeys up on the SkyPark, the highly recognisable boat-shaped roof of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. The Italian restaurant is designed in such a way that diners never have to leave the space in search of a watering hole post-meal, a concept similar to its New York-based sibling.

Marina Bay SandsSpaghetti with Lavo's signature meatballs.
Spaghetti with Lavo's signature meatballs.

Scarmardella draws a parallel between Singapore and New York, that both cities are melting pots of global food cultures. The core menu at Lavo is Italian-American cuisine, with “food that the immigrants who came to [America] started cooking... Very simple, clean food that is very flavourful, very hearty, and very home-style.” Expect dishes like chicken parmesan, “lots of salads, grilled meat, grilled fish,” shares Tao Group’s chef and partner, Ralph Scamardella. To him, the term “Italian” is never sufficient to describe any Italian restaurant since every region in Italy boasts a specific taste and cuisine.

Food is but one facet of the concept that is Lavo. The concept is, in fact, borrowed from the casinos. It is all about time spent — stretching the amount of time patrons spend in an establishment. “Once [they’re] in the casino, they never want you to leave. There’s gaming, there are restaurants, there’s fun, there are lots of different things to do in that environment,” shares Scamardella. “It’s a restaurant that you can end up hanging out at for six, eight hours?” says Lang with a laugh.

Marina Bay SandsA bar by the entrance to Lavo in New York City.
A bar by the entrance to Lavo in New York City.

After brunch or dinner, diners are slowly transitioned, a deliberately orchestrated one at that, into a lounge or club environment. First, there’s the DJ. As diners finish their meals, the music mounts steadily. And the party mood kicks in, diners would generally find themselves ordering cocktails and liquor. A couple of dancers and entertainers weave themselves between the tables, and ended up dancing on chairs and podiums. While some do not need much urging to join in, there are others who require a little more than a nudge to turn the toe-tapping and hip-swaying movements into outright participation.

This may sound like a novel concept for the Singapore dining and entertainment market, but not one that hasn’t been done before — Bacchanalia and Cé La Vi are amongst others who had thrown occasional brunch parties prior to Lavo’s arrival on the scene. However, the dine-to-party concept yet to formally gain traction in the wider industry.

Lavo’s presence might potentially provide a much needed jolt to the local dine-to-party culture. “I think people will catch on with the daytime [brunch party] component of it,” muse Tepperberg.

The dining and bar culture in Singapore has been growing exponentially over the past three to five years. The partying and nightlife culture, on the other hand, hasn’t caught up. “I don’t think nightlife has come as far in the same period,” adds Lang.

Tepperberg has big plans to address that. He wants the restaurant to be a global ‘destination’. Just like how revellers travel to New York for Marquee — another of Tepperberg’s — and to Berlin for Berghain, the international crowd should be jetting into Singapore for Lavo. “I think we are going to see more people coming to Singapore to party, eat and hang out. So, I think we are actually going to grow the market.”

As it draws closer to 6pm, the restaurant is steadily emptying. Upon discovering my disappointment, the host says, “We’re going back to the hotel for a bit. The next party starts at nine!” Now, we’re pressed for time.