Restaurants on the Horizon -- In 2011, world-renowned French chef and restaurateur Joël Robuchon will open three restaurants in Singapore at Resorts World Sentosa. Robuchon, named "Chef of the Century" by Gault Millau, has 12 restaurants world-wide, earning a staggering 26 Michelin stars among them. His plans for Singapore include Joël Robuchon Fine Dining, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and a pastry bistro. Also look for celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's CUT, his own personal twist on the American Steakhouse, which opened in late 2010.
If you're looking for someplace to dine but want to browse around a bit, a few neighborhoods around Singapore host clusters of smaller, and many times quite excellent, restaurants and lounges creating mini-scenes here and there. For example, CHIJMES, a former colonial orphanage located within the Historic District, provides a home for some excellent restaurants, ranging from Cantonese to Mediterranean. I've reviewed Lei Garden, but if you stroll about, you might be tempted by one of the other eateries here.
Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, located along the Singapore River, provide boatloads of options. I've reviewed Our Village at Boat Quay, but this is just one of many.
If you want to get away from the tourist traffic, try Club Street in Chinatown, a short, hilly lane lined with restored shophouses that became a chic after-work place for the nearby ad agencies, graphic designers, and law firms that make their offices in this neighborhood. Stroll past the many quaint bistros that serve everything from Italian to Vietnamese, and you're sure to find something.
Holland Village, located outside the city to the northwest, is the center of Singapore's expatriate community, so you'll find restaurants, bars, and cafes that cater to Western residents living around this neighborhood. Start at the row of restaurants along Chip Bee Gardens, and if you still haven't found something (I'd be surprised), then cross Holland Road to Lorong Liput and Lorong Mambong. I've reviewed Original Sin, which is an excellent place to start in this neighborhood.
Hawker centers -- large groupings of informal open-air food stalls -- were Singapore's answer to fast and cheap food in the days before McDonald's and are still the best way to sample every kind of Singaporean cuisine. The traditional hawker center is an outdoor venue, usually under cover with fans whirring above, and individual stalls each specializing in different dishes. In between rows of cooking stalls, tables and stools offer open seating for diners.
Each center has an array of food offerings, with most dishes costing between S$3.50 and S$7. You'll find traditional dishes like char kway teow, flat rice noodles fried with seafood; fishball noodle soup, with balls made from pounded fish and rice flour; claypot chicken rice, chicken and mushrooms baked with rice and fragrant soy sauce; bak kut teh, pork ribs stewed with Chinese herbs; Hainanese chicken rice, soft chicken over rice prepared in rich chicken stock; laksa, seafood and rice noodles in a spicy coconut chili soup; popiah, turnip, egg, pork, prawn, and sweet chili sauce wrapped in a thin skin; rojak, fried dough, tofu, cucumber, pineapple, and whatever the chef has handy, mixed with a sauce made from peanuts and fermented shrimp paste; plus many, many more Chinese, Malay, and Indian specialties. You'll also find hot and cold drink stalls and usually a stall selling fresh fruits and fruit juices.
If you want to become a real Singapore foodie, buy a copy of Makansutra, by K. F. Seetoh (Makansutra Publishing), at any bookstore. Seetoh is the local guru of hawker foods and has sniffed out the tastiest, most authentic local delicacies you can imagine.
Within the city limits, most traditional-style hawker centers have been closed down, but you can still find a few. Singapore's most famous, or notorious, hawker center is Newton Circus Hawker Center, a 24-hour center near the Newton MRT stop and a tour-bus darling; beware of gouging, especially when ordering seafood dishes, which are sold by the kilo.
For local-style hawker centers, in Chinatown you can find stalls at the Maxwell Road Food Centre, at the corner of Maxwell and South Bridge roads, or you can try Lau Pa Sat, at the corner of Raffles Way and Boon Tat Street. A new food attraction, a row of stalls along Smith Street called Food Alley was conceived by the STB. Rumor has it, these guys are having a hard time making a living selling local food to the very touristy crowd that passes down this street in the evenings. In the Historic District, try the small center next to Grand Pacific Hotel on Victoria Street, or Makansutra, next to the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay. In Little India, Tekka Market is under construction, but nearby on Race Course Road the hawkers have set up under a temporary structure.
When you eat at a hawker center, the first thing to do is claim a seat at a table. (Local trick: If you put a tissue packet down on the table in front of your seat, people will understand it's reserved.) Remember the number on your table so that when you order from each stall, you can let them know where you're seated. They will deliver your food to the table, and you must pay upon delivery. Change will be provided. When you are finished, there's no need to clear your dishes; it will be taken care of for you.
The modern version of the hawker center is the food court. Similar to hawker centers, food courts are air-conditioned spaces inside shopping malls and public buildings. They also have individual stalls offering a variety of foods and tables with free seating. Generally, food courts offer a more "fast-food," less authentic version of local cuisine, but you also get greater variety -- many food courts have a stall that sells Western burgers and fish and chips, and stalls with Japanese udon or Korean barbecue. Food courts also differ, in that they're self-service. When you approach the stall, you take a tray, pay when you order, then carry the food yourself to a table, similar to cafeteria style. When you finish, you are not expected to clear your tray.
Food courts are everywhere within the city, most of them operated by popular chains like Food Junction, Kopitiam, and Banquet. You'll find them in shopping malls and public buildings, most likely on the top floor or in the basement. Your hotel's concierge will be able to point you to the nearest food court, no problem.