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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Circular Road cleans up

The area is shaping up to be a more gentrified clubbing and dining hotspot with new eateries and pubs replacing old tenants
June 20, 2014
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Circular Road cleans up French creperie and wine bar Le Comptoir, which opened in April, is one of the new businesses replacing the sleaze in Circular Road. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Circular Road is shaping up to be a posh clubbing and dining hotspot for yuppies, trendy hipsters and families, slowly shaking off its reputation as a sleazy nightlife strip.

At least seven cool dining and bar concepts, including a whisky bar and a Vietnamese- French-inspired noodle bar, are expected to launch by November.

These new kids on the block are expected to give Circular Road the sophisticated vibe of other gentrified areas such as Jiak Chuan and Keong Saik roads or bar-hopper haven Club Street.

It is all part of lifestyle group Limited Edition Concepts' long-term plans to revitalise the area since it took over the master lease of 28 shophouse units in Circular Road last October, in an $8-million deal.

Changes to the tenant mix began late last year, when Limited Edition Concepts moved its upscale bistro lounge The Vault to Circular Road as an anchor outlet, taking up four shophouse units.

This was followed by the opening of hip French creperie and wine bar Le Comptoir and boutique nightclub Chateaux in April.

Set up in 2011, the Singapore-based Limited Edition Concepts, run by four partners, has two successful nightspots in its stable so far - basement club Kyo in Cecil Street and The Vault, which moved from South Bridge Road.

Already, the new outlets in Circular Road have brought more foot traffic to the area. This is also due to an initiative by non-profit group Singapore River One to turn Circular Road into a pedestrian-only street from 6pm to 1am on weekends, which started last November.

The group represents most of the businesses fronting the Singapore River in the Boat Quay precinct, which includes Circular Road. It estimates that Circular Road now sees 21,600 visitors passing through each weekend, up from 18,000 before November last year.

Ms Anitha Immanuel, a place manager of urban planning and architecture with Singapore River One, notes a "gradual but steady change in Circular Road's image" in recent months.

The 31-year-old says: "With new businesses such as Le Comptoir, Chateaux and Bar L'Operetta, we are definitely seeing a better mix of visitors to Circular Road since the pedestrianisation."

Indeed, tenants who spoke to Life! say they are seeing more families visiting and dining in the area on weekends.

Named for its curvature, Circular Road is made up of a row of 59 shophouses. Its unsavoury image took root more than 10 years ago, and The Sunday Times reported that there were up to 15 seedy bars in the area in 2011. In the past decade or so, it has also been home to several coffee shops that do brisk business catering to the lunchtime crowd in the Central Business District.

At night, Irish pubs and laid-back bars such as Mogambo Bar Singapore and Molly Malone's, which are closer to the waterfront, are packed with after-dinner crowds knocking back beers.

Meanwhile, women in hot pants and high heels loiter outside some bars, beckoning men to go in and have a drink.

When news of Limited Edition Concepts' plans broke last October, inquiries came pouring in. At least 100 operators have approached the company, expressing an interest in setting up shop in Circular Road. Of these, 30 per cent were inquiries from foreigners, from countries such as Japan and Thailand.

"Only 20 per cent caught our interest. There was interest to open restaurants, bars, hipster coffee shops... but we want to take our time to figure out if the concept we pick is going to work and blend well," says Mr Godwin Pereira, 40, the director of Limited Edition Concepts.

He adds that the concepts they pick have to be "very individualistic" yet complement all the other tenants in the area, building the foundation for a street that could well be Singapore's version of Covent Garden or Shoreditch in London.

The group told Life! in an earlier interview that they decided to move into the area as they saw its potential and wanted to build a unique lifestyle destination with a strong culture of creativity and community.

Mr Pereira confirms that at least seven new outlets are set to open from now till November: a shisha bar; a whisky bar; a Vietnamese-French-inspired noodle bar; a rooftop bar that will be part of Chateaux; a Cuban and Latin bar concept; a burger joint and "one to two more retail outlets".

In addition, a new sports bar called Hero's, to be operated by the same owners behind Mogambo Bar Singapore a few doors away, will open next month, taking over the 2,500 sq ft space that Indian dance club World Music used to occupy.

While Mr Pereira is unable to divulge more information about the new tenants due to confidentiality clauses, he says: "It will take another year for Circular Road to really take off. It's really just putting different parts of the engine together right now.

"We want it to be a mix - a bit of breakfast, a lot of lunch, a lot of dinner and a lot of drinks and late night supper."

Some of the more seedy bars will be replaced by the incoming group of new tenants when their leases run out next month and in August, he adds.

Says Mr Sharma Das, 28, co-owner of Chateaux: "The idea of a revamped street was something that was interesting and we were excited to be part of it. There is definitely an increase in foot traffic."

Other operators in the area, such as chef-owner Marcus Loh, 32, who runs year-old Mexican restaurant El Rocho's, have noticed that "some of the sleaze is leaving".

Mr Loh, who now sees a full house on weekends - the eatery used to be just 75 per cent full when it opened last June - adds: "We're noticing new eateries coming up, and that will make the real difference. Once we have more hip places, that will bring the crowd in."

Japanese-Singaporean designer Yumiko Uno, 33, who has been visiting Circular Road for drinks regularly for the past two years, says the changes will mean more options for bargoers such as herself.

Other regulars "are talking about how the vibe in the area will change", becoming more trendy like Club Street, but she believes the new concepts will "add to the chill-out vibe of Boat Quay".

She says: "The crowd in Circular Road now is a lot more eclectic compared to two years ago but I don't think it will be too hipster. I think it's a good change."

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