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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Rochester Park : next lifestyle hub

It could be one of the hottest food and lifestyle spots in town
The Straits Times - November 10, 2005
By: Teo Pau Lin
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Rochester Park : next lifestyle hub

LOOK up Rochester Park in the street directory and remember where it is.

By early next year,the lush, tree-lined enclave off North Buona Vista Road could be one of the hottest food and lifestyle spots in town.

Eleven of the 40 colonial black-and-white bungalows will be converted into restaurants and, possibly, spas, boutiques and art galleries.

The five units earmarked for restaurants have all been taken up while some of those designated as 'lifestyle units' are still available.

Among those moving in are Da Paolo Italian restaurant, Min Jiang Sichuan restaurant, North Border American grill, an Australian restaurant and a wine bar.

This development is a first step in creating dining and lifestyle amenities for the projected 130,000 people expected to eventually work and live in one-north, the 200ha research hub developed by JTC Corp in Buona Vista.

JTC plans to convert all 40 bungalows there into commercial properties and will start inviting ideas from the private sector from next year.

Hidden behind a barricade of giant trees, the bungalows cannot be seen from the main road.

Yet, tenants say setting up shop in this virtually unknown spot is an opportunity not to be missed.

'There aren't many old houses left in Singapore where you can open a restaurant,' says Ms Helen Koh, co-owner of North Border, which will specialise in American south-western cuisine when it opens next month.

The Goodwood Park Hotel

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Rochester Park: The next lifestyle hub

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management was so enamoured of the area's picturesque surroundings it decided to open the first branch of its acclaimed Min Jiang restaurant there by the end of January.

Food and beverage director Urs Solenthaler says: 'It's special because there's a bit of Singapore's history here. And we're proud to be the first Chinese restaurant to open in a black-and-white.'

Indeed, just three minutes' drive from jam-packed Holland Village, Rochester Park is a gorgeous, secluded neighbourhood.

Maintained by managing agent United Premas, its double-storey bungalows were built more than 50 years ago to house British military officers.

The structures stand majestically on both sides of the road, with towering trees, plump shrubs and greedy creepers making this area a calming tropical haven.

Turn in from North Buona Vista Road and you'll find yourself on a narrow road, which splits into a fork that winds up and down over sloping terrain.

The right lane leads you to 29 bungalows still leased as residential properties, mostly to expatriates.

The left lane takes you to the 11 units adapted for business.

Houses No. 1 to No. 5 are the restaurants. The others are the lifestyle outlets.

A spokesman for JTC says this cluster of bungalows was put up for commercial lease after their previous tenancies expired.

'By converting them to commercial use, we hope that more people would have the opportunity to experience the rustic, green and heritage characteristics of these bungalows,' she adds.

Each of the 11 bungalows so far boasts an outhouse, garden area and a floor space of between 3,197 sq ft and 3,445 sq ftthat can seat more than 200 diners.

Rental rates here are considerably lower than in Holland Village, says North Border's Ms Koh, who co-owns Cha Cha Cha Mexican restaurant and Tango bar in the latter location.

But tenants face a potential drawback - no parking is allowed at the restaurants.

Diners who arrive in taxis can be dropped off at any point. But motorists will have to park at one of two public carparks nearby and walk.

One is a 42-lot carpark at the entrance of Rochester Park.

To get to Da Paolo, which is the middle restaurant at No. 3, you would have to walk about 100m.

The other is a Housing Board multi-storey carpark near Dover Close East, a 300m walk to Da Paolo.

No problem, says the Italian restaurant's co-owner, Ms Francesca Scarpa.

'From a customer's point of view, I wouldn't mind the walk. It's such a beautiful place, it'll be very pleasant.'

The Rochester Park outlet will be the seventh in the Da Paolo chain.

'The beauty of the place and the size of the land is perfect for our concept of outdoor dining,' says Ms Scarpa, whose parents founded the chain.

But some industry observers are less optimistic.

'Accessibility is a major factor in the success of any restaurant,' says Ms Veronica Zuzarte, director of Sixth Sense, a public relations consultancy specialising in F&B businesses.

A location's beauty can outweigh its inconvenience, she says, but only to a certain extent.

For example, the splendid Alkaff Mansion - perched high on top of Telok Blangah Hill Park - was the toast of the town in 1990 when it was turned into a dining and entertainment hub after a $5 million makeover.

But its fortunes dwindled in 2001 when the economy dipped and it closed in 2003 after the Sars outbreak that year.

Indeed, other restaurants that have opened in black-and-white heritage bungalows have experienced different fates.

Au Jardin French restaurant, which has occupied EJH Corner House in the Botanic Gardens since 1998, is still considered one of the best fine-dining venues in Singapore.

On the other hand, Maison de Fontaine French restaurant closed two months ago after just one year in a stilted colonial bungalow in Scotts Road.

But restaurateur Nicke Wong, who owns a bistro in Buona Vista, thinks Rochester Park will take off.

'They are big names with regular customers. They can open anywhere and their customers will still go,' she says.

Indeed, the restaurants opening there are sparing no expense.

Apart from Sichuan cuisine and daily dian xin, Min Jiang's speciality will be Peking duck roasted in a special wood-fired oven by a Beijing master chef.

Diners can expect to pay up to $60 per head for dinner.

Both Da Paolo and Min Jiang have engaged famous Argentinian architect Ernesto Bedmar to design their interiors.

There will be romantic outdoor decks too, where diners can eat under the stars.

Having to walk may be too taxing for some. But to those eager for new dining experiences, it should be a mere stroll in the park.

tpaulin@sph.com.sg

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