WHEN chef Joseph Yew opened Spanish restaurant Streeters in Keong Saik Road in 1996, his married male customers used to joke that their wives were suspicious of the eatery's location.
'The neighbourhood's reputation as a red-light district was hard to shake off, but I believed the area's rich heritage would one day see it become an interesting lifestyle-cum-dining enclave,' says Mr Yew, 43, who was born and raised in Keong Saik Road.
Well, that day seems to have dawned on the vicinity, as well as on another historic neighbourhood, Tiong Bahru, one of the oldest public housing estates here.
Indeed, the charismatic architecture and relaxed atmosphere of both areas have prompted no fewer than seven sophisticated eateries and gourmet food shops to open there in the last year.
These include bookstore-cafe 25 degree Celsius and French restaurant Nicolas, nestled in shophouses along Keong Saik Road as well as snack joint Tiffin Club in nearby Jiak Chuan Road. They join earlier gastronomic hideouts such as modern European restaurant Ember, in Hotel 1929, and Whatever Cafe, which both opened in Keong Saik Road in 2003.
Nicolas' chef-owner Nicolas Joanny, 33, says: 'I was looking to open my restaurant in a shophouse because these buildings have strong character and create a lovely dining ambience.'
He eventually decided on Keong Saik Road over shophouses in Purvis Street because the rent was more affordable.
Mr Leonardo Noto, 60, owner of German wine shop and bistro Magma, which opened in Bukit Pasoh Road in 2006, adds: 'The strains of traditional Chinese music that float down from the Siong Leng Musical Association on the third floor of the shophouse unit make the vibe at my eatery all the more unique.'
Over in Tiong Bahru, the food and beverage (F&B) newcomers are scattered around the Art Deco-inspired Singapore Improvement Trust flats.
Chill-out lounge Wine Wise in Eng Hoon Street was the first to open early last year. It was followed by Caffe Pralet and steakhouse TBone on the same street as well as premium food retailer Le Bon Marche and its neighbour, patisserie Centre Ps in Guan Chuan Street. Euro-Singaporean bistro Persimmon in Link Hotel along Tiong Bahru Road is the latest addition.
Owners of the food outlets say they were unaware of each other's plans to open in the area. But, instead of seeing it as profit-killing competition, they believe the coincidence is a nod to the potential of the area as an up-and-coming dining and food retail destination.
For Mr Tan Kim Boon, 52, co-owner of Centre Ps, Tiong Bahru's proximity to town was the draw.
He says: 'We're a speciality pastry store, so opening in a shopping mall wouldn't fit our products' marketing profile. Tiong Bahru's unique charm, however, complements our boutique positioning.'
His neighbour Stephane Herve, 38, co-owner of Le Bon Marche, says the area's reputation as a foodie haunt, which is famous for its zhi char outlets and hawker centre, further persuaded him to open there.
That these neighbourhoods are undergoing a minor revival of sorts has also been a draw for the new F&B operators.
Mr Yew, who closed Streeters last year to open a private dining space, C Joe, above Nicolas, says the number of brothels in Keong Saik has dwindled in the last few years, replaced by firms in the creative industries such as interior design, architecture and music production.
This made it easier for chef Joanny to make up his mind about opening his restaurant there.
Tiong Bahru, on the other hand, is slowly shedding its image as being home to a greying population. More young professionals and expatriates are opting for the area's eclectic vibe and this was a plus point for Ms Helena Lim, co-owner of Persimmon, who is in her 40s.
On the unplanned F&B developments in both neighbourhoods, URA's head of heritage studies Kelvin Ang says: 'URA gazetted Tiong Bahru and Keong Siak as conservation areas in 2003 and 1989 respectively, and is glad that they have evolved organically to meet both the needs of existing and new residents.'
Annex A Architects' director Mark Wee, 33, is of the same opinion.
'Because there isn't a concerted push to develop these areas as eating haunts, unlike Boat Quay or Clarke Quay, the food outlets don't all appear at once, and this helps preserve the laid-back charm of the area,' he says.
Long-time eateries in these neighbourhoods, mostly coffee shops and casual restaurants, also welcome the new players.
'We offer different types of cuisine, so there is no direct competition. Besides, new restaurants in the area means people have more reason to come here and I might even benefit from a spillover of customers,' says Mr Wong Siew Hoong, 29, manager of Kok Seng Restaurant, which has been selling zhi char in Keong Saik Road for more than 40 years.
Likewise, residents in Tiong Bahru are happy about the new gastronomic buzz.
Banker Tee Boon Peng, 40, enjoys having more dining options in his neighbourhood. His only lament: insufficient parking in the area, which means visiting diners sometimes park illegally along the road, inconveniencing other motorists.
Looking ahead, Ms Lim says she hopes future food outlets opening in the area will 'continue to blend in with the special character of the neighbourhood by offering unique dining concepts'.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Feb 24 2008.
» Neighbourhoods of Keong Saik Road and Tiong Bahru