CHEF Roberto Galetti, 37, of Italian restaurant Garibaldi in Purvis Street, is scrambling to get his hands on as much Iranian Beluga caviar as he can.
It's the finishing touch for a $580 langoustine risotto dish for two, debuting on his menu next month. The offering is meant to appease his customers, who are no longer satisfied with just ordering $30 foie gras, $80 lobsters and $110 wagyu beef steaks.
Over at French restaurant Saint Pierre in Central Mall, partner Edina Hong, 35, says a recent diner ordered a $600 bottle of vintage Dom Perignon champagne and a 100g tin of Osetra caviar that cost $300 as an appetiser. All this for a first date.
The booming economy has fuelled Singaporeans' appetite for dining out and according to the 15 restaurateurs LifeStyle interviewed, diners are spending more freely than before.
In the last six months, Wild Rocket restaurant in Upper Wilkie Road has been fully booked two weeks in advance on weekends while the average bill at Hong Kong cafe Tong Shui has increased by 20 per cent.
This spending trend has spurred a rash of new restaurant openings.
In the first quarter of this year, 231 new restaurants opened, according to the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, a government body that regulates companies, businesses and public accountants. This is more than half the 322 restaurants which opened in the first six months of last year. Existing restaurants are also expanding.
High-end restaurant Les Amis will close this week for a $3 million, two-month renovation. It will reopen with a new chef, Thomas Mayr, and a mezzanine floor with four private rooms. Each room has a wine cellar which diners can use to store bottles purchased off the restaurant's wine list.
The Garibaldi Restaurant and Cafe Group, which runs Garibaldi, Menotti and Ricciotti, will be opening a new restaurant on Thursday. This 50-seat French restaurant in Purvis Street is helmed, co-owned and named after chef Gunther Hubrechsen, formerly from Les Amis.
Mid-market eateries are doing well also.
Sakunthala's Restaurant in Little India, known for its comfort Indian food, will open its fourth branch in September, opposite Mustafa Centre.
The going wasn't always this good.
Mr Ang Kiam Meng, 45, president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore, which represents 385 restaurants and 37 per cent of the industry, says: 'The 1997 Asian financial crisis forced people to tighten their belts and restaurants closed one after another. Recovery was sluggish and before they had a chance to spring back, business was dampened by Sars in 2003.'
But things began changing in the last three years, with the economy doing better and better and the restaurant business has been ballooning.
Diners at Les Amis are opening more blue-chip bottles of wine at dinner. These cost upwards of $500 and go into the thousands of dollars, bumping up the average bill at the premier restaurant by some 30 per cent in recent months.
The owner of the 14-year-old Japanese restaurant chain Akashi, Mr Mervin Goh, 35, says he is selling a total of 320kg of premium otoro or expensive tuna belly, each month in his three outlets at The Paragon, VivoCity and Tanglin Shopping Centre. This is eight times more than when he first opened shop.
Further signs of the good times: he has been getting calls for takeaway orders of otoro sashimi. One customer ordered 20 slices, paying a cool $300. Previously, takeaway orders were usually for $80 bento boxes.
Mr Willin Low, 35, owner-chef of Wild Rocket and Wild Oats bar, says: 'The economy is likely to be robust for the next three years, given the strong stock market performance and likewise, the restaurant business should be also.'
He plans to open a new gourmet burger joint.
Food and beverage consultant Benny Wee, 33, with food and beverage training centre Initium Services, adds: 'There are now more small players with no experience opening restaurants, intent on making a quick buck while the iron is hot.'
But Mr Ang cautions that unless these eateries are 'built on solid concepts and provide quality food and service', chances are, the investments will not pay off.
Mr Peter Knipp, 52, who owns a food and beverage consultancy and organises the annual World Gourmet Summit, believes that restaurants in the Dempsey Road area have got it right with their niche offerings - from fine dining restaurants like Au Petit Salut which stress 'clean, classic flavours' to Ben and Jerry's cosy ice cream store for families.
Indeed, this emphasis on strong restaurant concepts distinguishes the current restaurant boom from the last one between 1994 and 1996, which freelance food consultant Vincent Gabriel, 65, regards as 'a uniform gentrification of local cuisine'.
While things may be rosy for the restaurant industry now, its future is not without challenges.
'I'm not opening three other restaurants, despite being constantly approached for partnerships and joint ventures, because there is an acute lack of highly skilled kitchen and service professionals,' says Mr Ignatius Chan, 43, owner of Iggy's.
Mr Ang, who is also the general manager of the Jumbo Group of Restaurants, says the rental hike in the last year, which was between 30 and 100 per cent, has been 'squeezing on restaurant profits'.
'Only time will tell the boys from men,' he says.
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