CHEF Chan Chen Hei, who closed his widely acclaimed Cantonese restaurant in Odeon Towers in North Bridge Road in May, had planned to take a break to finish his third cookbook on Chinese culinary history before opening a private-dining eatery.
But the book has to take a back seat now that he is opening a new high-end Cantonese restaurant in the National Museum of Singapore in Stamford Road at the end of the year.
Chef Chan, 53, who heard in July that the museum had a vacant food and beverage (F&B) outlet, decided to view the unit out of curiosity - and fell instantly in love with it.
'It's perfect for the restaurant concept I had in mind, which aims to offer a seamless experience of Chinese culture, from the appreciation of its antiques to food,' says the avid antique collector in Mandarin, who will have more than $1 million worth of his personal collection of Chinese paintings, folding screens and jars displayed in the restaurant.
The restaurant will continue to keep its previous name, Chef Chan's, in English, and Shen Chu San Jue in Mandarin, which means 'The Genius Chef's Three Supremes'.
The 46-seat restaurant is one of three new F&B eateries to open in museums recently.
The cosy 25-seat Verandah Cafe opened last week at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Empress Place, serving sandwiches and pizza.
At the end of this month, 60-seat Lafiandra - a branch of Trattoria Lafiandra in Prinsep Street - will serve its home-style Italian pizzas and pastas in the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in Bras Basah Road.
While restaurants have opened in museums here since 1996, including Dome Cafe in SAM and IndoChine's cafe, bar and restaurant at ACM, more have sprung up in recent times.
In the last year alone, no fewer than four museum eateries have opened - the Mint Cafe at the Mint Museum of Toys in Seah Street, Made In China at the Chinese diaspora museum Hua Song in Pasir Panjang Road, Le Papillon (below right) in the Red Dot Design Museum and Novus Restaurant and Bar at the National Museum.
In the pipeline is a Peranakan-themed eatery in the row of shophouses adjacent to the Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street, due to open next year.
F&B options are also being considered for the National Art Gallery in City Hall, slated to open in 2012.
Mr Walter Lim, 37, director of corporate communications at the National Heritage Board (NHB), says the push behind introducing F&B outlets in museums is to draw more people through the museums' doors.
'Many Singaporeans love their food and we believe that the presence of exciting F&B outlets will help us attract new museum-goers who will discover that museums are not dull and dusty repositories of artefacts but chic and happening lifestyle destinations,' he says.
Art gallery owner Pwee Keng Hock, 43, welcomes this move as eateries can inject more life into museums, making them 'happening social venues'.
According to Ms Angelita Teo, 35, acting deputy director of operations and business development at the National Museum, its eateries have 'definitely contributed to the museum's visitor numbers' although figures are unavailable.
One museum convert is lawyer Natalie Yap, 28, who became aware of the National Museum's collection after having dinner at Novus earlier this year.
On a subsequent visit to the restaurant, she visited the museum's galleries and was so taken by it that she now makes it a point to take her overseas friends there.
NHB's Mr Lim also says that having F&B outlets in museums helps bring in 'much needed revenue', although he declines to reveal any figures.
'The funds generated by these commercial outlets help us keep our entrance fees and programming costs affordable for the general public. It also allows us to organise more programmes and exhibitions for the general public,' he says.
He is quick to add, however, that these hip bars and F&B outlets do not take the emphasis away from the scholarship and curatorial work that the museum undertakes.
As for restaurateurs, museums are the new 'it' place to open shop in, judging from the competitive tendering process for such outlets.
The National Museum, for example, received no fewer than three offers for each of its F&B units.
'I wanted very much to open a restaurant in SAM because its porticoes evoke a sense of being in Rome or Florence, which is hard to find in Singapore,' says Cataldo Lafiandra, 42, the Italian chef-owner of Lafiandra's two outlets.
Mr Yung Ong, 27, director and owner of Novus Restaurant and Bar, adds: 'The opportunity to open a restaurant in a space as dramatic and iconic as the National Museum is hard to come by.'
For Mr Anderson Ho, 43, chef-owner of Le Papillon in the Red Dot Design Museum in Maxwell Road, the museum's forward-looking industrial design concept was seen as complementing the modern European cuisine he serves.
First-time restaurateurs like Ms Susan Phang and Ms Susanne Tai, both in their early 30s, are also placing their bets on opening Verandah Cafe in ACM.
The former flight attendants say the inspiration for their cafe comes from the European cafes they used to frequent overseas.
'We wanted a place where customers can sit and watch the world go by and the museum's calm, quiet ambience is perfect for this,' says Ms Phang.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong-born chef Chan, with his almost 40 years of culinary experience, doesn't plan to disappoint.
With only seven tables available, four of which are in private rooms, he expects his customers to call in advance for reservations so he can tailor the menu to their liking. A six- to seven-course meal for eight in a private room will start from $500.
'I'm pouring all my heart and soul into this outlet and I'm confident it will take off.'
» Museum eateries
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