MORE by design than by accident, food and beverage options on a certain nearby resort island have, over the past 15 months or so, reached a stage where Sentosa now qualifies as a bona fide dining hub, right up there with destinations such as Dempsey Road and Clarke Quay. It's also clear that, driven by the pace of development on the island, this is only the beginning.
Considering that restaurants on Sentosa are a lot more spread out than at other so-called hubs - arguably a positive thing, given the gridlock on busy nights at some places - it's taken a while for it to be considered a legitimate dining destination, more than just somewhere to head to for a meal at a specific restaurant. Although it may still be a little restricted on the entertainment front, there's no doubt that the island now offers the quantity and quality to attract discerning diners as well as the hungry, and ever fickle, hordes.
According to the Sentosa Leisure Group, which keeps track of such things, 18 F&B outlets were introduced on the island during the last year, up to and including the Japanese restaurant Santaro, which held its opening party last night. The figure also includes five outlets at the membership marina club 1 Degree 15 but even so, there's enough variety to entice the general public. Meanwhile, there are now a total of 31 restaurants, 18 fast-food outlets and cafes, and eight beach bars on the island.
The number of restaurants has increased dramatically in the past year, says Bernadette Toh, director of service quality and communications at the Sentosa Leisure Group. 'It's all about branding the offerings and allowing people to have a variety to choose from. We're quite careful about balancing the different outlets and matching the profile of the people who go to the different zones.'
For example, Siloso Beach is a high energy, see-and-be-seen zone while Palawan Beach is more family-themed and Tanjong Beach is for those seeking more privacy, says Ms Toh. She adds that the island strategically positions F&B outlets to reinforce the diverse culinary themes and to cater to the lifestyle preferences of the people who go to the various zones.
When it comes to the higher end of the market, the options are reduced somewhat, but there are currently at least 10 outlets in the exclusive restaurant category, as defined by the Sentosa Leisure Group. These include restaurants like The Cliff, Il Lido, Nogawa and Si Bon. And more are on the way, with the opening of the Capella Hotel at the end of this year and the integrated resort in about two years' time.
Si Bon, a Japanese speciality restaurant in a former chapel on the grounds of the Amara Sanctuary Resort, had steady returns in its first year, but business has improved since it added a sushi counter to its kushikatsu (breaded and deep-fried items) counter, according to restaurant manager Ken Hasegawa. 'It's getting better and better, especially with more local customers,' he says.
'Now is the time to step in,' says Santaro Li, owner of Santaro Japanese Restaurant at the Amara Hotel in Tanjong Pagar and now the brand new Santaro Fine Dining, located in a stand-alone single-storey building at the entrance to the Amara Sanctuary Resort. He waves an arm in the direction of the massive construction site across from his restaurant, soon to become the Resorts World mega-resort. 'In the future, Sentosa will have more life, more luxury, more lifestyle - you can see what will happen,' he says.
'Since we opened a couple of months ago, it's been a question of more awareness and visibility,' says Thomas Teo, owner of Suburbia, a casual and contemporary western restaurant in an attractive space converted from a former monorail station. The restaurant faces a giant ficus tree which overlooks the 10th green of the Sentosa Golf Club's Tanjong Course and is a good visual example of the archetypal Sentosa restaurant.
Mr Teo was also an F&B pioneer in Dempsey Road, where he started the Wine Network Wine Bar, and he is confident when it comes to the dining potential on Sentosa. 'When we started, there were quite a few glitches but we have ironed most of them out in terms of food consistency and service. I'm very confident that more people will come to the island, but what is lacking is the awareness that there are such nice places on the island,' he says.
'Sentosa will always be a destination for dining,' says Michael Leibl, executive chef at The Sentosa Resort & Spa. 'Restaurants like The Cliff and Il Lido have made some sort of statement, and it's natural that other restaurants will try to establish themselves here and to have a product that people come specially for - therefore, the upmarket restaurants will probably be much more successful,' he says.
'For sure, people would cross the bridge to Sentosa to look for something now,' says Beppe de Vito, owner of the highly successful Il Lido Italian restaurant and lounge, which opened at the Sentosa Golf Club about two years ago. 'It's not just a meal that people go for, it's an experience.' He adds that the time it takes to cross over to the island and then on to a specific restaurant should be seen as a plus rather than a minus.
'People take time to enjoy the experience,' says Mr de Vito, adding that diners tend to have longer meals when they go to Il Lido. Business has been better than he imagined as well. 'The first year was more than double what we forecast, while the second year has been more or less what we anticipated.'
He is now looking to open a fine-dining French restaurant elsewhere on the island. 'I truly believe in Sentosa,' he says. 'The hub concept is getting stronger and stronger in Singapore so it makes sense to be in one of these hubs.'
BT Weekend checks out a couple of brand new dining establishments on Sentosa:
» The Garden