Some of our favourites
Singapore is a food lover's paradise. Luckily for those on a shoestring budget the city's best eats aren't at five-star restaurants but at the plentiful hawker centres. Squeaky-clean Singapore forbid street food decades ago, rounding up its sidewalk chefs into foodcourt-like settings called hawker centres. They're clean, cheap, and offer diverse and delectable food. Hawker centres are everywhere, but if you're feeling overwhelmed by choice here are some of our favourites.
Hawker centres are, of course, the best place to sample Singapore's famous hawker dishes, but you'll also find stalls serving up international fare from spaghetti bolognaise to phad thai. In true Singapore style, each stall is required by law to display its prices and most recent hygiene grading (from A to D).
A historical site and a great place to eat, Lau Pa Sat was built in 1894 as one of Singapore's first markets. Its Victorian archways and clock tower stick out amongst the shiny skyscrapers of downtown Singapore, and on weekdays you'll find it overflowing with hungry office workers. There are nearly 100 food stalls serving every conceivable type of food from Mumbai street snacks to Filipino style burgers. Typical Singapore hawker dishes are well represented and the feeding frenzy spills out onto Boon Tat Rd. to become "Satay Street" every evening. Pitchers of Tiger draft are a bargain at $14.50 before 19:00 and there's live music on weekends. Open 24 hours. More information.
Though it got a modern makeover in 1998, Chomp Chomp has been around since '72. It's a bright, busy, boisterous place perfect for an evening of drinking and dining in true local style. While you'll probably be the only tourists there, don't be surprised to see lots of expats -- many live in the surrounding Serangoon Gardens area and adore this hawker centre as much as any local. Many of Singapore's "famous" hawkers cook here and some have been perfecting their cuisine since the place opened! Try the carrot cake from Stall #36, chicken wings from Stall #3, and grilled stingray from Stall #1. Chomp Chomp doesn't get going until 17:00, but stays open late (24:00-ish).
Chinese-style dishes reign supreme at this hectic hawker centre between the business district and Chinatown. Many people say that the city's best Hainanese chicken rice -- practically the national dish -- comes from the Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall and it only costs S$3. Other must-tries include oyster omelets, congee, char siew BBQ pork, and fried fritters and dumplings. If you have the patience, look for the stalls with the longest queues and join the line, it's probably worth the wait.
The best way to enjoy Singapore's East Coast beach isn't a dip in the ocean but an al fresco dinner beneath the swaying palm trees. There are more than 50 stalls serving chicken satay, fried noodles, roti, and hot pot soups, but most people make the trip out here especially for the seafood. Choose from tiger prawns, stingray, squid, fish, and crab -- it's very fresh and competitively priced. If it's a sticky night cool off with a fresh glass of sugar cane juice or an icy chendol dessert -- it tastes better than it looks. When you're done feasting you can work off some calories with a stroll along the beach.
Every Singaporean is a foodie and one of the most respected judges of hawker fare is the Makansutra Guide. At Gluttons Bay, a chic outdoor eatery by the Esplanade theatre, every stall has been hand-picked by Makansutra as an exemplary example of a classic Singapore hawker dish. There's char kway teow, carrot cake, satay, oyster omelets, roti kaya, spicy seafood, and more. If you want to try one of everything you can -- sampler plates of seven dishes start as S$20. Prices are a bit higher than other hawker centres, but for an al fresco dining experience along the river this is as affordable as it gets. More information.
Grumbly tummy on Orchard Rd? It feels like cheating to put a mall food court on this list, but most cheap places to eat around Orchard are mall food courts and this one is definitely the best. It occupies most of Wisma Atria's fourth floor and attempts an old-fashioned Chinese coffee shop vibe with red lanterns and long wooden tables that end up being shared by strangers during busy lunch times. Many of Singapore's esteemed hawkers have set up higher-end stalls here -- try the oyster omelette, popiah, carrot cake, or famous Thye Hong Hokkien prawn noodles. This is also an easy place to try your first bowl of yong tau foo as all the items are labelled in English. International options include pasta, fish and chips, north Indian, Thai, dim sum, and a sushi bar. For dessert sample the perfect little coconut cakes from Tan's Tu Tu.
Long hyped by the Singapore Tourism Board as the best place to sample local cuisine, Newton Food Centre is famous for its hawkers as well as its reputation of over-charging and touting the tourists who are delivered here by the bus-full. Still, this doesn't stop hordes of people (locals included) from going to Newton for great BBQ seafood and a convivial atmosphere. Newton is famous for its seafood -- chilli or pepper crab, sambal stingray, tiger prawns -- and this is what the vast majority of the stalls serve. Competition between them is fierce so just ignore the touts who try to direct you to certain tables and stalls. If you're not into seafood there's also chicken rice, carrot cake, satay, noodles, and popiah, but you're probably better off elsewhere. Yes, Newton is a bit of a tourist trap, but it's fun, a short MRT ride from Orchard, and open 'til the wee hours of the night. Just remember to check the seafood prices (usually per 100g) before ordering!
This one's for the health nuts out there. In the Bugis area, Fortune Centre isn't exactly a hawker centre but a collection of quaint cafeterias and cafes serving organic and vegetarian food. Most of the restaurants serve Chinese-type dishes and the sheer number of things they can make out of bean curd will astound you. At Luo Han you can try vegetarian versions of local hawker favourites like laksa, char siew, and even mock chicken rice! Get acquainted with Chinese veggies like bitter gourd, kai lan, and taro -- all served with wholesome brown rice. In the building you'll also find lots of stalls selling fresh fruit juices, natural teas, and health-boosting herbal soups. The newish Basil Alcove cafe here was a pleasant discovery -- fusion flavours, organic ingredients, and low prices (especially the set lunches around S$7).
We'll treat these as a 2-in-1 since they're directly opposite each other. Near Kampong Glam, the lower level of Golden Mile Food Centre is dominated by Malay/Indian stalls serving halal fare like roti prata, mee goreng, and mutton soup. Many foodies make a pilgrimage here especially for the sup tulang, mutton bones cooked in a spiced tomato sauce -- you're supposed to suck out the marrow. Stall #B-15 has made this dish famous enough that it was visited by Anthony Bourdain in the series No Reservations. The stalls on the upper levels are more diverse and you'll find Chinese noodles, Japanese bento boxes, and even pizza. Golden Mile Complex is Singapore's "Little Thailand" and inside you'll find Thai supermarkets, discos, and lots of Thai food. Prices are higher than in the land of smiles, but otherwise it's the real deal: skewers of grilled meat, freshly pounded som tam, and spicy soups all washed down with a big bottle of Singha. We like Diandin Leluk where a plate of phad thai or basil chicken costs less than S$5.
Once the grimy heart of Little India, Tekka Centre reopened in August after upgrades to bring this fresh-market-cum-hawker-centre up to standards. The hawkers have moved back in from the temporary location and the tantalising aromas of frying spices and simmering curries have returned. If you've got a big appetite, order the banana leaf meal of assorted curries and vegetables served with a mountain of rice for under S$5. Other Tekka favourites are briyani (with fish, chicken, or mutton), roti murtabak (flatbread stuffed with minced mean and onion), dosai (lentil pancakes with curry), prawn vadai, and the Indian version of fried noodles -- bright red from the added chilli. Don't worry if you're chilli-intolerant -- It's not exclusively Indian food. Look around and you'll discover roasted duck, carrot cake, rice porridge, rojak, and more. Wash it down with some Indian tea or fresh lime juice. Most stalls here are halal, but some drink stalls also sell beer.
Tanya Procyshyn is a freelance writer and photographer. With a passion for unusual destinations, she has camped alongside Komodo dragons and shook hands with soldiers in North Korea.
Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Downtown Singapore