Cheers at your cosy neighbourhood bar

Blooie’s Roadhouse. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Blooie’s Roadhouse. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Bojangles. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Bojangles. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Happy Daze. -- PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Happy Daze. -- PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Mel’s Place at Kuo Chuan Avenue which has an alfresco area, The Tuckshop in Guillemard Road and The Jolly Roger at Upper Bukit Timah (above). -- PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO
Mel’s Place at Kuo Chuan Avenue which has an alfresco area, The Tuckshop in Guillemard Road and The Jolly Roger at Upper Bukit Timah (above). -- PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO
Mel’s Place at Kuo Chuan Avenue which has an alfresco area (above), The Tuckshop in Guillemard Road and The Jolly Roger at Upper Bukit Timah. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Mel’s Place at Kuo Chuan Avenue which has an alfresco area (above), The Tuckshop in Guillemard Road and The Jolly Roger at Upper Bukit Timah. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Mel’s Place at Kuo Chuan Avenue which has an alfresco area, The Tuckshop (above) in Guillemard Road and The Jolly Roger at Upper Bukit Timah. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Mel’s Place at Kuo Chuan Avenue which has an alfresco area, The Tuckshop (above) in Guillemard Road and The Jolly Roger at Upper Bukit Timah. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

People are relaxing at pubs near their homes for the friendly laidback vibe, cheaper drinks and familiar faces

Think cosy neighbourhood bar and Cheers, the Boston bar "where everybody knows your name" toasted by the hit American sitcom (1982-1993), probably comes to mind.

But you do not have to venture too far to enjoy the same warmth of a good bar.

There are dozens of such homey joints around Singapore that serve not just drinks and pub grub, but also friendly banter and a laidback atmosphere for those looking to unwind a stone's throw from home.

Most do not have a marketing budget or a public relations team. Many do not even have a website or Facebook page to their name.

Instead, customers simply follow the neon light signs and many eventually become regulars.

Friends took teacher Iain Craig, 34, to The Sportsman in Far East Shopping Centre when he first moved here from Britain four years ago. He was living in the Raffles City area then.

He says: "Every time you go in, you get a big hug and a 'good to see you' from the staff. It is a very welcoming atmosphere. When you find a place like that, you keep going back."

You will not find fancy cocktails at these watering holes, which offer drinks that are usually about 20 per cent cheaper than those sold in downtown bars. Beers, for example, cost $10 to $12 a pint, compared to $15 to $18 in Boat Quay.

But price is not the main draw of these neighbourhood set-ups.

Mr Robert Davies, 37, a Briton and Singapore permanent resident who co-owns The Tuckshop in Guillemard Road, says a neighbourhood bar appeals to people because it is where they can go to destress.

He says: "You'll always know someone there and you'll always be recognised. You can chill out closer to home and avoid the hustle and bustle of the city. You feel you've mentally escaped the work day, so you can really unwind."

The friendship that the staff forge with customers is also key to the success of a local pub.

Mr A.S. Chail, 54, who owns two of the four Bojangles bars here, which started with an outlet in Balmoral Plaza in 1997, says the longevity of the business is due to the rapport between his staff and customers.

He says: "The bar becomes a second home for people. Some come alone or are here with friends, but we try to make sure all our customers get to know one another, that they become friends so that if they ever come alone, they will see a familiar face. It's all about friendship and feeling comfortable."

Unlike operators who ban patrons from bringing in food bought elsewhere, he allows them to consume food from neighbouring eateries such as Spizza and Smith's Fish and Chips restaurants.

He adds: "They are regulars. You can't expect them to eat the same food every day."

Most of his customers are in their 40s and 50s, so he hires staff in the same age range as they can connect better. "Young guys wouldn't be able to talk about work, family or life issues in the same way."

Holding entertainment programmes such as pub quiz nights, karaoke, board games and pool tournaments also win over those hunting for a neighbourhood bar.

Mr Nick French, 48, a British technical author, often goes to Bojangles' Balmoral Plaza outlet to play pool. He says: "When you're a stranger, you put $2 on the pool table to play a game and by the time you leave, you've made six friends. The next time you go, people remember your name. But if you sit at the bar, you might not get to know anybody."

He goes to the bar alone or with his wife Anna, 44, a housewife, and has been a regular at Bojangles in Balmoral Plaza and its outlet in Arcadia Road for the past five years.

He says: "There are never any harsh words, never any trouble. It's a comfortable place with really friendly staff. We go to play pool or chat because we don't want to sit in front of the TV all night. We might stay for a couple of drinks or if we're enjoying ourselves, we'll stay all night."

Briton James Hosking, 40, co-owner of The Jolly Roger in Upper Bukit Timah, says this family-friendly vibe is a hallmark of the neighbourhood joint. He says: "It's where you're willing to take your family, your kids in their pram and your dog, where single women feel comfortable having a pint of beer on their own, and not just where guys go to get drunk."

Mr Chris Low, 47, a business development manager, agrees. He used to go to Wala Wala at least three times a week when he lived in Holland Village. Even though he has moved to Yishun, he still visits the bar at least once a week because of the friends he has made there.

"Some of the staff have been working there for many years and they know me and make my visits comfortable. Sometimes I go by myself to grab a quick bite or a drink before heading home and I always end up meeting someone there. I can walk in alone and feel comfortable in my shorts and shirt. Wala Wala feels like a second home," he says.

Ms Patricia Lee, 29, a private bank investment specialist who works in Raffles Place, likes the laidback atmosphere of her neighbourhood bar, The Tuckshop in Guillemard Road.

She says the packed bars in Boat Quay and Clarke Quay are nice for an after-work drink with friends or a night out, but she heads home if she wants to relax.

She adds: "The Tuckshop is a hidden gem. It is peaceful and very comfortable. The staff are welcoming and receptive to our feedback on the drinks and food. But mostly, I like that it's a chill place where you can relax and have a drink in your shorts and T-shirt."

Ms Lee lives in Dakota Crescent, less than five minutes' drive from The Tuckshop, and goes there at least once a week with her friends.

Introducing friends and family to a bar they have discovered adds to the appeal of a local bar.

Says Mr Davies: "Given the choice, I think people would rather spend their money at a small, friendly and independent outlet than a big money-making chain. They know they're contributing to their neighbourhood by supporting local businesses."

vlydia@sph.com.sg


NORTH SINGAPORE

Happy Daze

An unpretentious cafe-bar tucked in a corner of Serangoon Gardens, Happy Daze started in 1999 as a 30-seater cafe with retro flair. Its name is a play on the American hit sitcom Happy Days that celebrated life in the 1950s and 1960s.

The cafe's bright orange decor and white walls have been replaced by red and black furniture, gingham-print tables and black walls, which owner Anne Chia, 45, feels are more befitting of a bar.

Only some of the remaining orange 1960s-style chairs and vintage print posters remind customers of what Happy Daze once was. Not that they mind.

Regulars love the 3,000 sq ft outfit for what it is: a no-frills bar where they can kick back with a pint of beer and relax after a long day or week at work.

Their dogs can get a bite and a drink too. There is a menu dedicated to canine companions with items such as chicken meatballs ($8.90 for five pieces) and doggie banana and carrot muffin ($3.90). The pets also get a water bowl upon arrival.

Ms Chia says various changes were made over the years based on customer feedback. She says: "People started staying later. Then they started asking for more beers and cocktails, and we transitioned into a bar-cafe five years ago." It now seats 100 people inside and out on an alfresco veranda.

It has expanded its drinks selection. It serves four beers on tap ($8 to $15 a pint) and 15 more beers and ciders by the bottle ($12 to $17), and classic cocktails such as tequila sunrise ($16) and Long Island Iced-tea ($19). And it has maintained a comprehensive food menu, which includes pastas, pizzas, burgers and mains such as fish and chips, most of which cost under $20.

On weekdays, it draws a strong after-work crowd, of whom about 70 per cent live in the area. The bar is also busy on weekend nights and during English Premier League matches, which are shown on a projector screen.

Where: 11 Maju Avenue

Open: Sun to Thu, 3pm to 1am; Fri, 3pm to 2am

Info: Go to happydazecafe.com.sg or call 6285-2885

ALSO CHECK OUT:

Sara's

This no-frills bar is free of pretence and fancy cocktails, and has been serving customers in the Upper Thomson area since 2000.

Where: 217 Upper Thomson Road

Open: Mon to Sat, 3pm to 3am; Sun, 3pm to midnight

Info: Call 6457-9868

Ming's Cafe and Pub

Karaoke battles football screenings in this bar, which is known for its casual service that borders on the apathetic. But customers like it for its laid-back, anything-goes atmosphere.

Where: 195 Upper Thomson Road

Open: Sun to Thu, 4.30pm to 2am; Fri & Sat, 4.30pm to 3am

Info: Call 6251-3187

EAST SINGAPORE

The Tuckshop

Within a year of its opening in August last year, The Tuckshop has become the place to see and be seen in the Geylang-Guillemard neighbourhood.

A group of close to 20 regulars frequent the bar a few times a week, and the 2,500 sq ft place, which fits up to 100 people, is usually full on weekends.

The vibe is hip without being hipster. Its repurposed classroom furniture brings a touch of nostalgia, which is balanced by the polished pipes and grates that lend a modern industrial style.

An open-bar concept and sidewalk seating maintain a relaxed setting, in which patrons enjoy bar bites and fusion interpretations of local favourites such as luncheon meat fries ($8), fried carrot cake with crispy shrimp chilli ($8) and claypot rice-otto ($16), washed down with artisanal and craft beer.

At heart, it is a casual hangout. Turn up in a shirt, shorts and sandals and you will fit right in.

The Tuckshop was opened by five Geylang residents who realised there was no casual bar or bistro in the area where they could hang out at with friends.

"Geylang is known for its food, but there were no decent bars apart from the typical KTV and music lounges which cater for a certain crowd," says co-owner Robert Davies, 37, a Briton who is the founder and director of advertising agency Cuckoo.

The other owners are Mr Shukun Bu, 33, a Singaporean design architect; Mr Lionel Gies, 36, a Frenchman who works in finance; Mr Damien Yee, 37, a Singaporean who works in IT; and Mr Francesco Marconi, 46, an Italian who runs a company that imports and distributes truffles here.

Patrons at The Tuckshop are about 70 per cent Singaporeans and 30 per cent expatriates. Residents in the area get a 5 to 10 per cent discount.

The owners say they have had no problems with any unsavoury crowd so far as the bar is located in a residential area away from the red-light district.

Pints of draught beer start at $14 and craft beer is priced from $12 to $27 a bottle.

Where: 403 Guillemard Road

Open: Mon to Fri, 5pm to midnight, Sat & Sun, 3pm to midnight

Info: Go to thetuckshop.com.sg

ALSO CHECK OUT:

Mel's Place

Have a beer or a margarita under the palm trees in this restaurant-bar's alfresco dining area. Live bands play on the weekends.

Where: 2A Kuo Chuan Avenue

Open: Mon to Thu, 4pm to 1am; Fri, Sat & public holiday, 4pm to 2am; Sun, 11am to 1am

Info: Go to melsplace.com.sg or call 6440-3573

Bar Bar Blacksheep

Bar Bar Blacksheep opened its first outlet in Cherry Avenue in 2007 and now has four outlets here, in Cluny Court, Katong and Robertson Quay. All share the same casual vibe and serve Thai, Western and North Indian cuisine with a wide selection of beers, including Carlsberg ($11 a pint).

Where: 362 Tanjong Katong Road

Open: Mon to Fri, noon to midnight; Sat & Sun, noon to 1am

Info: Go to facebook.com/BarBarBlackSheep or call 6348-8275

SOUTH SINGAPORE

Bojangles

Bojangles is strictly a Van Morrison, blues and jazz sort of joint, a music bar which happens to screen sports matches, says owner A.S. Chail, 54.

He opened the first Bojangles in Balmoral Plaza in 1997 and owns another outlet in Arcadia Road.

The 900 sq ft Balmoral outlet is its most popular, with a steady flow of customers after work on weeknights. The crowd peaks on weekend nights and during the English Premier League and Rugby League games, which are screened live on TV sets inside and outside the bar.

The bar is not large and has room for up to 60 people. About 80 per cent of the seats are on the patio outside as a large pool table takes up most of the space inside.

Not many bar owners would yield so much footage to a pool table, but Mr Chail says it makes up part of the bar's appeal.

He says: "The pool table is a great way for people to get to know one another, to make friends."

And making friends is what Bojangles is all about.

He adds: "I wanted a bar where you could go to drink and to have a conversation. If you want only one drink, that's fine. We'll bring you a glass of water."

The bar serves mostly beers (a pint of Tiger is $13.80, Kilkenny is $15.80) and a limited selection of cocktails such as margaritas ($12.80) and food such as pizza ($16) and tandoori chicken bites ($11). Customers can bring in food from neighbouring food outlets such as Spizza and Smith's Fish and Chips.

The mix of expatriate and Singaporean customers are mostly in their 40s and 50s, and Mr Chail hires staff in their 50s and 60s to match them.

Staff warmly welcome customers and chat with them about their work or get to know their families. Sometimes, they even join them for a game of pool.

The friendly and engaging staff are what sets Bojangles apart from other joints. Mr Chail says: "I want people who can conduct proper conversations with customers so that they come back."

Where: 01-01 Balmoral Plaza, 271 Bukit Timah Road

Open: Sun to Thu, 4pm to 1am; Fri & Sat, 4pm to 2am

Info: Call 6737-1471

ALSO CHECK OUT:

The Sportsman

Opened in 1998, this bar was initially a hangout for the Scottish community in Singapore. Its customer base has expanded to include Britons and Americans, as well as Singaporeans, many of whom flock there for its popular pub quiz on Wednesday nights.

Where: 02-01 Far East Shopping Centre, 545 Orchard Road

Open: Daily 3pm to 12 midnight; closed on Mon

Info: Go to facebook.com/thesportsmanbar.singapore or call 6735-1350

The Yard

The Yard, which has been open since 1983, claims to be one of the oldest surviving pubs here. With heavy doors, dark wood panelling and stained-glass windows, this is the place to go if you want a sense of an authentic English pub.

Where: 294 River Valley Road

Open: Mon to Sat, 4pm to midnight; eve of public holiday, 4pm to 1am; closed on Sun & public holiday

Info: Go to theyard-pub.com or call 6235-6497

WEST SINGAPORE

The Jolly Roger

Walking into this 1,060 sq ft bar off Hillview Avenue at Upper Bukit Timah, you cannot help but feel, well, jolly, even if the bar does take its name from the skull and cross-bone flag which identifies a pirate's ship.

It is a reference to owner James Hosking's roots in Cornwall, England, which has a long history of pirates pillaging ships along its rocky coast.

A jolly roger flag is part of the bar's decor, along with a vibrant mix of knick-knacks, photographs, magazine prints and vintage advertisements.

There is a covered beer garden in the back and a darts corner, while a pool table takes centre stage. On Tuesday nights, the bar hosts a Killer Pool tournament, popular among the regulars.

The mix of Singaporean and expatriate patrons live in the neighbourhood and come to socialise with one another, whom they know mostly by name.

The family-friendly bar, which also welcomes pet dogs, is lively even on weeknights.

Happy hour runs from 4 to 8pm during which beers cost $8.50 to $10 a pint, wine costs $8.50 and house spirits are $7.50 a glass. It serves bar bites such as fried spam ($6) and chicken nuggets ($10).

Where: 15 Chu Lin Road

Open: 4pm to midnight daily

Info: Go to facebook.com/JollyRogerBars or call 6468-2344

ALSO CHECK OUT:

Blooie's Roadhouse

Known for its beer-butt chicken (a chicken roasted with a can of beer inside it), this cosy American-style restaurant and bar with a Hawaiian vibe is one of three outlets in Singapore.

Where: 426-428 Upper Bukit Timah Road

Open: Mon to Fri, 11.30am to 12.30am; Sat & Sun, 11.30am to 1.30am

Info: Go to blooies.com or call 6766-1588

Wala Wala Cafe Bar

A second home for many in the Holland Village area and beyond, this bar, which has alfresco and indoor bar seating for up to 250 people, has been a favourite watering hole and live-music venue among residents since it opened in January 1993.

Where: 31 Lorong Mambong

Open: Mon to Thu, 4pm to 1am; Fri, 4pm to 2am; Sat, 3pm to 2am; Sun, 3pm to 1am

Info: Go to facebook.com/walawala.sg or call 6462-4288