MODERNITY, in the shape of the Marina Bay Financial Centre and iconic Marina Bay Sands, provides the waterfront backdrop for the open-air foodcourt in the Gardens by the Bay. But patrons also get to enjoy a slice of history.
The rustic Satay by the Bay, as the foodcourt is named, is noticeably less glitzy than its surroundings, with its bare floor and plants dangling from the roof.
But Satay by the Bay is an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the old Satay Club near the Padang, which was demolished for new developments in 1995.
A 10-minute walk from the two domed conservatories in the Gardens by the Bay, patrons can find eight outdoor pushcarts selling sticks of satay, with low wooden tables and stools for diners.
Some of the sellers are veterans of the trade, although none are from the old Satay Club.
"The concept is the same. But last time we had round tables, now we have square tables," said satay seller Basori Misiri, 48, recalling how people used to enjoy the sticks of sweet barbecued meat while sitting on low stools.
He has been grilling satay since he was 12, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. And he still does it the traditional way, with a charcoal fire and a fan made of palm leaf.
Mr Basori noted at least one other feature that is different - the lighting. "The old Satay Club was very dark and smoky. We couldn't see what meat we were eating."
Mr Ahmad Alhadad, owner of Sri Geylang Sate, said his two pushcarts sell 3,000 sticks every weekday and double that number on weekends. The outdoor seating arrangement is a favourite among young couples and families, he added.
Customer Ruby Aniya Baah has been visiting the foodcourt at least once a week since its opening in January. The housewife, who is in her 50s, would order up to 200 sticks of satay, at 70 cents each, for herself and five friends. "The view is nice and the satay is nice," she said.
She is not alone in thinking this. Less than four months after its quiet opening, the place is catching on among locals. The 1,000-seat eatery is reportedly packed on weekends, with people having to wait for seats.
The 28 stalls at the foodcourt, of which only two are yet to be rented out, offer a variety of food including barbecued seafood, chicken rice and Turkish cuisine. A Western bistro serves beer and other drinks.
"I like the selection of food. I like that it's open-air, and it's less stressful and busy than other places in the city. And the prices are reasonable too," said Mr George Chow, an actuary, who was there on Tuesday to celebrate his 41st birthday with his wife and daughter.
It is not just memories of the old Satay Club that Satay by the Bay is trying to revive. Another stall, Bayfront Steamboat Buffet, hopes to make it a double dose of nostalgia. "We're trying to bring back the steamboat culture to Marina South," said owner Mary Low, 55.
Marina South was an entertainment enclave known for its barbecue-steamboat outlets and bowling alleys before the area was redeveloped.
"It's almost the same - there's the steamboat, the two different soups, and the barbecue at the side," said 55-year-old Eddie Fong, a manager who was having dinner with three colleagues. "In a way, this place is better. Last time, it was so cramped; this place is more spacious."
While customers are happy that the place is quiet on weekdays, hawkers are not. But they expect this to change once a night shuttle bus service starts next month. It will fetch visitors from Marina Bay MRT station between 6pm and midnight on weekdays, said Mr Alex Neo, managing director of Planar One and Associates, which runs the foodcourt.
Though it is open for 24 hours, only two stalls are operating round the clock currently. More stalls will do so from next month to cater to the after-clubbing crowd. Live football matches will also be screened, said Mr Neo.
But the past will continue to resonate at the foodcourt.
When The Straits Times visited the place on Tuesday, Dr Tan Wee Kiat, chief executive of Gardens by the Bay, was having his dinner there.
He recounted his memories of eating satay in the 1950s, which influenced his vision for the present-day eatery.
"Some of the oldsters in town may remember. In the old days, right by what we called 'the five old trees' - along the seafront in front of Victoria Memorial Hall and along the Queen Elizabeth Walk - there would be stalls that sold satay and other food. Then later on, the Satay Club was developed across the street," said Dr Tan, who turns 70 this year.
"That was a source of inspiration for Satay by the Bay, because satay is always best eaten with a sea breeze in your face."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 26, 2013
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