(BUSINESS TIMES) - When Jane Hia opened her first Kith Cafe outlet in 2009, she chose Robertson Quay because of a few unique characteristics - the catchment of expatriate residents, cheaper-than-CBD rental, and the wide walkway between her outlet and the Singapore River.
"When we first opened, our leg of the river was a lot quieter compared to now. For the first one or two years, we had to give people directions because when you get to the bridge it looks like there's nothing there anymore, so many people just turned around," she recalls.
Over the years, however, the landscape at Robertson Quay has evolved quite significantly. New condominiums have come up, new restaurants established along the river, and new hotels have come in, such as the recently-opened Warehouse Hotel just across the river.
All these developments have brought with them an increase in foot traffic, and it's not stopping there, either. As part of a larger project by RB Capital, a huge new multi-concept establishment named Publico will open in Q3 as part of the InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay.
This space comprises a 160-seater daytime gourmet delicatessen called Publico Deli, which transforms into a modern Italian cocktail bar Marcello and dessert bar in the evenings, as well as the 229-seater Publico Ristorante, which will offer classic Italian cuisine with a contemporary touch.
Its general manager Justin Dunne, says: "The Robertson Quay precinct is largely also known as a chic residential area. With a large number of residents living in the precinct, we saw this as an opportunity for us, and spoke to residents prior, to find out what was the missing piece in the area, before developing the dining concept for Publico."
Just in time for the area's refurbishment is the takeover and renovation of long-time player Aburiya - a Japanese yakiniku restaurant which re-opened in mid-May.
Its spokesman, Israeli-born manager Abramov Alex says that when Aburiya first opened in 2003, "there were only four places including us doing F&B".
She adds: "People who came at that time were residents who lived nearby, but I'm convinced the new developments will draw more traffic."
One fairly recent entrant is SPRMRKT founder Quek Sue-Shan, who runs the eight-month-old SPRMRKT Daily (Level 1) and SPRMRKT Kitchen & Bar (Level 2) at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) building.
She recalls how Robertson Quay used to be a lot livelier when clubs like Zouk and the now-defunct Butter Factory were still located there.
Now, she says: "I think it's going through a second or even third wave of evolution. The standard of dining options has gone up a few notches and it has become more refined and established as a proper dining neighbourhood. The other two Quays are more touristy and rowdy, whereas Robertson feels less commercial, a bit cosier and more family-oriented."
A well-rounded dining neighbourhood is exactly what RB Capital's CEO Kishin RK is aiming for, too. "Being the landlord of Quayside we've had the opportunity to take control of the whole neighbourhood and make it for the residents," he says.
"Other neighbourhoods typically have multiple landlords who are looking for the best rent, regardless of the tenants, so we've had an opportunity to really shape the vibe and district into something inspiring, high-quality, yet unpretentious and fun."
Welcoming the change is Timothy Barnes from La Maison du Whisky, which has been at its location for almost 10 years. During this time he has observed a constant evolution of tenants, and believes this is what has kept the area alive and popular with locals.
"Singapore's constantly giving herself a facelift and keeping up with the times. We're fortunate to have this happen around us, too, because it brings new neighbours and a cleaner and more modern style. This is a stylish area, and people here are a bit more leisurely with their time so you get to be different from the bustle of Orchard Road," he says.
Another restaurant that opened very recently was Summerlong - a casual restaurant with a "beachside vibe and Mediterranean soul" - by The Dandy Partnership which also runs Neon Pigeon and Fat Prince.
Their kitchen is helmed by Australia-born chef Justin Hammond, and serves small plates and sharing platters like Cyprus-style meatballs or Greek-style burratina, as well as grilled dishes like Mediterranean smoked pork ribs.
Co-founder Michael Mcnab firmly believes that the influx of new restaurants can only be a good thing for the neighbourhood, because, as he puts it, "a rising tide floats all boats".
At the same time though, he highlights that the onus would be on the property owners to curate "concepts that will be complimentary to one another as opposed to competing with one another".
He adds that with the recent new developments like his, the Robertson Quay area has seen more pedestrian traffic as more people have started appreciating the laidback waterfront vibe there.
"It's the idea of not having to go all the way to the beach for an oasis - a seaside in the middle of the city," he explains.
In fact, being right next to the river just might be the key to bringing life back to Robertson Quay, suggests Ms Hia. She brings up the example of river taxis in London, where for a small fee, you can take a boat across the river and avoid getting stuck in traffic.
"If affordable, it could be considered a mode of daily public transport, and if tourists start taking it, I think there's a real shot at a revival," she says.
If there's one thing to be concerned about though, it is the possibility of rising rent. As Ms Hia puts it: "With things like gentrification and all that, if an area gets hotter, then rent naturally might go up. Thankfully we've got a good relationship with our landlord, because we both believe in a long-term, win-win relationship."