Ask Singaporeans about Robertson Quay and they’ll likely still tell you the waterside district only has condominiums, with a handful of local restaurants serving the area’s predominantly expat residents. Take my taxi driver, for example, as I’m heading down there on a Saturday evening. ‘Why not go to Clarke Quay if you want some fun?’ he asks.
My response: Clarke Quay and the neighbouring Boat Quay are a bit much for me these days. Lots of tourists. Lots of drinking. Lots of sports bars. And on this evening, a man climbing a lamppost. No, there must be somewhere classier to have a good time.
Enter Quayside at Robertson Quay. In July 2017, it finally opened, after years of renovation that transformed an old retail centre and hotel into a sleekly designed complex. Opened by Kishin RK, a property mogul in his 30s, the complex now includes some 20 alfresco restaurants and bars facing the Singapore River, each with its own vibe and personality. A new InterContinental hotel opened later that year.
‘I never felt that the area fully embraced a riverside lifestyle, and I saw this as an opportunity to revitalise this part of the Singapore River – the third quay after Clarke Quay and Boat Quay,’ says Kishin.
This isn’t exactly the first exciting development to come to Robertson Quay. In 2010, Filter Club opened here and was the place to be seen for several years, with bars cropping up around it. But this proved to be a false start. Filter Club closed, and the area reverted to a sleepy pocket of the city, finding itself suddenly unfashionable despite its close proximity to the CBD.
It wasn’t until Kishin decided to revamp the entire area that Robertson Quay began to see real change. Trendy restaurants started to arrive even before the refurbishment began. The first, in 2014, was Superloco, a colourful Mexican joint. Then, a local curry house called The Curry Culture took the opportunity to reinvent itself and transformed into Dabbawalla, a fun restaurant serving street eats from different Indian regions. ‘We were aware of the Quayside revamp and we saw potential in Kishin’s vision,’ says restaurant manager Prabha. ‘This is why we decided to give it a try.’
Indeed, Kishin’s name is on the lips of everyone here; you’d think he were performing a miracle for the neighbourhood. He made sure that there wouldn’t be any large chain restaurants entering the area and that every restaurant would be able to bring its own distinctiveness to the table.
Summerlong, one of Singapore’s very few Mediterranean restaurants, is a prime example, channelling earthy decor, river views, delicious Med-influenced dishes and a general beachy vibe. ‘The alfresco experience in Quayside is a departure from the department store norm that is Singapore,’ says Summerlong’s founder, Rohit Roopchand. ‘You really feel the sense that this place is a destination in itself.’
The cuisines offered here were very deliberate choices by Kishin’s team.
‘The biggest challenge was finding the right mix of tenants,’ he says. ‘As the landlord of Quayside, we’ve had the opportunity to take control of the whole neighbourhood. Other neighbourhoods often have multiple landlords who are looking for the best rent regardless of the tenants, but we could really shape the vibe and district into something inspiring and high-quality yet unpretentious. We spent over a year researching the market and debating various restaurant and bar options before deciding on the final tenant mix at Quayside.’
Hotels have sprung up, too. There’s hipster haven Warehouse Hotel, which embodies the area’s past. Built in 1895, it was first a distillery and then an opium den, before becoming the Warehouse Disco in the 1980s. This year, it opened as a boutique 37-room hotel, which may just be the coolest bolthole in the city. The hotel’s restaurant, Po, fuses past with present, too, specialising in classic Singapore dishes often enjoyed in hawker centres but with an elegant and modern twist. ‘We are the only warehouse to be given heritage status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and one of very few heritage hotels in Singapore,’ says Tarun Karla, the general manager. ‘We pride ourselves on keeping everything local and being independently run.’
The opening of InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay in late 2017 was the final part of the area’s transformation. But rather than bringing opulent five-star luxury to the quay, the hotel sought to capture the same ‘sophisticated yet relaxed’ atmosphere of the Quayside. General Manager Mark Winterton says this is a place where guests – or ‘residents’, as the hotel calls them – can feel free to dress down. ‘We encourage our residents to be themselves and enjoy the homey vibe. This is a curated space that morphs into the surrounding area, and everything that’s been missing in Singapore can be found here. Quayside is a sophisticated but casual, unspoilt community. The last thing we want is to create Clarke Quay 2.0.’
1880, a private members’ club situated inside the InterContinental, encapsulates all that’s fun, modern and innovative about Robertson Quay. Consisting of a spa, a co-working space, a cinema, a restaurant and a bar, this club is designed by furniture maker Timothy Oulton. Founder Marc Nicholson has lofty goals in mind: ‘I want to create a space that can inspire conversations and transform the world.’
Min Chan, the owner-operator of Decker Barbecue, a Texan barbecue restaurant at Quayside, puts it best: ‘Everyone here is friends with one another, and the community sense is strong, just the way Kishin wanted it. We do not see ourselves as competition but as a big family who helps each other out. I am so excited to see what Quayside and Robertson Quay will become – I can’t wait.’
This story was originally published in October 2017 and updated in September 2020