Commentary: Why we missed dining out in Singapore these few weeks
As dabao fatigue sets in, many of us in the little red dot cannot wait for F&B outlets to reopen not just for the convenience but because dining out is such an intrinsic part of our social fabric
SINGAPORE: It took about two weeks of home-cooked meals to break me.
At the beginning of Singapore’s Phase 2 Heightened Alert in May, when it was announced that dining-in would cease for the month, I had the grand idea I would use this time to get back in shape by eating self-cooked, portion-controlled meals.
But midway through, I grew tired of brainstorming for meal ideas, keeping track of the grocery situation and most of all, washing and cleaning up a sink overflowing with dirty dishes.
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So, I threw in the towel and decided to pick up my first food order during this heightened alert phase from Jekyll & Hyde, an independent restaurant in Tanjong Pagar that reopened against the odds after it shuttered during the early days of the pandemic last year.
I wanted to do my part to support this audacious comeback kid but also, I simply felt like paying my favourite food and beverage (F&B) neighborhood a visit.
It was surreal. While the lights were still on at most of the eateries lining Tanjong Pagar Road, the restaurants were jarringly empty. Instead, delivery and takeaway menus were prominently on display at various shop fronts.
Devoid of the happy buzz of diners and with just the occasional delivery driver popping into restaurants to pick up orders, I was sad to see the dining district as a shadow of its usual thriving self.
FOOD DELIVERY NOW EASIER FOR CONSUMERS
Still, compared to the challenging pivots of last year’s circuit breaker closures, Singapore’s F&B scene has reacted relatively more efficiently to this year’s tightened measures.
By now, significantly more establishments have figured out their pick-up and delivery systems and there are now multiple digital platforms to smoothen the process of switching to a takeaway model of business.
The marketing is also much improved - like many others, I have received multiple WhatsApp messages, emails and even discount codes to use when ordering at my regular haunts.
Many places have also come up with modified menus comprising dishes that travel well, in order not to compromise on the quality of food they are offering.
For instance, my other half treated us to a delicious meal of exquisite katsu sandos from fine dining Japanese restaurant Esora that the chef had created specially for takeaways.
Restaurateur and chef Willin Low of Roketto Izakaya and Relish by Wild Rocket has revived his Burger Bench & Bar concept to deliver crowd pleasers like the Sarawak black pepper cheeseburger and the sautéed mushrooms cheeseburger to customers’ doorsteps.
But in all honesty, after a year of adjusting to ever evolving regulations to battle the virus, I cannot seem to summon up the same enthusiasm for calling in restaurant and hawker food as I had in earlier days.
It appears many other diners are also feeling this take-away fatigue. A recent survey of 63 Singapore restaurants and food businesses found orders were down 20 to 85 per cent, compared to during last year’s circuit breaker.
("Hawkers are not stupid or stubborn." Find out why KF Seetoh says it will take more than hawkers embracing deliveries and going digital to save Singapore's food culture on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
WE ARE TIRED OF EATING AT HOME
Perhaps more households, mine included, have decided to take this opportunity to slim down our waistlines and budgets during this month, in anticipation of a bout of “revenge dining” when things reopen.
I recognise my privilege of having a safe and comfortable home, but I just have had enough of the monotony of eating three meals a day at the same old dining table while spending most of my waking hours in the same apartment.
I cannot wait to resume the pampering comfort of eating out, whether it is at my favourite hawker stalls where the food tastes best served from wok to plate or at a restaurant where the staff and kitchen can indulge me with both excellent service and scrumptious food.
But it is not just about the convenience and benefits of eating out, such as not having to do the dishes. More than that, in food-obsessed Singapore, the whole experience of dining out is such an intrinsic part of our social fabric.
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EATING OUT IS PART IDENTITY
This dining culture is so ingrained that many of us pride ourselves on the little snippets of insider foodie information we have personally amassed over the years.
Whether scoring elusive access to private dining chefs who seem to have months-long waiting lists, knowing exactly when coveted restaurant reservations are released or having strong opinions on where the best chicken rice or rojak stall are, we all have something to add to the food conversation.
Then there is the nostalgic factor of having cherished memories tied to one location or another. I know of many couples who dine at the same restaurant every year to celebrate their anniversaries, whether it is at steak chain Jack’s Place or the three Michelin starred Les Amis.
Eating out is also part of our collective identities. Many of us held family birthday celebrations at Swensen’s for its impressive Earthquake ice cream sundae. Others look back fondly on the affordably priced chicken chop set at Han’s Cafe we used to enjoy with friends during our school days.
And in the days before COVID-19, many office-bound workers would look forward to lunch hour to scour the hawkers and kopitiams for the best fish soup bee hoon or whatever local delights would strike our fancy.
Somewhere in the midst of demolishing oversized sundaes or “chope-ing” a hawker table with a packet of tissue paper, bonds with friends and family were strengthened and we created much-loved traditions we will carry with us through the rest of our lives.
These can’t quite be replicated at home, even with modern conveniences like food delivery.
SAVE OUR HERITAGE F&B BUSINESSES
There is one more important reason why many of us are excited to resume dining out.
Despite the country’s digital connectivity, there are still places that have fallen through the cracks, typically because the older and sometimes illiterate proprietors are unable to meet the demands of this disruption.
Other places have, for various reasons, simply been unable to cope with the prolonged period of reduced earnings.
As it stands, heritage F&B business Swee Kee Eating House has already announced its permanent closure. Other historic eateries, such as Red Star Restaurant and Lai Wah Restaurant, loathe to retrench their longtime staff, may soon incur costs that could be too much for them to shoulder.
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It would be a blow to our inimitable foodie heritage if we were to lose more of these historic places due to the pandemic.
Certainly, there have been various grassroots efforts - like the Instagram account @wheretodabao which spotlights elderly hawkers - to help them get more business in these times.
However, it can be difficult for sufficient diners to go out of their way to personally buy food from a particular stall or restaurant when there are increased restrictions in place.
Instead, I, like many others, are keeping our fingers crossed that dining in, in one form or another, will be allowed to resume soon.
After all, now that I have actually managed to save a few pennies and shed a few pounds, I am raring to get back out there (while adhering to the necessary measures, of course) to partake in the joys of discovering new dining gems and doing my part to keep old favourites going.
Karen is a freelance lifestyle, travel journalist and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City.