Punggol is shedding its sleepy town label with a bonanza of cafes and restaurants popping up.
The riverfront locale and meandering park trails are luring diners keen on tranquil views and a chill-out ambience, despite its out-of- the-way spot. Besides seafood restaurants, there are at least 10 eateries which have opened in the past nine months.
Punggol's nascent food scene boasts cuisines ranging from European to Malay to Thai.
In Tebing Lane, cafes such as Cravings and Whisk & Paddle are newcomers to the food and recreation cluster near Punggol Promenade Riverside Walk. Recent occupants of The Punggol Settlement, a food enclave in Punggol Point Road, include Horizon Bistronomy, which serves French food, and halal eatery Rilek 1 Korner.
For the owners, one of Punggol's main draws is the growing number of residents in the Build-To-Order Housing Board flats and condominiums nearby. Hoping to target young families is Ms Cynthia Tan, 29, owner of dessert cafe Cravings, which also rents out its kitchen.
She says: "I noticed more housewives in the area bake for events to earn extra income, but do not have proper equipment at home."
The 85 sq ft rental kitchen has a commercial oven, kitchen mixer and mixing bowls. To use the facilities, bakers need to obtain a Basic Food Hygiene Course certificate from the Workforce Development Agency. The cafe attracts about 80 customers on weekends, mainly night owls from the 24-hour prawning facility and a billiard hall nearby.
The scenery is also a draw. At bistro bar Fur Kicks in The Punggol Settlement, pink LED-lit glass tables jostle for attention with lights from Pasir Gudang port across the Strait of Johor. Co-owner George Lee, 43, says: "I want to provide an out-of-town alternative to rooftop bars so executives can chill out after work without the pressure of dressing up."
Ms Victoria Pan, 29, owner of brunch cafe Whisk & Paddle, says: "I like the close-to-nature location which faces the river and park connector.We attract cyclists on weekends and residents who stop by for coffee after strolls."
It helps that rents in Punggol are reasonable, cafe owners say. It can range from $8 to $17 a square foot a month, compared with from $20 a square foot in Orchard Road.
Mr Eugene Lim, 48, real estate agency ERA Realty's key executive officer, says: "Punggol's F&B scene is growing steadily as most households are young families who eat out more than they cook at home. A growing interest in the area has led to rental rates increasing by up to 15 per cent over the past two years."
However, having waterfront views comes at the price of being, in some people's minds, far away.
Businesses in Punggol depend on the weekend crowd. Mr Chris Fong, 27, coowner of Horizon Bistronomy, saw poor customer turnout at lunchtime when it opened last November, so he decided to open for dinner only on weekdays. The cafe also started serving brunch on Sundays two weeks ago to attract cafe- hoppers.
He also finds it difficult to hire part-time wait staff on weekends when the number of diners can swell to 200. This leads to up to a 30- minute wait for a main course. He says: "Not many workers are willing to travel to such an ulu place, so I depend on recommendations from friends."
Ulu means remote in Malay.
Another tenant, Ms Teresa Tay, 28, owner of Just The Place, a bistro, notes that finding a parking space can be tough on weekends.
She says: "Although there are about 200 parking spaces in The Punggol Settlement, they are not enough on weekends."
She hopes a shuttle bus service that ferries diners from neighbouring estates, such as Sengkang or Hougang, can be set up soon.
To lower the risks of operating in a sprawling 8,000 sq ft unit, Whisk & Paddle's Ms Pan split it into two spaces. Besides the cafe, she also runs Treasure Pot, a steamboat-buffet restaurant.
A more crowded Punggol food scene does not faze Mr Yap Woon Chong, 38, co-owner of Frienzie Bar and Bistro in Tebing Lane, which opened in 2011 and is one of the early birds.
He says: "Business has dipped about 5 per cent since The Punggol Settlement opened, but I believe there are enough customers to go around, with more residents in Punggol."
He adds that the cafe received brisk business from the get-go due to the lack of food options, despite the park construction works and stench from the river four years ago.
Punggol residents welcome more dining choices in their backyard.
Mr Nick Pan, 38, director of a digital marketing agency, likes that the new eating spots are located at the river fringe.
He says: "It feels like going to East Coast Park and not being in a housing estate. I can now hang out in Punggol and not eat in town before coming home."
Teacher Denise Lee, 28, believes the food options complement the leisure facilities.
She says: "I mostly visit these food places during the weekend with friends. You need a day out to visit them as they can be quite inaccessible for people who have to travel all the way to Punggol."