New buzz soon at Hotpot Central

Once a European residential town in colonial times, Liang Seah Street and the area around it has since become Hotpot Central.

No fewer than eight restaurants in the shophouses opposite Bugis Junction, off Beach Road, serve up steamboat buffets.

Many people drop by for a late night supper of prawns or meatballs dipped in aromatic, steaming broth, often sitting at tables on narrow walkways.

One 3am supper on April 4 has put the spotlight on the area and its hotpot eateries - a steamboat cooker at Chong Qing (Original) Steamboat exploded and caused five women to end up in hospital with burns.

One woman even had half her hair burned off.

A check by The Straits Times this week, however, found that business at these restaurants does not seem to have taken a big hit, with most of their tables filled at dinner time.

Singaporeans and foreigners alike, especially Chinese and Thai nationals, still throng the pathways of Liang Seah Street.

Diners such as Mr Jack Li, 43, who works in communications, said they were not deterred.

"I'm not that worried, since most places use electric cookers now," said Mr Li, adding that he goes to the area once every few months when he is in the mood for affordable steamboat.

Madam Maggie Lim, 48, owner of Maggie Thai & Chinese Restaurant, which offers mookata or Thai-style barbecue steamboat, said her business has not been affected by the gas canister

incident. She said her shop has been in the area since 1998, and she claims to be the first to set up shop there.

"They have their customers, and I have mine," said Madam Lim, when asked about competition from the other hotpot places.

Mr Pan Ke, 26, owner of Ting Yuan Hotpot, agreed that the restaurants are not really direct competitors as they serve different kinds of broths, from spicy Chongqing "mala" to Thai-style ones.

He said business has "definitely been affected" to some extent by the April 4 incident, but could not give numbers.

Staff at the other steamboat joints said they had no permission to comment, when asked if business has been affected.

While the incident has underlined the area's reputation as a hotpot hangout, there are also restaurants serving other kinds of cuisines there.

One such place is Gastrosmiths Bistro and Bakery located around the corner in Tan Quee Lan Street, which serves international comfort food with French, Japanese and Italian influences.

Such dishes include its Hokubee Ribeye Bowl, featuring tender beef on top of a sushi-like bowl of rice and topped with rice vinegar and a 63 deg C egg.

Mr Dillon Ng, 29, the managing director, said he chose the area for its attractive rent and accessible location. However, business has been challenging.

"People come to this area expecting cheap steamboat, and they find our food a bit too pricey, especially for the budget travellers from the budget hotels nearby," said Mr Ng.

The area known for its steaming pots is set to become "hotter", with the new South Beach mixed development, expected to be finished by late next year.

Situated opposite Raffles Hotel, it will include offices, a hotel, a private club, luxury apartments and retail shops.

Its 34-storey office tower, known as South Beach Tower, has already been finished, with 80 per cent of the office space already committed. Notable tenants include pharmaceutical giant Sanofi and Facebook.

The former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) Club and former Beach Road Camp will be conserved and restored, as part of the South Beach development.

The two-storey SAF NCO Club, built between 1951 and 1952 for British servicemen, will find new life as a private club; while the former Beach Road Camp, the venue for the first national service enlistment in 1967, will be restored for retail uses.

Mr Ng hopes the development will bring a new crowd to the area, and not just hotpot lovers.

"We currently survive on regulars and word-of-mouth, so I definitely hope new customers will come and check us out."

This article was first published on April 17, 2015.
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