It is the most distinctive hotel in Singapore, with a peerless storied past that harks back to the days of bumboats and sundowners. Its stately colonial facade is the subject of postcards that enamoured travellers would send home to encapsulate the romance of the East. It has survived on the strength of its legacy, but locals saw a different picture – that of Raffles Hotel Singapore in decline.
The hotel was showing its age, and its food and beverage concepts had not been updated for three decades. At the same time, new and exciting venues were popping up in the city, following the launch of the integrated resorts. Singapore denizens had myriad choices in which to dine, entertain and sip cocktails, and Raffles Hotel was rarely one of them.
That will change when the property officially reopens this month, after an 18-month renovation. Says general manager Christian Westbeld: “The restoration is quite timely. The integrated resorts have been around for a while, and talents have branched out on their own with pop-up bars and restaurants. It’s great for us to enter the market now, with concepts that are new to the hotel and Singapore.”
A place to dine
He is talking about La Dame de Pic, the first restaurant at Raffles Hotel Singapore to be helmed by a female chef – the three-Michelin starred Anne-Sophie Pic; and BBR by Alain Ducasse, a Mediterranean grill that represents the famed chef’s first foray into casual dining. Westbeld also pushed for the hotel to have its own Chinese restaurant. Yi by Jereme Leung heralds the return of the former Four Seasons Singapore chef after more than a decade abroad.
“The food and beverage environment in hotels in Singapore is very safe and risk-averse,” says the soft-spoken German. “Concepts are not pushed as far as freestanding bars and restaurants do. We want to make a statement that, as a hotel, we can be an F&B destination.”
The hotel’s new F&B director, Frederic Serol, has worked in a hotel environment for only two years in his 20-year career in fi ne dining. He oversaw freestanding restaurants in London, New York, Shanghai – including Mr & Mrs Bund and Ultra Violet. “He brings a global understanding of F&B in markets that are setting trends,” says Westbeld. “He’s not restricted by hierarchical structure of hotels but is very savvy, creative, and decision-driven. He comes with the understanding that if you cannot compete, you’re not moving forward.”
Something old, something new
The restoration itself was delayed by eight months due to unforeseen issues of refurbishing a 130-year-old building – for one thing, the walls in the Palm Court wing had to be treated to mitigate the effects of salination – but the result firmly returns the property to contemporary global luxury standards while maintaining the essence of the old institution.
“Everyone was afraid we would become too modern, that we would change too many things,” says Westbeld, but initial reactions to the makeover have been reassuring.
Says Joy Tan, a partner at law firm Wong Partnership who held her wedding reception on the hotel’s lawn over 20 years ago, and who was a regular patron of Jubilee Hall, Raffles Grill, and Bar & Billiard Room: “I really like the new Raffles. The Writers Bar and Tiffin Room are tasteful refurbishments that have stayed true to their original roots, and La Dame de Pic that occupies the old Raffles Grill space is a delight.”
The lobby looks lighter and airier, accented by a statement chandelier from Prague. The restaurants fringing it features stunning interiors by New York-based design firm Champalimaud – contemporary vintage in the case of Tiffin Room and Writers Bar, and a plush peach-toned look in the case of La Dame. Elsewhere, the hotel shows it is keeping with the times.
The Jubilee Hall, once the venue of British Theatre Playhouse productions, has made way for the glitzy, 300-guest Jubilee Ballroom, which comes with a glassed-in area where guests can enjoy cocktails in air-conditioned comfort. The introduction of The Great Room co-working space on Level 2 of the arcade will integrate professionals into the complex, ensuring a steady footfall of locals to the hotel.
Time moves differently in Raffles, says Westbeld. As a lush two- to three-storey colonial complex surrounded by steel and glass high-rises, it’s easy to see the hotel as an urban oasis, a property arrested in time. While the latter does not apply to F&B, in other areas, it is the core of the hotel’s uniqueness. Narajan Singh, Raffles Hotel Singapore’s globally recognised doorman, will resume his position at the entrance, a role he has held for over 25 years. Guest services, too, will recall the days when dedicated staff attended to guests’ every need. It will be executed by a team of 29 butlers headed by Singaporean Grace Kiong, who last worked as a butler manager at the Burjal Arab in Dubai.
Says Westbeld: “It’s not about how to unpack luggage, it’s about understanding that each hotel guest is different, with different needs. We want guests to say that a Raffles butler took care of me, that ‘I am leaving as a friend, coming back as family’.” Raffles Hotel Singapore is on its way to burnishing its reputation once more.
Raffles Hotel re-opens 1 August 2019.