Singapore's neighborhood food courts, or hawker centers, are its claim to fame in the foodie world. But a new breed of modern food and beverage (F&B) ventures serving up traditional fare could fortify the city-state's status as a gastronomic hub.
Home to a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan communities, Singapore is widely known as one of the world's most diverse countries—a medley well reflected in its food centers. But customers craving local food now have options that don't involve standing in line at open-air hawker stalls.
Launched in July, Wanton Seng's Noodle Bar serves handmade noodles hailing from local heritage brand Seng's, which dates back to 1968, with premium sides such as barbecued pork and fried quails.
"This place definitely triggers childhood memories for most patrons," chef Brandon Teo told CNBC.
The restaurant, styled like a Japanese ramen bar, is a collaboration between F&B operation The Establishment Group and Benson Ng, owner of the Seng's noodle brand. It's also located just steps away from a well-known food center with plenty of noodle stalls.
So, why should hungry customers choose Wanton Seng's instead? "Well, we have air-conditioning for one," laughed 30-year Teo. "In a way, the hawker centers are our competition, but really, both of us are doing our own thing. It's healthy competition."
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Teo believed the noodle bar would initially draw a younger crowd, but people in their late 40s and 50s actually showed the biggest reactions. "They expressed pride that younger guys like me were keeping the tradition alive."
Others are also taking carrying the local-food torch into restaurant settings.
Patrons visiting Sum Yi Tai, a restaurant cooking old-school favorites such as clay pot rice in a stylish Chinoiserie setting complete with a mosaic of wooden mahjong tiles at its entrance, are also struck by a wave of nostalgia.
"Our diners love it! Because our target audience is the central business district crowd, many grew up in the same era as we did," said Eu-Yen Tay, co-founder of Coterie Dining Concepts, the management house behind the restaurant.
Meaning "third wife" in Cantonese, Sum Yi Tai is one of many brands in Coterie Dining's pipeline.
"With each concept we develop, there will be one Chinese cuisine that takes focus. For Sum Yi Tai, it is Cantonese food. We wanted to tie it all back to the glamorous decadence of the 1980s because that decade is very under-represented as a concept theme," Tay said.
She agreed that after years of focusing on an international ambiance, Singapore's F&B market does seem to be returning to its roots. "I would say it has not yet reached its full potential, but it is great that we no longer equate modernity and trendiness with being Western-oriented."
It’s not just food
Specialty cocktails are also becoming a mainstay.
At bar Nutmeg & Clove, visitors are reminded of a traditional Chinese medicine hall, but with premium spirits instead of herbs lining the stacked shelves.
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"We use the principles of classic cocktails as building blocks for our cocktail menu, but incorporate uniquely Asian ingredients into the drinks," said co-founder Colin Chia.
"For example, the Old Fashioned is American Whiskey, bitters and a sweetener. Our version named Good Ole Fashioned Revolution is a marriage of rye whiskey infused with pandan leaf [a tropical plant], a dose of spiced coconut syrup and spiced bitters, "
The bar's reincarnation of the Singapore Sling involves hibiscus-tinged gin, goji, red date syrup and is even served in a miniature-sized pushcart, a nod to the dim-sum sellers of yesteryear.
Indeed, everything about the bar seems to reference Singapore's history.
The name Nutmeg & Clove refers to the spice plantations which were located in the neighborhood in the 1800s, a period of booming spice trade that was vital to Singapore's economy at the time.
"This building also has a lot of historical meaning; it was supposedly opened by one of the last scholars of China and is owned by a Cantonese clan," Chia said.
Putting Singapore on the map
These kinds of establishments are seen as key to luring international trend-setters to the Southeast Asian nation.
"It would be nice to get more international legitimacy of Singaporean food," said Teo of Wanton Seng's. More importantly, "this could be a kick start for other entrepreneurs thinking of focusing on local food, maybe the start of a local movement."