The legend goes something like this: we’re in the thick of the 1800s. A brother and a sister escape the riotous Gold Rush in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and find themselves in the thick of maritime Singapore.
By their wits and will, they come into possession of a shophouse in Boat Quay and start an enterprise. Because the riverside stretch is rife with sailors, businessmen, and other colourful characters, they decide that a bar is an obvious ticket to success.
The concept is easy enough. They will pay homage to the hedonistic locus of their homeland by bringing the Barbary Coast to Boat Quay. Then it gets difficult. Both have their own idea of what the bar should be like; what exactly about the Coast should be transplanted, and what else ought to be left behind. So, a compromise — brother takes the lower floor, sister takes the upper, and they do with it what they will. Each venue ends up diametrically opposite, but fundamentally the same.
Now, we’re in modern-day Singapore. The legend manifests itself along North Canal Road and the brother-sister entrepreneurs are actually Michael Callahan and Celia Schoonraad, bartending veterans and founders of The Compound Collective consultancy. Known for their work in 28 HongKong Street, Employees Only and more of Singapore’s renowned bars, these two are now making their mark on the riverfront ‘hood with a dual-concept bar known as, you guessed it, Barbary Coast.
The lower level of Barbary Coast is known as Deadfall, a dive bar-style joint inspired by actual bars that existed in during the period in San Francisco. Out-of-luck gold miners in ye old Barbary Coast would go to deadfalls, the most rundown of watering holes (sometimes just two planks atop of a barrel) that were egalitarian in its ability to let anyone and everyone have a drink, no matter how impoverished they were.
The Singaporean version is thankfully not as bleak. Its level of “rundown” is charming in the fact that it tries to spotlight the integrity of the shophouse and the materials that made it, stripping back walls and floor to reveal exposed brick, tile and wood panels that have stood the test of time. There is an outdoor long bar, where people and pets can swing by for pours and bites after hours. If the weather gets too muggy, an indoor seating area is also available, outfitted with scavenged knick-knacks that recall travel around the world.
It might be a cut above deadfalls of the past, but the egalitarianism of “drinks for all” still applies at Deadfall, where a menu of crafted cocktails, beers and wines are available at a seriously competitive price point without sacrificing on quality.
“Touters at Boat Quay often talk about cheap cheap good good,” said Callahan. “At Deadfall, we want to give you cheap cheap great great.”
Five cocktails are available to order, each at S$14 and named according to colour. This seeming straightforwardness belies well-thought-out recipes for each, all conceptualised by the resident cocktail alchemist, Schoonraad.
Yellow and Green were two standouts — the former finds Plantation rum infused with burnt pineapple is sweetened with a pineapple husk syrup, giving it the profile of tepache, while Green is as herbaceous as its name suggests thanks to a tequila base enhanced with coriander and a grapefruit-infused Cointreau. Coriander haters, don’t fret. The divisive herb only adds depth to the cocktail, existing as a grassy, bitter counterpart to the sweet housemade watermelon syrup used in the drink, without any of the soapy taste that comes with.
Apart from the cocktails, there are also beers from Young Master Brewery on tap, available in a frosted mug for S$10 nett, along with wines, slushies and sodas. For the peckish, a streamlined menu of hearty bar bites is available, with the TTW Sando being one you cannot leave without. Tater tot waffles, deep-fried in duck fat, sandwich ham and homemade sauerkraut, and one bite had us clutching our hearts with delight. Or that’s just our arteries clogging with pleasure.
The Barbary Coast Ballroom
A night at Barbary Coast doesn’t start (or end) without a visit to the sister concept on the second floor. Named after the ballrooms where miners who have hit gold, quite literally, would head to bleed their pockets dry in style, the Barbary Coast Ballroom in Singapore pays tribute to that lavish history with ornate décor, an extensive cocktail menu, a penchant for champagne and elaborate cheeseboards.
Ballrooms in the American Barbary Coast were run by female proprietors known as “madams”. The Singaporean take keeps the spirit alive with Schoonraad taking the reins on this concept and all the feminine accents dotting the parlour, from the choice of artwork to the collage of floral wallpapers.
There are 13 cocktails on the menu and all couple intelligence with deliciousness. Flavours for every persuasion exist, all designed with serious chemistry that makes every glass served a home to magic. If you twist our arm for three favourites, then go with the following: One Inch Punch, a take on a Sazerac with Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and a chicory rye, the latter a nod to chicory’s use as coffee in New Orleans. Like its name, the cocktail is punchy and muscular almost, with spice and smoke mingling in every sip.
Next is The Cobbler, a riff on the Southern dish, where four types of sherry are blended, then given a brightness with pineapple husk syrup and a housemade berry compote. It tastes exactly like the dessert it is named after, and we’d take this over a real cobbler any day.
Schoonraad believes Tea with Raspberries and Cream is the most dangerous cocktail on the menu, and a sip of this clear pink drink is enough to explain why. Velvety on the tongue, a sip is synesthetic. You taste the berry tea and raspberry, the bodied creaminess of milk, and the subtle florality of the gin duo used as its base, altogether creating a cocktail you cannot put down. We can vouch for this as we had that same drink twice in one night.
Any one of the cheeseboards at The Barbary Coast Ballroom offers a worthy companion to your drinks. Serious thought is given to both the arrangement and array of cheese and charcuterie placed on the board. The meats are all cured in-house, interlaced with a variety of cheeses that range from a soft brie to a whipped goat cheese spread, and served alongside rustic bread and homemade smoked butter. That board goes down in memory as of the most impressive cheeseboards we’ve tried thus far.
We’re often sceptical of bars that couch their identities in stories. The more convoluted they are, the more we feel like the narrative is used as wool over undiscerning eyes. In the case of Barbary Coast, however, the story they have crafted feels more like an uncovering of a plausible history, one we subscribe to because the bridging of historical San Francisco with modern-day Singapore allows this intriguing destination to shine. Bolstered by a creativity and thoughtfulness that extends through the food and beverage programme, Barbary Coast has become our new reason to visit Boat Quay. It should be yours too.