You are here
Home > Culture > 5 Tips to Eat at Coffeeshops Like a Local

5 Tips to Eat at Coffeeshops Like a Local

To say that you have been to Singapore, you really need to have at least one meal in a coffeeshop (aka Kopitiam). Overseas, a coffeeshop might mean a place to chill out and to have a cappuccino at. Well in Singapore, locals have their meals at coffeeshops and the ambiance can be quite different. You can have a meal with just $3, and another $1 or so will get you a drink too. Here are some tips to dine like a coffeeshop like a Singaporean!

1. Sit anywhere!

It’s free seating in a coffeeshop so just seat yourself wherever is empty. If you are in a group and need an extra chair at your table, just grab one from the next table. If you are in a group and need a bigger table, just help yourself and join two tables together. If you see items such as tissue packets, umbrellas, name cards or shopping bags placed on tables or chairs,  it means that the table is taken and the person who has unofficially reserved (aka ‘choped’ in Singlish) the table has gone to buy some food. And yes, you may try ‘choping’ a table this way at a coffeeshop too. If you wish to have a smoke, do note that you will have to sit at a designated smoking section, where the tables have tins as ash trays on them.

Free seating at a coffee shop


2. Aunties and Uncles

The people managing the food stalls are usually those from the older generation (50 years old and above). If they are very obviously older than you, you may address them as ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ to get their attention. If they are not very much older or the same age as you, calling them ‘auntie’ is well, degrading. You may address the ladies as ‘da jie’ (older sister). For the men, you may address them ‘boss’. If all else fails, a simple ‘excuse me’ will do the trick.


3. Ordering drinks

In most coffee shops, you will see a few aunties and uncles (sometimes younger staff) walking around, typically with a waist pouch, a drinks tray and table cloth in hand, and might be shouting randomly in mandarin or dialect. These are the people you can order drinks from. Just lift your hand and signal to them and they will come to you to take your order. They will head to the drinks stall and return with your drink, and you pay them. If you don’t see such people around, then it’s self-service at the drinks stall. There are no drinks menus, except for a few coffee shops where it is printed on a signboard above the drinks stall, so it’s good to know what’s offered. (Click here for the unofficial coffeeshop local list of beverages!) Other than the regular canned sodas, there’s a host of other local drinks to explore. You can make your way to the drinks stall to order for yourself and see what’s available in the fridges or dispensers. There is also coffee and tea made the local way on the spot when ordered.

auntie with tray
An auntie who takes your drink orders at a coffee shop – usually carrying a tray and wearing a waist pouch


4. Ordering food

Head to the food stalls to order your food. If there’s a sign that says “self-service” displayed at the food stall, well, that’s self-explanatory. If not, you may order your food and return to your seat, because the stall holder will delivery your food to you when it’s ready. When the food arrives, that’s when you pay for it. Some stalls may request that you make payment first upon ordering. Sometimes, the person who brings you your food might just walk away after receiving your $50 dollar note. Don’t worry, he’ll be back with your change.

Tip! If you are into food, joining long queues takes up time, but is often worth the wait.

A coffeeshop at dinner time

5. You WILL smell

There is no air conditioning in a coffee shop, so expect to perspire given the hot and humid tropical weather. With a dozen stalls cooking in a semi-enclosed area, also expect the mild smell of cooking oil in the air to stick on you for most part of the day. Well, that’s all part of the experience! 🙂


Other reads:


Bringing you the sights & sounds (technology doesn't allow us to convey smells, yet) of every inch of Singapore and Singaporeans through our videos and words!