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What are Coffeeshops, Food Courts and Hawker Centres in Singapore?


Coffee shops

Coffee shops (literally kopi tiam – ‘kopi’ a Malay word, ‘tiam’ a Hokkien word) are probably the most common places where locals have their meals if they eat out. They are normally located in housing estates and you can find one within walking distance every few HDB blocks apart. Some are located in industrial areas. A coffee shop typically houses about 5 to 7 stalls. One of the stalls will definitely be a drinks stall, which is often operated and run by the owner of the coffee shop itself.

Common stalls you can find in a coffeeshop other than the drinks stall would be those selling Mixed Rice, Mee Pok (minced pork noodles), Carrot cake, Porridge, Won Ton noodles, Chicken rice, Fishball noodles, Tze char (fried noodles, rice and other meat and vegetable dishes), Western food and 1 or 2 halal Malay or Indian food stalls (Roti prata, Nasi padang, Mee rebus, Nasi Briyani etc.). A meal at a coffeeshop costs between $3 to $4 on average. Food at the Western stall normally costs a little more. A drink will cost between $0.80 to $1.50 depending on what you order, beer excluded.

There are normally 2 to 3 staff from the drinks stall moving around in a coffee shop clearing drinks cans and glasses and taking orders. To order a drink, just put up your hand to signal to them that you want to place an order. You can also call out to them by addressing them as ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ to get their attention. If it’s a younger lady serving you, you may address her ‘sister’.  The auntie, uncle or sister will bring you your order and you pay them.

The majority of coffee shops are not air-conditioned. Tables are free seating, and there’s a section in the coffee shop designated as a smoking area.

There are more than 2000 coffee shops today in Singapore.  They first started to sprout up when the government wanted to clear roadside hawkers for development and hygiene reasons. The roadside stalls were then moved to the coffee shops or hawker centres.

*You haven’t experienced Singapore if you haven’t eaten at a coffee shop. Click here for tips to eat like a local at a coffee shop.

A coffee shop
A coffee shop


Hawker Centres

Hawker Centres is a large food area which can contain more than 50 hawker stalls. A wide variety of food is available and normally the same food item is sold at more than 1 hawker stall. Hawker centres are found at the heart of a housing estate, typically next to the wet market, at a central area where the other estate amenities are located as well (a housing estate is self-contained with facilities such as a wet market, clinic, hardware store etc.).

Other than the stalls you find at a coffeshop, you will also find stalls selling fruit juice, dessert, barbecued seafood, Char kway tiao, Roast meat with rice etc. Hawkers at hawker centres rent their stall from the government.

Every table has a table number indicated on it. Some stalls owners will ask you for your table number when you order. They will prepare the food and deliver it to where you sit and you pay them when they send the food to your table (although some owners would want you to pay first). Stalls with a sign that says “self-service”, well, is self explanatory.

A meal will cost about $3 to $4. A drink costs about $0.80 to $1.50 and a fruit juice between $1.50 and $3.

Tip! Queues in front of a stall is a clear sign that they have some really good food there. If you see any newspaper or magazine articles displayed at the food stall, it is safe to say the food there is good

During meal times, you might find it a little challenging to find a seat and sharing a table with others is common.

A hawker centre
A hawker centre

Food courts

A food court is the air conditioned version of a hawker centre. The number of stalls are many, but fewer than that in a hawker centre. A food court can be found is almost all shopping malls in Singapore.

During lunch and dinner times, it is common to find items like tissue packets, lanyards, umbrellas and name cards on the tables. This indicates that the table has been ‘reserved’ while the item owner is buying his food. It might be difficult to get a table but just wait around those who look like they are about to finish eating and you should get a seat in a short while.

Expect to pay a little more than in a coffee shop or hawker centre – about $4 to $8 for a meal. A drink will cost between $1.50 to $3. Probably the most expensive food court to dine at is Rasapura Masters, which is the food court at Marina Bay Sands.

If you will be in Singapore for a period of time, you might want to consider purchasing a dining card at food courts (which have several outlets) like Kopitiam and Koufu. You may top up the stored value of the card and use it to pay for your food. This will give you a 10% discount on what you buy. These cards can be purchased for a few dollars at the food courts itself.

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