Singapore’s Arab Street is well known as a top destination for authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. Dotting the colorful shophouses along this historic stretch are numerous Arabic restaurants touting flavors from the regions.
However, with so many options clustered together, it can be difficult to separate the genuinely good eateries from those trying to pull a fast one on unsuspecting tourists and locals.
In this in-depth review, I break down the real story behind some of Arab Street’s most prominent restaurants based on my own visits as well as reviews from trusted sources.
Keep reading to get the full picture on which spots are worth your time and money, and which ones you may want to steer clear of.
Background on Singapore’s Arab Quarter
For context, let’s first discuss the history and atmosphere of Arab Street itself. This neighborhood traces its roots back to the 1830s when Arab merchants first settled in the area.
They brought with them flavorful culinary traditions and established shops selling spices, fabrics and other goods.
Over the decades, the street became known locally as ‘Chimen Lane’ due to the number of Arab traders living there. Significant renovations in the 1990s helped transform Arab Street into the colorful heritage district it is today.
Vibrant murals depict Middle Eastern motifs and shophouses sport distinctive blue or yellow exteriors mimicking the buildings of old merchant quarters in the Gulf Region.
Wandering along the pedestrian-only stretch, you’ll find spice shops still peddling saffron, sumac and cardamom. Artisans work on handicrafts like henna tattoos while shops sell kufis, kaftans and other traditional garments.
The mix of history, art and culture give Arab Street a unique old-world charm. It feels simultaneously nostalgic yet modern as this vibrant melting pot plays host to both locals and tourists alike.
Of course, what truly brings folks to Arab Street are the numerous Arabic restaurants claiming to serve up authentic flavors of the region.
But as with any tourist destination, not all establishments are created equal. Let’s dive into an analysis of some of the major players to see which hold up and which may leave you feeling less than satisfied.
Al Mansor Restaurant: Still a Solid Option After 50+ Years
One of the oldest restaurants on Arab Street is Al Mansor, which first opened its doors way back in 1956. Dating back over half a century, this red-fronted eatery has stood the test of time thanks to consistently good Middle Eastern favorites.
Walking in, you’re immediately transported with decor paying homage to bygone eras of the Gulf. Handsome wooden archways divide intimate seating areas while rich patterned cushions give the space an antique Arabian vibe. Live oud music helps further set the mood most nights.
The menu sticks to authentic classics done well rather than trying to be trendy or innovative. Top picks include falafel sandwiches brimming with tender chickpea patties, hummus served with fluffy pita bread for dipping, and shawarma consisting of tender lamb slices marinated in fragrant spices.
Worth noting is that Al Mansor uses high quality lamb and chicken for their skewered meats rather than cheaper cuts or unknown protein sources.
Soups like the lentil-based adas also possess rich, balanced flavors befitting the restaurant’s legacy.
At moderate prices generally ranging S$10-S$25 per person, Al Mansor provides great value for money too considering the quality and portions.
Over half a century in business speaks volumes about their consistency in both food and customer service. For a no-frills taste of tradition, this veteran Arab Street stalwart remains one of the better options.
Machan: Hip Vibes Meet Authentic Mezze
A fresher, more modern option along the stretch is Machan. Located at the end of the enclave, its sleek two-story interior stands out against the weathered shophouses around it.
Exposed brickwork, metallic accents and warm wood furnishings give the space contemporary appeal without sacrificing Middle Eastern flair.
Upstairs, floor-to-ceiling windows open onto a pleasant balcony overlooking tree tops – the perfect spot for soaking in views with a drink or meal. Meanwhile, a lively ground level bar keeps the vibe buzzing even on quieter nights.
Rather than entrees, Machan focuses on dazzling mezze – small plates ideal for sharing. Standouts include tender meat samosas flecked with coriander, creamy spinach fatayer pastries, and succulent lamb kofta bursting with herbs and spices. Presentation shines through artistic plating that makes each dish as pleasing to look at as to eat.
Cocktails also receive top marks, from lively gin and tonics featuring housemade infusions to refreshing mojitos packing unique Eastern European twists.
Prices range from around S$10-S$18 per dish or drink, earning Machan a ‘worth it for special occasions’ rating.
Overall, this hip hotspot modernizes the classic Arabic mezze concept with cosmopolitan flair. It proves heritage traditions can seamlessly mix with contemporary living in a way that excites both international travelers and native foodies alike.
The Daily Cut: Quality Halal But Prices Raise Eyebrows
Occupying prized corner real estate where Arab Street meets North Bridge Road stands The Daily Cut. Its gleaming glass-and-steel structure stands out in stark contrast to the shophouses around it.
Stepping inside feels more like entering a designer food hall than a traditional Arabic eatery.
Upon ordering, servers expertly carve and prepare meats from an enticing halal butcher counter. Options span everything from whole roasted chickens to racks of lamb, along with delicately marbled steaks.
They’ll arrange your chosen cuts on beds of fluffy rice or wrapped in soft flatbread.
Flavor-wise, The Daily Cut’s skewers, sandwiches and various protein platters certainly satisfy. Tender, fall-off-the-bone meat shines through alongside fresh accompaniments like hummus, pickles and vibrant salads. Halal certification means diners of all faiths can enjoy without worries.
However, here’s where some raise eyebrows – prices really push the upper limits of what one would expect to pay in a supposed casual ethnic dining environment.
A single shawarma sandwich goes for around S$18 while a family-sized chicken platter rings up at a steep S$50-S$60.
While quality and presentation aim high-end, the price hikes don’t seem entirely justified given The Daily Cut’s location in a budget-friendly heritage zone.
One would be hard pressed to find similar costs even at proper steakhouses elsewhere in the city.
So in summary – this spot hits the taste marks for halal meat lovers but brings value concerns given the competitive dining landscape just outside its doors.
Quality may satisfy for special occasions, but it’s an iffy everyday option at these higher price points.
Asmara: When Locals Leave Good Reviews, Listen Up
Walk along Arab Street on any given night and the cozy two-story restaurant Asmara practically overflows with customers. What’s their secret to such consistent popularity amongst both visitors and locals? Simply put – great food served up at even better prices.
Stepping inside feels almost like joining a lively family gathering, with patrons chatting animatedly at crowded wooden tables.
Behind an open kitchen, cooks work tirelessly preparing dishes over open flame grills. The aromas alone will have your mouth watering.
Bestselling items include sizzling mixed grill platters piled high with chicken, lamb chops and various kebabs. Marinated to absolute tenderness, the proteins simply melt in your mouth with each bite. Fluffy garlic naan soaks up every last morsel of flavorful juices.
Platters range from S$15-S$25, enough to fill two hungry diners. And that’s before factoring in sides like creamy hummus, bright baba ghanoush and crisp salads all for just a few dollars more. Portions feel generous without venturing into wasteful territory.
Frankly, it’s impossible to find fault with Asmara’s winning formula of outstanding value, quality cooking and friendly hospitality. Little wonder it’s packed each night – happy diners clearly spread the word far and wide.
For an authentic taste of the Middle East you can feel good about, Asmara earns top marks.
Al Jazeera: Flashy Exterior But Fooling Few Inside
In stark contrast to its heritage neighbors, splashy neon signs announce Al Jazeera from down the street. A gleaming mirrored facade promises flashy interiors to match – but does the food live up to such ostentatious packaging?
Upon entering, gold accents and faux marble finishes scream nouveau riche in a try-hard kind of way. Mirrored surfaces bounce around loud generic Arabic pop numbers rather than live oud.
Hulking portions arrive on towering platters rather than sharing-sized mezze more common to the region.
Biting into skewers reveals cheap, gristly meat with little marbling or tenderness. Hummus possesses an artificial creaminess from excess tahini while baba ghanoush tastes overly smoky to the point of bitterness
Most damning of all are the rumors of dubious food safety practices reportedly occurring behind closed kitchen doors. Some longtime Arab Street regulars recount witnessing deliveries of mysteriously unlabeled meats and fish with no visible signs of proper storage or handling.
While prices sit at an average level given the area, the quality certainly doesn’t match up. At S$15-S$25 per person, diners could easily find better value AND flavor elsewhere without questionable practices to worry about.
It seems Al Jazeera’s flashy exterior aims solely to attract tourists with little regard for culinary authenticity or credence. Tellingly, few actual Arabs or Middle Eastern expats choose to dine here according to reviews.
Locals in the know steer clear, leaving the restaurant reliant on an ever-changing clientele of passersby who likely won’t return.
For an authentic Arabic experience on Arab Street done right, give Al Jazeera a wide berth. Its low-quality grub and dubious food safety leave a bad taste that no amount of neon lights or mirror trickery can disguise.
Focus instead on cozier neighborhood favorites with a proven track record and loyal local following.
Frequently Asked Questions about Arab Street Restaurants:
People often have additional questions when researching dining options for Arab Street. Here are some commonly asked queries addressed:
Is the food at these places actually authentic Arabic cuisine?
Some more than others, yes. Truly traditional spots like Al Mansor have withstood the test of time by sticking closely to classic recipes. Newer places may modernize styles slightly but still use premium local ingredients. Avoid flashier chains where hype often surpasses authenticity.
Are the restaurants halal certified? Which ones?
All Arabic restaurants in predominantly Muslim Singapore serve halal food as standard. However, places like The Daily Cut and Machan have official halal certification from MUIS for peace of mind.
What are some typical dishes to order?
Can’t go wrong with mezze like hummus, baba ghanoush or sambousek pastries. Skewers, shawarma sandwiches and mixed grills also satisfy. Soups like lentil-based adas warm up too.
What days/times are busiest to visit?
Weekend evenings tend to be most crowded. Weekdays after 7PM also pick up. Earlier is generally quieter for a more relaxed meal, though live music starts later at some spots.
Book ahead at popular spots like Machan to avoid waits. Cash is king here – many shops/stalls don’t accept cards. Wear modest attire, expect crowds and take time to soak up the lively atmosphere between bites!