How Singapore’s New Cult Fave Bar, Barbary Coast, Avoided Becoming A Tourist Trap

The designer behind the hot cocktail bar in Boat Quay tells us how they created a world within a world — and what 2021 portends for hospitality design.

How Singapore’s New Cult Fave Bar, Barbary Coast, Avoided Becoming A Tourist Trap
Owen Raggett

A themed space always runs the risk of looking a little kitschy, or like it came from some off-brand theme park. Thankfully, Singapore’s Barbary Coast manages to avoid these pitfalls through some clever touches from its designer, EDG Design, and some creative storytelling. 

(Plus, when you’re entering a bar started by industry vets like Celia Schoonraad and Michael Callahan — the founding bartender behind the institution that is 28 HongKong Street — you know you’re in for a good time.)

“To us, design has to have a soul and authenticity — themed spaces often have neither,” says Michael Goodman, Managing Director of EDG Design, the firm behind Barbary Coast. “We made sure we always remembered that we weren’t trying to recreate the Barbary Coast, or make some museum facsimile of what it was like.”

Owen Raggett

Named after San Francisco’s bustling harbours and red-light districts in the 19th century, Barbary Coast carries the romantic patina of pirates and prospectors hoping to find their fortune. On the first floor is Deadfall, so named for the grungy dive bars that once lined the docks of San Francisco. Ascend the stairs to the second floor and you’ll be greeted by the decadent Ballroom that’s all velvet upholstery, glided accents and coquettishly shaded corners. 

All this exists in the Boat Quay district, an area more accustomed to flip-flopped tourists and merrymakers than peg-legged pirates and madames. But Barbary Coast’s popularity speaks for itself: aside from winning the Best New International Cocktail Bar award from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, Barbary Coast has already assembled a legion of loyal acolytes in the months since its January opening.

How? Beyond an inventive menu of tasty cocktails and charcuterie, the cocktail bar manages to create a strong identity thanks to its design — which is less of throwing in anachronistic accessories and furnishings, and more of creating a story that has some pretty tongue-in-cheek parallels with modern-day life.

“Back in the Barbary Coast days, a guest could be down on his luck and poor, drinking at a deadfall one week, and then end up finding gold the next and celebrating at a ballroom… and once again find themselves back at a deadfall,” quips Goodman.

“There’s a natural story arch at Barbary Coast that makes sense no matter which space you’re in — it keeps both concepts from getting too far away from each other.”

Goodman says they were also careful to ground the cocktail bar back in the heritage shophouse space that it occupies in Boat Quay: to that end, EDG Design used elements like traditional stone Peranakan tiles and upcycled shipping palates that were once so integral to the bustling Boat Quay trading district in the design of the cocktail bar. 

Owen Raggett

Design is, of course, nothing without substance. It’s why Goodman and his team say they always do a spot of roleplaying whenever they’re creating a hospitality space: “Number one for us is emotion, all day emotion,” he says firmly. “If guests connect to your spaces emotionally, they’ll be back. If staff are happy working in the space, they’ll be more successful, and stay longer.”

As Goodman explains, it’s all about putting himself in the shoes of various people — he imagines being a customer perched in various seats throughout the restaurant, or a bartender in the throes of the dinner rush. Are there any seats that are too exposed, too hidden? Any 
The same applies for EDG Design’s other hospitality projects, which include Fairmont Singapore’s lobby and lounge, Lulu’s Lounge and Fat Prince.

Goodman would know what good hospitality design looks like. Before he joined EDG Design in 2011, Goodman had been a chef, a restaurateur and a hotelier; but beyond providing him with some helpful insider knowledge, Goodman jokes that it can sometimes prove to be an occupational hazard. 

Michael Goodman, partner and managing director of EDG Design, accompanied by his loyal advisor.Owen Raggett

“I critique everything — it’s terrible,” he laughs. “That said, I’ve managed to mitigate it over the years. Now I just focus on the people I’m with, and on having a good time.”

As for what the future portends for the hospitality industry, Goodman refrains from making broad assumptions about what the future might bring for the design world — he thinks 2021 will be a year where “we’ll all be taking it day by day”. Still, there remains one clear source of inspiration for him: Netflix.

“2021 might be the year of being inspired by set design, since we’ve all been watching a lot of Netflix this year,” he laughs. “And let’s be honest — wouldn’t that just be super fun?”