Cirkulo Turns 25, But It's Not Holding Any Parties Till All Is Safe

Many of its loyal staff have been there for a quarter of a century.

Cirkulo is one of the stalwarts in the Philippine restaurant scene.

For Generation Xers, El Cirkulo was the party place where they hung out when they were single, the date place where they went as couples, and till now, the celebratory space for family dinners and barkada reunions in their middle age.

Twenty five years later, aside from its solid, consistent Spanish fare and its crisp sisig made from the cheeks of cochinillo that is, hands down, the best we've ever had, one of its major draws is the hospitality of its charming owners. Chef J Gamboa takes care of the kitchen, as his sister Malu Gamboa Lindo warmly welcomes everyone who walks through its doors.

She shares its story:

Mama and Daddy attended my graduation from University of Chicago's MBA program back in 1994. Their main goal was to bring me home.

After studying in Boston and then living as a working MBA student in Chicago, I was confident I had reaped the full learning experience that the U.S. had to offer after my six-year stay. It was time to put my knowledge to the test by opening my own restaurant.

My Mama had been running Milky Way since 1962 and wanted a new concept for the building on 900 Pasay Road that was designed by architect Raul Locsin in 1980. At that time, we already had Tsukiji, the ramen restaurant Azumaya, and were leasing out the second floor to Dean Street Cafe and Angelino’s which were quite popular with the dating crowd.


I was tasked to come up with a concept that would not compete with the existing restaurants in the building, yet would be a popular choice for lunch, dinner and late-night dining. The Manila dining scene was picking up then, but the cuisines were not as diversified as they are now.

I wanted to offer something that hadn't been done before, so on the argument that I “had to” travel to come up with a fresh concept, my best friends Loudette Roman-Tanjuatco and Mailet Bonoan-Ancheta and I went on a Globus tour through Western Europe.

We did our due diligence in Greek tavernas, French bistros and food markets of Italy. It was in Madrid that I discovered “tapas.” I was impressed with how people enjoyed them for lunch, with cocktails, or as a light dinner or late night snack. I knew immediately that was what I wanted to bring to Manila.

It was a grand time for us to be in Madrid taking in the culture, learning about the food, and sourcing materials for El Cirkulo. Things fell into place with such speed and serendipity, there was no room for doubt.

In Madrid, I met Ramon Castellanos and architect Tina Bonoan, who came up with the Torero design concept. Together we went to the School of Matadors in Madrid to purchase these costumes called traje de luces, garments previously worn by matadors during bullfights. Many of them even had blood stains of the bull still on them.

Julie Gamboa, founder of Milky Way and mother of Malu and J, stands by a collage of matador garments by Arturo Luz.
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We brought these garments to the great artist Arturo Luz, who made 11 beautiful collages for us. They have adorned our walls since Day 1, proving to have a truly timeless appeal. These works of art have been exhibited at the U.P. Vargas Museum and the National Museum.

We opened El Cirkulo on August 1, 1995, with chef Jay Roces, fresh from California Culinary Academy, and our consultant, Anastacio de Alba.

Señor Anastacio de Alba and Chef Jay Roces

I am forever indebted to Señor Alba for generously sharing his heirloom recipes and techniques with us for the first two years. This long, very hands-on mentorship guaranteed Cirkulo's authenticity and consistency, which are our hallmark traits.

Señor Anastacio de Alba

My brother, J, had just come home too from living and working in Boston. His first job in Manila was as sauce cook at the New World Hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Bocarino’s. He was involved with El Cirkulo from the beginning, and joined us permanently after our first year.

Malu Gamboa with brother J Gamboa and chef Jay Roces.

Cirkulo (now without the El) has thrived for so long because we focus on consistently bringing the highest caliber of food and service to all our customers in every meal.

J and I are there day in and day out to make sure no one drops the ball. I am proudest of our very loyal staff, many of whom have been with us since day one. After 25 years, they know the drill already, but J and I still go every day because we love welcoming the guests.

Another secret to our longevity was that we let the restaurant evolve with the times. We started as a tapas bar and had great success with it for five years.


A feature by Margarita Locsin in Today newspaper on El Cirkulo's first anniversary,

Because of the fickleness of the party crowd at that time, however, we decided to reinvent the restaurant to become a favorite venue for business meetings and special celebrations.That decision was extremely fortuitous as our customers consider coming to Cirkulo as a kind of tradition for them.

The original tapas bar at El Cirkulo.
Photo by Wig Tysmans.

This quarantine period has required us to take a long pause and reflect on our priorities. We closed our doors on March 14, 2020 due to CoVID-19 and reopened for take-out in May, a week before Father’s Day.

With only a fourth of our staff, we have been open for take-out six days a week so people can have the same dishes they are used to having at their family celebrations, such as the cochinillo, slow-roasted beef belly, and the paellas.

We will continue operating this way for the time being.

Consistent quality and service, our distinguishing traits, are best achieved only when we can be fully staffed and so we will not offer dine-in services until everything is safe. Like everyone else, we anxiously await the day when we can welcome back all our loyal customers to Cirkulo to have the same experience they enjoyed over the past quarter century.

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Yvette Fernandez
Yvette Fernandez is the Chief Storyteller of the Gokongwei Group. Previously, she was the editorial director of Esquire Philippines.
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