When he graduated from college, Abba Maramba already had a job waiting for him in their family business. He politely declined in his usual gregarious way–with an "oh, man, no!" "I knew early on that corporate wasn't for me. I think my grandfather knew that, too."
It wasn't a surprise when Maramba, a regular fixture in Manila's nightlife, instead opened Makati's Peligro, which became a cult favorite in the mid-2000s party scene. What raked in the big bucks, however, was al fresco lounge Skye, the first of its kind in trendy BGC. "Everyone was like, 'Are you sure? What if it rains?'" Abba recalls with a smile. Yes, it did rained on occasion, but when it didn't, Skye was packed to the rails, hosting international DJs and selling vodka and champagne bottles like they were water.
Everything was peachy until the landlord asked to double their rent—an all-too regular occurrence in this area. With Skye's expensive upkeep—"since we're exposed to the elements, we're always painting walls and floorboards," says Maramba—they knew their numbers would not add up.
Once Skye folded, Maramba and his business partner Nora Chiu (along with a few others) decided to scale down following the trend towards smaller concepts. Libertine Bar fits this mold—a rather relaxed yet hip setup that is still in the middle of it all but feels comfortably off the grid. It's in a commercial building concealed by a bank and furniture showrooms, in a second floor space with absolutely no frontage. In fact, good luck finding it. The only way through is passing through the back of the elevator or the service entrance of the building.
No, this is not a speakeasy. In fact, Maramba winces at the suggestion. "We're really just a neighborhood bar," he explains. They chose the spot simply because rent was cheap and it allowed them to be open all day, all night. Twenty-four hours, in fact. Maramba claims that it caters to his people—industry folk like bartenders and chefs who usually take off from work just when every place else is closing down for the night. Libertine wishes to provide the service industry solace and cold beers any time of the day. Another captured market is the BPOs in the building—"that's why I always have pale pilsen and light beers. Pale for the restaurant people, light beers for the call center crowd."
The design is decidedly industrial: The walls are adorned by the metal booms used in construction sites and the place is indowless with light only coming from the parking area which is switched on all hours of the day. "That's why when you're in here," Maramba points out, "you can't really tell what time it is. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
Definitely good, if you're up for some tasty libations and good, straightforward grub. Maramba knows that he's up against a market that is exposed to food and drinks constantly, so he decides to keep things uncomplicated. He just wants his food to be simple, but of good quality. The croquetas are the real deal—stuffed with gooey bechamel and flavorful Vigan longganisa. The charcuterie board is simple enough and laden with crowd favorites: a ceviche of tanigue marinated with house pinakurat and green finger chilies is a classic.
The grilled cheese sandwich calls for a bit more (nothing a slathering of butter cannot fix), a hankering for the rich dairy is better remedied by a skillet of Libertine's mac and cheese. The complex and rather luxurious combination of mozzarella, cheddar, Gruyere, and fontina offers both indulgence and comfort. "Simple enough, but I don't scrimp on ingredients," Maramba professes. He is just as proud about their Sloppy Joe, a spin on the burger that is a school cafeteria staple. Libertine' version tries not to deviate from the classic—just on the right side of sweet and messy.
Mac and Cheese with a Tommy's Margarita
Libertine prefers not to be pegged as a cocktail bar, although it would be difficult not to have that reputation with concoctions by partner bartender Arijiit Bose, Monkey 47 Gin Asia Pacific brand ambassador, on offer. Again, no short cuts are employed behind the bar. Only fresh fruits are used—limes and lemons are squeezed fresh daily for the sour mix. You taste the difference in their Whisky Sour, where the biting tang reflects freshness without the ascorbic aftertaste of concentrates. Their sangria is served on the rocks and simply embellished. For something more unique, their signature cocktails offer quirky alternatives such as The Hipster (a bourbon and rum mix with a shot of cold brew coffee) and Tommy's Margarita (their house blend margarita, agave syrup, and citrus).
While it's also been attracting a hot, young crowd on weekends, Maramba stands firm on keeping Libertine as he envisioned. "Industry people just need to show their company ID or any proof that they're in the restaurant and hospitality business, and they'll get a discount," Maramba promises. Now, more than any, is a great time to be a cook.
Libertine Bar is at Twenty-four Seven McKinley, 24th Street corner 7th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.