An Ode to Route 196, Our 'Regular' That Always Made Us Feel Welcome
Maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but the first gig I ever made the effort to catch at Route 196 was Jimmy Bondoc in the mid-2000s. Of course, back then the place still went by the name Border Grill, and there may have been a second floor where the singer-songwriter played, so yeah, that probably doesn’t count. But that was the moment I discovered a great new place for live music in that area of Katipunan, relatively close to where I live. (Bondoc, sadly, is a topic for discussion for another time).
Eventually I heard the place changed its name to Inihaw Republic. I don’t remember ever going there, but when it finally morphed into Route 196 and started attracting the best indie and mainstream bands, I knew I had found my “regular.” Or one of them anyway.
The place was tiny and seemed to be always crowded, but I guess that was part of its charm. Go there early enough and you’re blessed not just with a parking spot in the building right beside it, but with tables and chairs for you and your friends inside. Come fashionably late and you’re lucky if you even make it inside, especially when a big name was on the marquee.
It was a bar, yes, and one where live music was the main draw. It sounds a bit surreal to be writing about it now, in the middle of a pandemic, but it was a time when going to a place to watch bands and artists perform with other people was just something we all did and never gave a second thought about. And Route 196 was just the place for that.
It became a regular haunt; a place my friends and I somehow always found ourselves in when we were looking for something to do or just somewhere to be. Often it was because we knew one or more of our favorite artists were playing there that night, but sometimes it was just automatic. “Tara Route tayo,” we’d say. It didn’t matter who was on the bill.
I felt so at home at Route that I celebrated my birthday there one year. I remember it was Oasis Night that night, but I’ve already forgotten who the bands were that played. What sticks out, though, are memories of me and my friends loudly singing along to “Wonderwall,” “Champagne Supernova” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Good times.
Eventually I had designs on mounting my own shows. I founded a fan group for singer-songwriter John Mayer and wanted to invite local artists similarly inspired by the man to play a few covers and their originals. I didn’t know anything about “prods” but I felt comfortable enough at Route to ask if they would consider hosting us.
I didn’t think they would take a chance on an unknown, untested guy just looking to have a good time with some good music, but they did. (Thanks JP Balboa). On February 17, 2009, we had Julianne Tarroja, Johnoy Danao, Wynnford, Nicole and Carlo, Pale Yellow Light, and Grasa putting their own spin on Mayer songs, some familiar, others known only to the most hardcore of fans.
It might not have been “indie” enough for some people, but there were ice cold beers, yummy food, and great music that night. What more could you ask for?
In 2010, Manila was a scheduled stop in Mayer’s world tour. Being young and naïve, (and apparently with way too much time on my hands) I thought about what I could do to hype his first, and so far only, visit to the country. So a few friends and I devised the Mayer Nights Bar Tour, an extended version of our succesful Mayer Night the previous year.
Our first stop in the tour? Route 196, of course.
In the following years, visits to Route became more and more infrequent. But my friends and I would make sure to be there when bands and artists we love were playing. That’s where I first heard Clara Benin sing. That’s where I partied with Brisom during their Limerence album launch. That’s where Ebe Dancel played an unforgettable candlelit set and covered some of his favorite songs (U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the Dave Matthews’ Band “Crash Into Me” the classic “Moonriver,” and The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”). It’s where I’ve seen Johnoy Danao play so many times I’ve actually lost count. And it’s where we did spinoff “Nights,” like Jason Mraz Night, Coldplay Night, DMB Night, etc.
Apart from all of that, Route was just a place where we could just let our hair down. Most people need the safety and familiarity of friends when they go out; at Route 196, though, I didn’t mind going alone, and I did on quite a few occasions. The place melted away any feelings of self-consciousness and just made you feel welcome. The staff was part of that of course; they were always friendly and cool. But, there was something about that place that was always comforting—an extended living room where you can put your (metaphorical) feet up.
Each time I find myself in that part of Katipunan, that glowing marquee sign is always a cheery, reassuring sight. It’s more than just a sign for an establishment; it’s a symbol for fun nights, raucous laughter, and great, great music.
That the sign won’t be there the next time I drive past fills me with a profound sadness. I can only imagine what it must be like for others who have considered it a second home, and, especially, for the people behind it who’ve kept it going through all the changes in audiences and nightlife tastes. I can only hope they can take comfort in the fact that they’ve provided a venue for tons of happy memories for countless people all these years.
Long live Route 196.