2nd's is back, bringing Bitters, a hot new bar, in tow
Let’s go back in time. Back to when more creative local dining concepts were few and far between. Let’s go back to December 26, 2010—when a hidden restaurant gem called 2nd's quietly opened its doors and introduced Filipino diners to indulgent, unapologetic comfort food. Full-flavored, caloric dishes like the Good Morning Spaghetti (essentially a loaded carbonara you’d want to dig into after a drunken night); slow-braised, tender Beef Rib Adobo; an uber-rich Lamb Shepherd’s Pie; and the perennial favorite Bacon Chicharon (glorious strips of lightly battered lean bacon that’s deep-fried to perfection) peppered the menu. Coupled with striking interiors, attention to detail, and stellar service, 2nd's was easily on a league of its own when it first launched six years ago.
At a time when comfort food wasn’t even used as a guideline, it was what 2nd's was known for. “Comfort food revisited” was how co-owners Luis Tabuena and Indy Villalon defined it. As for the name, the pair breaks down each layer and gets to the root of it—from its obscure location on the second floor to the blatantly obvious motive of wanting their customers to come back for seconds to the ultimate reason, which was that among all nine owners, the restaurant was a second job. (The numerical name also allowed them to be first on any alphabetized restaurant list.)
"Six years ago, we wanted to build a restaurant for ourselves. A place we would actually want to go to," explains Luis. "A lot of the dishes were ideas Indy and I would randomly come up with in his home kitchen. Those interiors? I designed it myself. It was ours through and through." The steady growth of the restaurant was a surprising success for the young entrepreneurs, who admit to learning as they went along. Looking back at what the old 2nd's used to be is an interesting reflection. When Luis and Indy first opened 2nd's, they were in their early 20s and to them, the world was filled with infinite opportunities and possibilities. They wanted to do everything.
That rather incautious approach ended when 2nd's closed their doors, just as quietly as when they initially opened. With only a day's notice, they announced that June 16, 2015 was their last day.
But a name like 2nd's obviously deserves, well, a second chance, and Luis and Indy knew that they weren't finished with it quite yet. “It was like our kid who was batting above a normal average,” says Luis. “When you see your kid doing well, you’ll want them to keep at it.” Fifteen months later, the restaurant reopened at a spot 10 minutes away—in Forbes Town Center.
The reinvented eatery is not the distinguished man cave that carved 2nd's' identity. Instead, you’ll find crisp white interiors, natural light flooding through the floor-to-ceiling windows, plants lining one side of the wall, and an impressive coffee and pastry bar at the back. Luis compares this revamp to Caitlyn Jenner. Progressive—and different enough that old regulars might come in, take one look at the menu, and violently oppose, insisting that they want the old dishes back.
The tone has matured, just like the owners. They say it's like college: how you start out taking general courses before you pick a major. Now that they've done everything, Indy and Luis are trying to establish focus. "It's something I learned we needed," says Luis. "Figure out what your strengths are and hit them hard. Be really good at it."
Luis looks back at their more youthful attempt and brashly rates it as mediocre. "We were generally good at a lot, but not really great at anything. I want us to be a master of a few things, not generally good at a ton of things." This was the most valuable lesson the two restaurateurs learned.
This second time around, they intend to create a strong visceral connection with their guests. “At the new 2nd's, we want every customer to go on a journey, to have an experience,” says Indy. “We want to tell a complete story.” The new 2nd's is conducive to eating, where you will actually be able to see and enjoy your food without feeling like passing out after. When you’re done, you can travel upstairs to their bar, Bitters, and feel like you’re instantly being transported into another chapter in a book. Both 2nd's and Bitters aim to convince every sense in your body: yes, I like this place.
Change is never easy, so it would be natural to classify this move as an act of bravery. But Luis and Indy insist that it's about honesty more than anything else. They’re different now. They know more than before. Farming out the same stuff would be lazy. While there are still some similarities between the old and the new—like how the food is enjoyed—the differences are vast, too. Coffee and a sense of community, for instance, are two things they're focusing on. They’re working with El Union coffee in La Union and are in control of everything, from the growth of the seedling right down to the roasted coffee bean. As for that sense of community, this new-old spot might just be a go-to for a lot of people.
With the new 2nd's paving its own way, the bar upstairs is a concept entirely its own. Opening a bar like Bitters was always on Luis and Indy’s radar, but it was only when they found their new location that it finally made sense. Having a partner like Lee Watson at the forefront helped, too. With about 20 years of experience as a bartender, manager, and beverage consultant, Lee has worked with the likes of Antonio’s, Solaire, and Discovery Primea. He also has his Prohibition Era-style speakeasy, ABV, in Makati. Lee obviously know his stuff when it comes to booze.
A bar unlike most in Manila, Bitters has a distinct and defined concept: it’s a singles bar with an apothecary vibe. “You don’t realize that a lot of the famous alcohol we have today were medicinal. Gin, tonic—it was for malaria; the bitter European liqueur helped for digestion,” explains Lee. “The Prohibition Era had certain types of whiskey prescriptions, too.”
Bitters were the very first iteration of medicine historically and in the Wild West, people would pull up in their coaches and take them to cure ails like rheumatism or cold sores. Surely enough, the upstairs bar is reminiscent of an 18th-century hospital, with a bar that resembles an operating table, coasters that are actual surgery masks, drinks served in bottles, and even a removable medicine tray by the bar. While the liquor choices are impressive, there is one spirit that seems to take center stage: gin.
Lee plans to line the entire top row of the bar with gin, aspiring to have the biggest gin list in town. “Our concept is based on an old school medicine shop,” explains Lee. “I want our drinks to be very aromatic, and gin best fits with what we’re going for.” But beyond just creating spectacular cocktails, Lee is focusing on creating a standard and developing a particular culture. While Bitters is definitely a cocktail bar, it’s also a place where the bartender truly understands the product. The bartender will be able to guide a guest through each gin bottle, ask them if they want their drink floral, fruity, or spicy, and they must be able to make a bespoke cocktail on the spot. A high standard indeed, because this type of training involves not only being personable, but it involves training one’s palate, too—not always an easy feat.
Lee continues to break the norm in Manila, and to him, focus needs to be fixated on the service side. “People get it backwards. They spend so much time focusing on the drink, obsessing over creating art in a glass, but what also matters is the interaction bartenders have with the guests,” says Lee. “You can have the most boring drink in the world, but if the bartender makes it for you and tells you a great joke while he’s at it, that will totally change your experience”
2nd's and Bitters are two entirely different concepts stemming from the same ideas. Whether you're dining out at 2nd's or unwinding with a cocktail at Bitters, you can expect it to be more than “just a meal” or “just a drink.” Allow yourself to walk through the narrative and finish the story, because what these guys are trying to show you is: it’s all about your experience.