This 'Irreverent' Bar at McKinley Follows Its Own Rules
In a time when branding and concept is the solid ground F&B establishments build on, Empire Bar just doesn't give a damn. "We just want a place where we can hang out," says co-owner Rey Angara.
It spits in the eye of Prohibition-inspired speakeasies by standing right in the middle of a mall, in plain sight, like a giant fishbowl in the middle of the man-made canal. The interiors reflect the owners' taste—"maturing," world-weary Gen X-ers who want a place where they and their like-minded guests who are tired of the obvious alternatives can hang with minimal intrusion. While McKinley Hill is highly commercialized and populated, it's not the obvious choice for a crazy night in town. But, this is what makes Empire surprisingly refreshing. There's really no catch: It's really just a bar. A nice one, yes, but minus the pretentious and insecure trappings that come with youth and inexperience.
Margherita and the signature Cafe Del Mar pizza
They open when the mall opens, so even if you're not down for a stiff one, you can come in for a meal. The food comes from nearby Cafe Del Mar, a continental restaurant built initially to attend to the needs of a nearby tower they thought would be serviced residences. Things didn't go as planned, but the owners felt there was no point in closing down a fully functioning kitchen and dining room. The European and Filipino chefs put together quite the eclectic menu, similar to what you would find in a hotel cafe.
The focus is mostly on Italian fare, and rightfully so—the pizzas here are truly worth a side trip. The Neapolitan-style thin crust is crisp (and unlike many) and stays crispy for quite a while. "Possibly the best pizza in Manila" the menu says, but Cafe Del Mar pizza really does have the chops to back up this claim. Their version of a meat lovers' piles on pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef, bacon, mushrooms, bell pepper, black olives, and mozzarella. Even without the optional anchovies, it's quite the showstopper. More traditional options are available as well, like prosciutto with arugula; quattro formaggio; and the classic Margherita. Every other option is just as stellar.
Crispy Pata and Seafood Risotto
Not to be outdone, the Filipino cooks made sure that their crispy pata is no mere runner-up. The meat is tender and flavorful, a deliberate effort brought about by careful brining. Do not ignore the little bones—those magical knuckles are packed with crispy skin and gelatinous tendon. Pair it with rice, as you should, and might as well have it with their Seafood Risotto.
The Balkan Sausage caught our eye, a beef, skinless sausage sparingly seasoned and reminiscent of a (rather bland) German frikadellen. A surprisingly better option is the signature Oven Roast Chicken served with a generous side salad. The chicken breast is wrapped with film-thin bacon, just enough to impart salty, smokey, porky flavor to a rather neutral cut of meat. Inside is more bacon, mozzarella, celery, and carrot.
Instead of dessert, we recommend cocktails. Empire serves a decent margarita among other classic selections, but the clientele prefers bottles of fine whisky which are always in stock. During weekends, the bar is open until way past midnight since they have street access through the restaurant. DJs and bands provide entertainment to a rather varied crowd, which require them to be somewhat flexible.
In a sea of bars trying to entice a hip, millennial crowd with their infusion-laced cocktails and highly conceptualized spaces, Empire Bar stands out as an establishment that wants none of that. If anything, everything about it goes against the grain of what the modern day watering hole aspires to be. And there's something really badass about that.
Empire is at G/F Venice Canal Mall, Upper McKinley Road, McKinley Hill, Taguig City.