30 Classic Restaurants That Taught Us How to Eat
Here we are nearing the tail end of 2017. Point in any direction, and chances are there will be something for you to eat because, man, there sure are a lot of restaurants—with more to come at that. It's not a bad thing for food enthusiasts, but where did this all start, this renewed restaurant age where they seem to pop up like bunnies in a rabbit farm?
There were catalysts that got that stew stewing—the visionaries, the brave ones, the crazy trendsetters who did their thing and allowed the rest to follow. Here are a number of them in all their glory—not a definitive list, mind you, but a lengthy one.
This mighty shogun warrior has been enticing Filipinos since the '70s as a gateway to the pleasures of Japan, and despite closing the Greenhills flagship, it still packs them in to this day. While there are more specialized Japanese restaurants now, one cannot deny the allure of sitting and eating at the Kimpura teppan table, watching the chef prepare sirloin steak and their iconic mixed fried rice.
VM, which started as a seafood restaurant, has some of the strongest legs in the business. In an industry no longer known for longevity, this is one of the standard bearers. And every time you eat an oyster, baked or otherwise, raise a glass to Tita Glenda Barretto for getting the ball rolling with that.
Once upon a time, the bar for burgers was pretty low. It was just any ground beef slapped together in between a bun, for the most part, with a few exceptions (emphasis on the few). Until Brothers Burger came along, upping the burger game and opening doors for every specialist you see today. Dare I say our local burger game can hang with any burger anywhere else in the world and not be shamed? That’s all because of the efforts of the eponymous brothers DJ, Martin, and Quito Jose.
Sonja Ocampo opened our eyes to how cupcakes can be presented—in so many variations, with a myriad of toppings. Nowadays, you’ll find cupcakes everywhere, but Sonja’s is still the top of the heap. (Plus, anyone who takes coffee as seriously as they do is ace in my book.)
You notice all these cool kid restaurants opening these days? You now the ones I’m talking about. A bit dark. Tiled. Hanging lamps. Bumping tunes. Urban contemporary. You know what we mean. Well, they should tip their hat to Your Local. It hasn't been around that long, but that's already proof of its effect. Your Local is an OG in getting this genre right, with good, if esoteric, food to match.
Ukkokei Ramen Ron
Yes the Japanese dude in the kitchen is crankier than your tito after a bad day at the office, but you can’t deny his legacy: introducing us to a kickin’ bowl of ramen that may have started the golden age of ramen in Manila, showing us how it’s done, from al dente noodles to the deepest of stocks, and making ramen nuts out of all of us.
Today’s tasting menu restaurants owe a lot to Bruce Ricketts, who before working in his tiny but well equipped kitchen in Mecha Uma, was serving amazing and eclectic tasting menus from one of the most basic kitchens you'll ever see, and in the middle of BF Homes Parañaque at that. For that matter, Sensei Sushi—still excellent to this day, mind you—helped put Aguirre street on the food map.
Hole in the Wall
When it opened, there was no food establishment as ballsy and crazy as Hole In The Wall. Every inch was designed meticulously, and every stall served very current food to the eating public—who came in droves. Every food hall thereafter—and food park for that matter—should high-five HITW.
The Mabanta family behind this establishment has been doing off-beat food for a long time (they’re behind Café Mediterannean and Mexicali, for example.) El Chupacabra put the street in the Manila taco scene, literally, and proved that if you had a good location that made sense, people are willing to sit outdoors to eat. Poblacion was never the same again after that. And the tacos are, of course, muy bien.
Alba Restaurante Español
Even as we lived under Spain’s shadow for quite a long time, it sometimes slips my mind how much more exposed we are to Spanish cuisine than, say, our other Asian neighbors. Dishes like paella and leche flan are practically part of our cuisine’s canon. And it is because of visiting veteran restaurants like Alba that we eat fluently in Spanish.
One of the youngest establishments on this list, WF had presence from the day they opened. From their masterpiece display of pastries and breads, to their seemingly simple but delicious menu made to specifically by their hard-working kitchen, WF upped the American café/bistro bar and also managed to capture the hearts of the expat crowd who fill them day in and day out. Oh, and kimchi fried rice everywhere in town? It started here.
This restaurant has existed here for quite some time, too—certainly since the '80s. While the heartbeat of Chinese food is still in Binondo, Jade Garden brought Hong Kong style to Manila, and now many a Chinese joint worth their wansuy has a Cantonese master chef in their arsenal.
It's hard to say if Kamayan was one of the first Filipino restaurants to really go mainstream, but one thing is certain: the people behind this legend double downed on the buffet concept, ensuring hours of gustatory indulgence for legions of eaters.
When Friday’s opened, things were never the same again. The crowds waiting to get in were deeper than the GS Warriors bench, and the shenanigans that went on in there are legendary. They attracted everyone from parents with kids, to couples on a date, to cats on the prowl. The big American chains started planting their flags here ever since, some having come and gone, but with the mighty Friday’s still standing for more than two decades.
Sharwarma Snack Center (SSC)
I discovered this when my friend who was in med school took us one late evening after doing some drinking. Here I was introduced to the shawarma—one of my all time favorite foods, as well as other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern treat—and nights out were never the same again.
Gone are the places where you can go for a quiet date. Café Adriatico, in the same mold of the recently closed Café Ysabel, was just that: a place you could kind of dress up, order from a decidedly throwback menu, and flirt over chocolate fondue. It harkens back to simpler times, when you could drive there in a few minutes and find parking. When was the last time you could do that?
Who doesn't have a favorite go-to in Cibo? This establishment opened us all up to Italy and Italian style, and of course, Italian food, all the way up to today. It is a constant, and a place you know you’re going to enjoy and be comfortable in—and is probably the feather in Margarita Forés’ cap.
House of Minis
Before all these fancy steakhouses opened their doors to our wallets, there was the gateway to the idea of a steak house known as House of Minis. The first one I ever encountered was at Greenhills Shopping Center, and I’ve met many people who lost their steak dinner virginity here. This is old school, and it is legend.
Sisig has been around for a long time, ask anyone from Pampanga. But the first time it gained traction in Manila was at Trellis. One could see sisig/double garlic rice combos everywhere and pretty soon others followed suit, serving sizzling sisig to armies of sisig and beer lovers.
Rare is the restaurant that OWNS a dish. Any way you look at it, Yabu owns tonkatsu. Their combination of value for money (all you can eat rice, salad and pickles!), fun manga vibe, and quality food pretty much dictated how all other katsu joints will have to do business (even the ones from Japan). Amazing!
No doubt one of the most famous Pinoy joints of them all, Aristocrat has literally served generations of Filipinos and tourists for decades, and round the clock to boot. One can say that maybe our chicken and rice meal fixation began here too, because them fowl are the pillars of this place.
This was a godsend to anyone who was voraciously hungry—a short order Chinese restaurant that knew that knew the kind of food we were craving for and gave it to us in substantial portions—like, fried rice for an army, or one very hungry and sweaty basketball player.
The people who founded Racks knew about how much we loved meat, because they loved it too.
Ah, where does one begin extolling the virtues of Pancake House? This is pretty much ingrained in our system already: an establishment so loved that visiting them is like getting a hug from a parent. One thing is for sure: they helped make breakfast better.
There are a gajillion Korean places all over the Philippines, in places you would never think would have them. All I know is that when I was a child, my uncles would talk about Korean Garden with such reverence, the food being both delicious and exotic, and coming from a land that we hardly knew anything about (back then).
You have to hand it to Antonio’s—this place made you drive all the way to Tagaytay into the middle of nowhere and trust you will be fed well. And trust we did—because it is now one of our top destination restaurants, and a favorite place for special occasions, having grown from a quaint eclectic spot into a sprawling, elegant yet still relaxed space, reflecting the personality and grace of its owner, Tony Boy Escalante. If may not be in Metro Manila, but Antonio's serves as a benchmark for many of today's eateries.
Across the land, they’ve been the unsung heroes of many an office party. If you like your spaghetti sweet, your pork barbecue fatty, and your pichi pichi cheesy, I’m sure you have their number on speed dial.
If only because the people behind this place blazed a trail into parts unknown, bringing exotic but ultimately tasty flavors to us lucky clientele. A good go-to for those seeking healthy options, as their menu is laden with veg heavy fare.
The Philippines has a sizeable Indian population, and although it is still considered somewhat “exotic” for a lot of people, Indian cuisine has been in our midst for a long time. It’s hard to pinpoint a standard, especially since a lot of Indian peeps will say their mom cooks the best Indian grub, but Kashmir surely introduced many a taste bud to the pleasures of the Indian kitchen.
The last entry on this list is a true classic and is looked up to by many in the industry. Their greatest achievement, to me, is that they’ve managed to keep it real, sticking to what they know best and not bending to trends. Today, they do what they do most excellently: unfussy food, made with excellent ingredients, and cooked the same over and over again. That’s the best thing you can ask for, and they deliver in spades.