This Neighborhood Chinese Restaurant Morphs Into a Hopping Bar at Night
We visit Lan Kwai Speakeasy on a drizzly Monday evening expecting close to zero crowds. It’s a school night after all, and the not-so-secret location minutes away on foot from Ateneo and Miriam College is practically university territory. But we’re proven wrong as soon as we walk up the stairs. The crowd is already there, young and sprightly, going in and out in jeans and shorts. It’s 8 p.m. and save for the lone stools by the bar, the 42-seater space is already full and quite loud…quite loud for 8 p.m., and quite loud for ‘Tito’ standards.
“Oh, this isn’t packed,” Bea Policarpio, one of the owners of Lan Kwai, is quick to warn us over the din in the bar. Late nights get busier and even more happening as it nears Friday.
Lan Kwai is no speakeasy, but the offbeat newcomer on Esteban Abada St. exudes the same cryptic spirit we’ve come to expect from the modern batch of pseudo-illicit establishments around the metro. Bea is one of a ballsy group of twentysomethings who believe there’s a shortage of concept bars in the area.
“We're not exactly the typical hidden bar reminiscent of the Prohibition era—I mean we have signage and all—but we still call ourselves a speakeasy, because we let our cocktails take centerstage and we like to keep it fun and not too serious,” Bea says. “We wanted to be an establishment where you can literally speak [easily] over awesome food and interesting drinks.” Formerly a Japanese restaurant, and a dorm before that, the space is a neon-lit room on the second floor that’s unapologetic about identity and unpretentious when it comes to, well, everything.
There are boxes of beer lined up on a wall decorated by rainbow egg cartons. Graffiti-like art of Hong Kong’s skycrapers in one corner. A mural with a tiger and a dragon painted over Chinese newspapers. The most recognizably Instagrammable piece of the puzzle is a toss up between the neon-lit sign that says ‘Lan Kwai Fong’ right behind the barkeep, or the one on the opposite wall that says ‘wish you were here.’
“Our biggest inspiration from Hong Kong is Ping Pong 129 Gintoneria from Sai Ying Pun,” Bea says. “We wanted to emulate that feeling you get that the bar "just sort of happened" to be there (Ping Pong's venue is a basement that used to be a ping pong court) and you feel like you're suddenly part of a secret.” The look is eclectic but not overdone, relaxed and unfussy. Somehow it all just haphazardly goes together.
Barely six weeks open, Lan Kwai found itself at the center of controversy when a photo of a surprise police inspection along Katipunan went viral. The 60-square footer is one of three bars searched by police that night, but part-owner Carlos Munarriz is quick to explain that the whole thing was “no biggie” and honestly “non-sketchy.” He goes on to describe how the men in uniform were polite and non-threatening, and had actually asked nicely if they could do the search.
“It was blown out of proportion,” he says. Not that they needed the extra media attention. This would be the second time that Lan Kwai had gone viral—a tweet of a friend of a friend during an invite-only tasting in July put them on the radar days before they opened.
The lure of Lan Kwai, is the fact that it is equal parts a bar and a restaurant. “In the daytime, we are your friendly neighborhood Chinese restaurant,” Bea says. “When it gets dark, we’re your nightly haunt for quality cocktails and recovery food.” Lan Kwai takes to heart the grit and grub of Hong Kong’s nightlife capital sans the exorbitant pricing, and offers the kind of booze that’s best described colloquially as traydor. You can get a mug of Lan Kwai mule at P99 and a whole fishbowl of Pa Tai to share at P369 (described as “killer mai tai” hence the pun). But even if you want to skip booze, this is a legitimate spot for Lechon Macau and Braised Beef Brisket Noodle Soup at student-friendly, bang-for-your-buck prices. At the moment there’s nothing above P250 for single serving drinks or plates.
And while the cocktails are playful, the food is a carefully curated, no-BS selection of modern Chinese soul food done well. Chef Justin Baradas, who has worked in Paris and trained under Mecha Uma’s Bruce Ricketts, puts a spin on familiar dishes like lemon chicken. His version is a pimped out interpretation—the answer to the kind of umami craving one gets after a late night. The chicken is fried until crisp and golden, then drizzled with a zesty brown sauce to bump up the flavor. The sous vide egg (which comes with every rice bowl) levels up the rice and lends a rich, creamy finish, making this classic immediately more indulgent. Definitely hangover-friendly, but also the kind you can randomly want sober.
Shao Kao skewers
Equally a good reason to drop by whenever are the grilled shao kao skewers—the rib finger shao kao in particular is remarkably tender, and put simply, far more satisfying than tired-and-tested pork barbecue. As for libations, the bar isn’t lacking in all the usuals but shows particular strength in the Uh Huh honey mule, which uses freshly muddled ginger and soda water instead of regular ginger ale. If you want a sip of what all the other kids are drinking, there’s the Designated Survivor Big Fishbowl to get the party started, which comes with a ‘mystery shot’ on the side intended for the last man standing, or whoever needs that jolt of liquid confidence. There’s a secret Lucky 8 menu with more premium options ranging from P250 to P380 (ask for the smokey whiskey sour, made with Johnnie Walker Double Black).
On weekends, Lan Kwai enjoys an older crowd, more yuppies, less collegiate. During the day, we’re told you can also spot families from the neighborhood who come for the food. “We look like an innocent Chinese restaurant from the facade, but when you go upstairs surprise! We're a speakeasy,” Bea says. “We wanted to create an ambience where people come here to enjoy great music and food, to genuinely talk to each other over drinks, but not get wasted.” As for music, the easy, low-key vibe is kept intact with a No-EDM rule. Just a steady stream of “lo-fi, funky, jazzy” beats. When asked if any dancing ever happens, we get a resounding “No!”
Perhaps it’s Lan Kwai’s split-personality that makes the place so intriguing. Is it a bar for college kids? A Chinese joint with decent cocktails? A place to rediscover the vigor of youth? Maybe it’s all of that.
Lan Kwai Speakeasy and Hong Kong Cuisine is at 42 Esteban Abada Street, Loyola Heights, Quezon City.