The stories behind Philippine establishments that have taken a foothold in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Bars lists.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a list produced by William Reed Business Media, has become one of the most respected references on where to eat today. Its annual by-invitation-only awards ceremony—which has been held in gastronomic capitals around the world, from London and New York to Melbourne, Bilbao and, most recently, Singapore—has made stars out of chefs and their restaurants. Similarly, its sister list, The World’s 50 Best Bars, celebrates the bar scene.
In the Philippines, we’ve had a handful of establishments make it to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Bars lists, the regional offshoots of the original World’s 50 Best that highlight where to dine and drink closer to home. Antonio’s—which was the first Philippine restaurant to make it to the list, in 2015—has long been considered by both locals and tourists as one of the country’s top fine-dining destinations, with consistently excellent food and service, in the Tagaytay countryside. At Gallery by Chele (2016, 2017), tasting menus are compendiums of the culinary team’s journeys around the Philippines, and have thus become a showcase of our country’s culture and heritage, all set in an art-inspired space.
The newest entry, Toyo Eatery (2019), imbues quintessential Filipino comfort and street food with technique, skill and complex flavor profiles. Margarita Forés (of Lusso, Grace Park and Cibo), a staunch advocate of Filipino ingredients and farm-to-table cuisine, was named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016. That same year, Mecha Uma, known for its creative Japanese dishes packed with lots of umami—was spotlighted on the 50 Best Discovery Series, a recommended list of next-generation dining destinations.
As for bars, The Curator—perhaps the most consistent presence on the lists, having been on the Asia’s Best Bars list since 2016—is home to the most well-balanced cocktails in town as the team treats drinks as an art, science and craft. The now-closed ABV (2016, 2017) was a speakeasy set inside a burger joint, with an impressive absinthe collection. Oto (2019), a listening room in the hipster Poblacion neighborhood, serves inventive cocktails at an affordable price point of ₱350. The Back Room (2019), an elegant 1920s speakeasy, fashions its drinks in a gin laboratory.
What they did right
Getting on the list means passing the rigorous scrutiny of experts from all around the world. As with Hollywood’s Oscars, the decision-making process lies in the hands of a voting academy — over 1,000 international restaurant industry experts, from food writers to chefs, restaurateurs and gourmets, from 26 regions around the world; in Asia, the restaurants’ voting academy is comprised of 318 members from six regions. “What constitutes ‘best’ is left to the judgment of these trusted and well-traveled gourmets,” emphasizes the award’s website. There is no checklist of criteria, but there are stringent rules for voting. For the bars, there are 510 voters (200 for Asia) made up of writers who cover the industry, bartenders and cocktail aficionados.
Of course, it all starts with the restaurateurs themselves. “I had a good concept of the restaurant,” says Tonyboy Escalante of Antonio’s, which entered the list at number 48 in 2015. Since the restaurant opened in 2002, Antonio’s has become a quick but effective respite from the noise and frenzy of Metro Manila. Diners are willing to brave the almost two-hour drive from the metropolis to Tonyboy’s three-storey colonial-style mansion and farm in Tagaytay for a reliably well-executed meal of modern European cuisine coupled with Filipino favorites.
“We work extremely hard to provide a fun, tasty and unique experience to guests,” says Jordy Navarra, whose Toyo Eatery entered the list this year at number 43. Case in point: Toyo’s most recognizable dish is an interpretation of the Tagalog folk song “Bahay Kubo”—with all 18 vegetables mentioned in the song turned into a salad. The restaurant also uses indigenous spirits in the beverage menu, like the lesser-known tapuey, a rice wine made by tribes in the Mountain Province of northern Luzon.
Often, it takes huge risks to challenge the status quo. Chele Gonzalez—whose Gallery by Chele (called Gallery Vask when it began making the list) has been the highest-ranked, at number 35, and longest-standing (at two years) Philippine restaurant on the list — redefined fine dining by highlighting local ingredients on a permanent tasting menu, while at the same time aiming to champion sustainability. That meant traveling around the country in search for the best local produce, from heirloom rice in the Cordilleras to the leaves of the alibangbang tree that are used by the Aeta as a souring agent. Engaging with the farmers and local communities allowed him to develop a careful awareness of how to use these ingredients. This, plus applying the innovative techniques he learned in his native Spain (he has previously worked at El Bulli, Arzak and Mugaritz) allowed him to create his own signature dishes and brand of cuisine.
For instance, Gallery offers poached oysters in spicy Bicol Express. On the menu, it’s named “5.6”—Bicol Express from Region 5, and oysters from Western Visayas, aka Region 6. “People thought we were crazy to use Filipino ingredients in Gallery six and a half years ago!” Chele laughs.
It’s not so different for bars. The Curator, which has been on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list since the list was launched in 2016, was founded with the idea of helping Metro Manila “drink better”. This ethos is reflected in the cocktails, which are by far some of the most thoughtful in the country: creative while keeping flavor profiles intact. “We still hold the idea that we would want to go to,” co-owner Jericson Co says.
That means, he adds, moving the needle on cocktail creativity (working on fun, unorthodox pairings), always having an intention and fostering eager engagement with customers. On the current menu is the Ube Milk Punch made with purple-yam-infused bourbon, mole bitters, sherry and butterscotch liqueur—meant to evoke the comfort of puto bumbong rice cakes during Christmas or a halo-halo ice dessert in the summer.
In fact, the use of local flavors is prevalent in the country’s best bars. While there are many 1920s-themed speakeasies out there, The Back Room veered away from classic cocktails. Instead, it has 18 original cocktails rooted in flavor profiles of the era, as well as its own gin called Bee’s Knees, a spirit made of Filipino ingredients such as turmeric, moringa, dalandan and sampaguita. “While the concept of the bar is built on an American Prohibition story, we never forget to return to our Philippine roots in whatever we create,” manager Dicky Hartono shares.
Hospitality is another essential element. At Oto, which debuted at number 47 this year, people can let their hair down. Co-owner David Ong says, “People feel like they belong because of the casual nature of the bar—standing room and dancing are allowed, even encouraged. And we never take ourselves too seriously.
David, who is also behind The Curator, adds, “Relationships are the most important thing. From the owners, to the entire bar team, to our regulars, to the bar community, to brands, to media, to the government, we must work together and focus on what we are good at—Filipino hospitality.”
Being recognized by an awards body means that long lines outside the door are bound to follow. “It introduced us to a new set of clientele, like foreign travelers looking for dining destinations to check out,” says Bruce Ricketts of Mecha Uma.
Dicky agrees: “We remember a full house with a line of walk-ins waiting to step in that evening [Back Room] made the list. Ever since, we have seen a steady growth in the number of patrons.”
Jericson points out that this can only help the entire industry, and even benefit tourism. “Having a bar pretty high up on lists actually helps bring in more interested parties to the Philippines. They will, in turn, end up trying other restaurants and bars — and see how awesome our city is!”
It’s also about being part of a larger community that takes inspiration from and grows alongside the best of the best. “Being part of Asia’s 50 Best has put what we do on the culinary map, not just in Asia but also [around] the world,” Chele reflects. “I personally don’t look too much at the rank; for me, it’s not a competition, but it is a family.”
While Filipinos are proud and happy to have had restaurants make it to the influential list, many have wondered why we don’t have as many restaurants as Singapore, Japan, Thailand or Hong Kong. “I believe more Filipino restaurants should be on the list,” Chele laments. “It’s hard, because even if we are in the middle of Southeast Asia, we still don’t have enough travelers and foodies who travel to the Philippines just to eat in our restaurants.”
“We really want to share what we have in the country and represent who we are and where we’re from,” Jordy says. “We try to buy our products from local farmers as much as possible and are also trying to lessen our carbon footprint both at the restaurant and at home. We are also very proud of the fact that we keep the Filipino spirit in our team culture — by remembering to enjoy our day-to-day interactions with each other, harnessing our natural urge to make sure everyone is happy and having a good time. The happier we are, the happier we can make guests feel.”
The Curator has also translated this sense of hospitality to use the cocktails as conversation starters to engage guests further. The current menu now has blank pages where customers can jot down descriptions of their drink of choice and have the team craft a cocktail accordingly — an idea that came from Jericson’s wife. “We will print copies of these for every customer that wants a personalized drink, so they can keep coming back to their own booklet,” Jericson says. “It will be a fun way to talk to people and have a place that’s personal and homey.”
And they haven’t forgotten to give back. The Curator has also just rolled out Monthly Munchies, where the bar chow menu rotates to feature specialties by home businesses. “There are a lot of bakers and cooks who deserve the spotlight, and we want to give those guys what 50 Best gave us, a feeling of validation that we’re somewhat on the right path,” Jericson says.
For Mecha Uma, the giving-back takes the form of knowledge exchange with their suppliers. “While Mecha has always been known for using Japanese ingredients, we’ve actually been working with local fishermen and farmers for a while now, teaching them techniques and details that we’ve learned from working with Japanese ingredients over the past few years — like ikejime, the best way to [prepare] fish, how to pack ingredients so they last longer and the size a certain [type of] produce should be harvested [at for it] to be at its peak,” Bruce says. “We do this quietly, but it makes us proud that we have these close relationships with our purveyors and contribute to their knowledge and skill sets.”
These honest and unadulterated efforts to promote the Philippines and its culture, armed with clear-cut philosophies and solid teams, are the factors that set these places apart and win accolades. None of these restaurants and bars were built with awards in mind, but diners, voters and panels have taken notice. As clichéd as it sounds, hard work—and doing good—truly pays off.
The bars and restaurants that have made the cut
Toyo Eatery 2316 Chino Roces Ave, Makati; fb.com/toyoeatery
The Curator 134 Legaspi St, Makati; thecuratorcoffeeandcocktails.com
Oto 5880 Enriquez St, Makati; fb.com/ototoph
The Back Room Shangri-La at the Fort, Manila, 30th St cor 5th Ave, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Antonio’s Purok 138, Barangay Neogan, Tagaytay City; antoniosrestaurant.ph
bGallery by Chele 5/F Clipp Center, 11th Ave cor 39th St, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig; gallerybychele.com
Mecha Uma G/F RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center, 25th St, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig; fb.com/mechaumaph
Lusso by Margarita Forés G/F Greenbelt 5, Legaspi Street, Makati; fb.com/lussogastrobar
The Top 5 Restaurants in Asia for 2019
Odette (Singapore) #01-04 National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Rd; odetterestaurant.com
Gaggan (Bangkok) 68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini; eatatgaggan.com
Den (Tokyo) 2-3-18 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; jimbochoden.com
Sühring (Bangkok) 10 Yen Akat Soi 3, Chongnonsi, Yannawa; restaurantsuhring.com
Florilège (Tokyo) B1/F Seizan Gaien, 2-5-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; aoyama-florilege.jp
The Top 5 Bars in Asia for 2019
The Old Man (Hong Kong) 37 Aberdeen St, Central; theoldmanhk.com
Manhattan (Singapore) 2/F Regent Singapore, 1 Cuscaden Rd; regenthotels.com/regent-singapore/dining/manhattan
Indulge Experimental Bistro (Taipei) 11 Lane 219, Fuxing S Rd Section 1, Da’an District; indulgebistrotaipei.blogspot.com
Native (Singapore) 52A Amoy St; tribenative.com
Atlas (Singapore) G/F Parkview Square, 600 North Bridge Rd; atlasbar.sg
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Smile magazine.