In his 2001 award winning play, Last Order sa Penguin, Chris Martinez has his thirtysomething protagonists meet up in a bar within the famed bohemian district of Malate, for a night of laughter and drinks as they used to do during their youth - only to find they’ve all changed so much since then.
Like the characters in that play, Malate is no stranger to change, having transformed from a small fishing village during the Spanish rule to its current incarnation as a go-to place for wining and dining in Manila.
The growth was gradual, and it was only during the 1960-70s when artists of all kinds began to congregate in Malate for business, libations and merriment in the midst of Spanish and American-era architecture.
Chief among their favorites haunts were, Ishmael Bernal’s When It’s A Grey November in Your Soul, Indios Bravos, Kuh Ledesma’s Republic of Malate, Sanctum and yes, the Penguin Café. These were the refuges for artists and their friends who enjoyed music, discussed life, and shared food and drinks in Old Malate.
Alas, these “shelters” have since disappeared and what remains of the old guard these days are, notably, the Café Adriatico, the Hobbit House, and Cosa Nostra.
The iconic Café Adriatico whose specialties are the Classic Café Adriatico Burger and the thick Chocolate Eh (Spanish Hot Chocolate) is part of the LJC group of restaurants helmed by the late Larry J. Cruz. Although the café has been standing since the 1970s, its younger siblings have also sprouted up around the Remedios Circle area. There are Ang Bistro sa Remedios, a Filipino cafe that offers up dishes such as the Binukadkad na Plapla and Knockout Knuckle; and the Cuban-inspired Café Havana which features a wide array of tapas and a dessert called Fidel’s Smokeless Cigar.
Now while The Hobbit House is still operational, it’s since relocated to a larger site in MH Del Pilar Street from the original Mabini Street spot. Location change notwithstanding, the staff of “little people” who have endeared themselves to regulars for their friendliness and charm and, the seemingly endless selection of brews (beers, ales, or ciders) are still around for Hobbit House enthusiasts.
The cozy Italian bistro, Cosa Nostra, has been serving fresh pasta dishes and pizza since 1982, retaining its general appearance despite moving from Mabini to Adriatico Street where it is now just a building or so away from Ang Bistro sa Remedios.
But even through the closing down of many Malate sanctuaries, the district is still bustling with watering holes and eateries of all kinds ranging from mall restos to comedy bars to hole-in-the-walls.
Robinson’s Place Manila, for instance, is a great place to find favorites like Shakey’s pizzas and mojo potatoes, Secret Recipe’s seafood laksa, or Iceberg’s signature coolers like their halo-halo and banana splits.
There are also relatively new restaurants to try in Robinson’s Place like Chef’s Quarter, a fine dining restaurant that boasts a mouthwatering menu (which includes the sumptuous Tessie Tomas Salad made with prawns, salmon and grilled shiitake mushrooms on mixed greens) for comparatively affordable prices. Afterwards, one could head to the Sucree Patisserie for their creatively-named desserts like the Virginity, a vanilla and dulce de leche sponge cake or, the Fertility, a rich chocolate cake.
And of course back outside the mall are still so many places scattered around the Malate area where one can find the salve to whatever ails them. For example, just off Roxas Boulevard near the Malate Church there’s the very familiar Aristocrat Restaurant where one can cure their hunger pangs with the chicken barbecue and java rice that almost everyone grew up with, 24-hours a day.
Or, if one’s looking for a few laughs, there’s no shortage of it at The Library, where some of the country’s finest stand-up comedians perform sets that are both hilarious and bursting with song. Speaking of songs, audiophiles visiting this part of Manila are sure to run into a bar like Bedrock Bar and Grill, Bed Bar, or Dematisse Café Bar and Restaurant where there are live bands or DJs playing music that suits their tastes.
But finally, if one needs to relax, unwind and maybe loosen up a few knots on his back while he’s at it, there’s the Sanctuario Day Spa, a proudly Pinoy spa on J. Bocobo Street which offers alternative and mystical healing as well as traditional Filipino healing or hilot services. While waiting for a massage, one can also visit the facility’s picturesque café for some tea and healthy sandwiches.
Malate is ever-changing, it adapts to the clamor of its denizens (most of the time, anyway) and to this day, there are still establishments going up (and yes, going down). But luckily, some vestiges of the past like the old structures and cobblestoned streets can still be seen as a reminder of the past. And it’s fortunate that regardless of all the transformations that are bound to occur, it seems that Malate will always be a venue for good food and a good night out. At least, that’s what one hopes. That the last order will still be a long time coming.
- Valerie Grace Calma