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The crazy story of how a Florida man ended up in Manila and opened a restaurant in Boracay

By Tanya Lara Published Nov 09, 2021 5:27 pm

There is an internet game where you Google the words “Florida man” followed by your birthday, and the funniest, most unbelievable news stories are pulled up. Any day of the year.

On July 1, for instance, a Florida man was arrested for stealing an alligator and another broke into a restaurant’s kitchen and cooked himself a meal. Other days are wackier. A Florida man once flew his private plane to draw a giant penis to appear on radars, while another threw an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window, and several Florida men once gathered to shoot down a hurricane with their rifles.

The point is, every day a Florida man gets into ridiculous situations or does crazy things.

It was no different for Stephen Zafir. This Florida man’s story in the Philippines began the way all head-scratching stories do: one part comical, one part plucky.

A former school principal (at 23, he was the youngest in the state), an Ivy Leaguer (University of Pennsylvania for his master’s degree), a stockbroker for Smith Barney, a restaurateur and fisherman in the Florida Keys, Steve saw an ad in the Miami Herald that said: “Former stockbrokers, we need you!”

It was 1999. The job was to manage a financial center in Manila. He called up the number in the newspaper, talked for about a minute and a half with the recruiter, and before he could ask questions the other guy had hired him and hung up.

The next thing he knew, he was on a plane to Manila.

Gambas at Olé in D’Mall, Boracay. 

Steve had never been to Asia, didn’t know anything about the Philippines, but shortly after that phone call he found himself at the Manila airport just before midnight and no one was there to collect him.

He called up the number again and was told to take a cab to a Makati apartelle (“but don’t pay the taxi more than P200,” he was told). Before he could ask for more details the line went dead. After three attempts, he found a taxi that didn’t charge more than P300.

The apartelle, naturally, was cockroach infested. He didn’t stay there the entire month it was booked for him, he didn’t stay long in the job either.

But one good thing came out of his stay in Makati only three months after he arrived: he met a Filipina named Ana Sagarino—a firecracker of a girl from Davao who became his wife.

They’ve been together 21 years. The secret of their relationship? “I love her ass,” Steve, now in his 70s, says with a laugh.

Olé at D’Mall

When you walk on the main street of D’Mall past the souvenir and clothing shops, you hit the restaurants part. From here, you start seeing the beach fringed by coconut trees, and the sea.

The two-story Olé tapas bar and restaurant is to the right. Some evenings, you will see Ana and Steve in their restaurant with friends. Nine out of 10 evenings, Steve will be drinking whiskey, holding his glass from the rim with one finger inside, the same way his father drank his.

Olé offers six varieties of paella.

If he likes you, he will let you buy a shot of his special bottles displayed among top-shelf labels displayed on a wall near the bar.

At a dinner I went to in Olé with friends, Steve poured everyone a shot of absinthe contained in a bottle shaped like a skull. It was practically Shakespearean, bringing to mind Yorick’s skull held against the moonlight.

It was also over absinthe in another place that I first met Steve and Ana. I was working on my laptop when their group sat at the table beside mine. Steve was buying his friends absinthe and he offered me a shot.

I said no thanks (I had a banana shake). But like the lady doth protest too much in Hamlet, of course I didn’t mean it.

“C’mon,” he said. So I took it.

Steve and Ana Zafir at Olé, one of the original restaurants in D’Mall when it opened in 2004.

That’s the kind of guy Steve is: generous, kind, cheerful. He and his wife Ana also believe in supporting fellow restaurateurs by eating at their restaurants or buying their friends drinks in bars—especially at this time when all businesses are just beginning to recover in Boracay.

So it’s no surprise then that Olé has this friendly, open vibe. Often, a long table would be occupied by a large family alongside solo diners or smaller groups.

Olé specializes in Spanish, Mexican and Cuban cuisines. It has an extensive menu of these three (and a few Filipino dishes) with the house specialty paella coming in six varieties. The most popular ones are the Paella Negra and Paella Negra Mariscos.

Drinks, anyone? Apart from sangria, wine and spirits, there’s shakes and cocktails.

Of the tapas, customers love their two kinds of calamares, croquetas de pollo, gambas, and albondigas soup. For a lighter meal, the Mexican choices are as satisfying—fajitas, chili con carne (good with plain rice!), tacos and quesadillas. Of their bocadillos (sandwiches), don’t miss the Mojo Cubanos, which is a panini of shredded pork, ham and Swiss cheese.

Years later, the couple would make their first trip to Spain—in Barcelona. “We ate all the paellas we could find, all kinds, at every restaurant. When I left the Philippines, I was 50 kilos, when I came back I was 58 kilos,” Ana says.

That’s what you call doing their due diligence.

Beginnings of D’Mall

That this space became a Spanish restaurant also tells the story of how D’Mall was put together. Steve and Ana met the late bon vivant Louie Cruz, a long-time resident of Boracay, at a party in 2003. Louie said, “Steve, you’re from Miami, you should be here in Boracay. They’re building a mall on the beach.”

The couple had been to Boracay only for short getaways since they met. By 2004, they had lived in Jakarta, Bangkok, Koh Samui, Phuket, Cebu and were now back in Manila.

Beef salpicao.

 

The idea of opening a restaurant appealed to Steve. Before he came to the Philippines, he owned a seafood restaurant on Duval Street, the main street in Florida Keys.

Every night, he would go long-line fishing, which involved almost a mile-long line with hooks and baits while the boat was slowly going out further to sea. By the time he would come back to shore in the morning, 12 hours later, Steve’s boat would be heavier by hundreds of kilos of fish.

“I caught the best yellowtail snappers,” he says with a smile. He would do this over and over again—just one of the many lives of this Florida man.

In Boracay, he had the chance to become a restaurateur again. D’Mall wasn’t built yet but was in the process of deciding on a long list of tenants applying for a limited number of spaces in 2004.

“I went to see the manager and said I was interested. There was a diagram of the spaces on his desk. He said, what do you want to do? I said, I want to do a sports bar,” Steve recalls. “He looked at the diagram and said, ‘I’m sorry No. 43 is going to be a sports bar.’ What about Italian food? There already was one, Aria.”

Steve continues, “I’m starting to sweat a little bit now because they had a long list of people wanting to open restaurants. I said, sushi! Sorry, No. 27 or whatever is going to be a Japanese restaurant. I’ve struck out three times now. I said seafood restaurant, but there already was one. I’m saying Jesus Christ to myself. I said, ‘Spanish?’ ‘Oh we don’t have Spanish, send me a proposal.’”

A feast for the senses. 

Bingo! Now they had a space in D’Mall, Steve had the experience, but no idea about Spanish cuisine.

Ana says, “We went to Manila and ate in all the Spanish restaurants there. We gave our calling cards and said we were opening one in Boracay in a few months if anyone was interested.”

“We were sitting in Starbucks, and 14 people from one restaurant came including waiters, dishwashers and two chefs. I said, what’s going on? One guy said, we’re all interested,’ I was just amazed,” Steve relates.

It took less than a year for Olé to be a huge success. The original design of the interiors had a horseshoe bar, which they had to dismantle to create more space for tables; the flat above was also converted into a second-floor restaurant.

Steve and Ana Zafir at Olé. 

“Those years were amazing,” Ana says. “Before Boracay’s closure in 2018, we would have a long line of customers waiting for a table every night.”

After one island closure, several lockdowns and an unquantifiable amount of whiskey for Steve through the island’s tough times, it feels like the island is waking up.

Like any Florida man, he takes things with a sense of humor and a huge amount of cheer.