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Permanently closed, on hiatus, back to normal: The status of restaurants in Metro Manila

By Dolly Dy-Zulueta Published Jan 05, 2021 9:00 am

When the entire Luzon was placed under strict Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) last March, the restaurant industry felt its impact right away. 

Most industries were forced to shut down. Restaurants, for the simple reason that they dealt with an essential—food—had the option to stay open but had to limit their operations to food deliveries and pick-ups. Dine-in was prohibited. So those that were not geared towards food deliveries and pick-ups opted to close until it was safe—and profitable—to open their doors to the dining public once again.

One month became two… and three… On the fourth month, the lockdown relaxed a bit and allowed restaurants to open for dine-in, albeit all the restrictions to ensure social distancing. But by then, it was too late for some restaurants to pick up from where they left off. Faced with the high cost of rent, salaries of employees, overhead expenses, and operational costs without the usual sales, some restaurants had to face the reality of permanent closure.

Permanently Closed

Perhaps one of the biggest casualties of the lockdown was Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco’s Gourmet Gypsy Art Café at Roces Ave., Quezon City, which closed its doors permanently in April this year after almost six years of restaurant operations. Chef Waya opted to keep its new and smaller branch along Maginhawa St., Quezon City, instead.

She bravely announced the closure of her restaurant on Facebook. She said, “Gourmet Gypsy Roces will be permanently closed. We made the decision a couple of weeks ago, that we cannot afford to carry the burden of two branches on the brink in an uncertain economy. The logical choice to save was the Maginhawa branch since Open Hand School for Applied Arts (a school for young adults with special needs) is housed there, too. We had to regulate some of our staff to streamline our expenses and have started to transition our menu to delivery mode.”

As she posted on the wall of her Facebook account to mark the sixth anniversary of the brand she built and nurtured, “Gourmet Gypsy Roces succumbed to the challenges of the Covid pandemic. But it lives on in Maginhawa, morphing, adapting, and growing. It will continue to change with the times, but the spirit and values we built it on—inclusive employment, sustainable practices, community leadership will always be the bedrock of the business.”

And truly, Gourmet Gypsy Maginhawa has morphed, adapted, and grown to become not just a haven for good food but also the base of operations where Chef Waya and her team prepares massive amounts of food for feeding programs and relief caravans to help typhoon victims.  

Aside from Gourmet Gypsy Art Café, there are a few other restaurants or bars that closed permanently, including Polilya in Poblacion, Makati City. 

Poblacion may be the newest “happening-est” place in Makati, but when the pandemic happened and the ensuing lockdown was declared, the noise, the brilliant lights, and the party vibe died down—temporarily for most, permanently for some. 

Polilya, a bar and party hub with good local craft beer and bar chows, lorded it over Poblacion’s nightlife for three years, so its announcement of its closure on its Instagram account caught everyone by surprise.

“Polilya is closing its doors. This was an extremely hard and sad decision for us to make. What we’ve created over the past three years is a labor of love. Throughout this time, you, our loyal customers, have become a part of the Polilya family,” it said.

Poblacion also lost NoKal (North of Kalayaan), a bar and restaurant, and Ringside Bar, another Poblacion favorite.

Other casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic include Cubao’s Today x Future, a bar that has been around for 12 years and is loved by musicians and other creative minds; San Juan’s Moksha, a neighborhood watering hole in Little Baguio which has been around for 18 years; and West Triangle’s Shangri-La’s Finest Chinese Cuisine, a Chinese specialty restaurant that served as a venue for many important weddings, anniversaries, baptisms and birthdays for 37 years. 

Food delivery and kits

Some restaurants adjusted quickly to the needs of the times. Some restaurants which did not offer to-go food or delivery changed modes of operations fast. 

Fast-foods were the first to comply simply because take-homes and food deliveries as part of their daily operations. Surprisingly, even the high-end restaurants adjusted to the new need. 

There was Ikomai, a Japanese restaurant owned by Chef James Antolin and Japanese Chef Hide Saeki. In a surprising move, Ikomai started offering food kits or DIY boxes under the Ikomai at Home line. Food kits or DIY boxes meant that all components of a dish are in a box—some components cooked and ready for assembly, and some components needing a little easy cooking. DIY box choices for delivery included Buta (to be simply heated up), Karaage, Tebasaki, and Kushikatsu (to be fried only).

Then there’s Gallery by Chele, which released its takeaway menu in May. Owned and operated by talented Spanish-born chef Chele Gonzalez, the restaurant created the Gallery by Chele At Home line of Spanish dishes which included Black Ink Risotto and Scallops, Pulpo Gallega (octopus), Mejillones Tigre (mussels), and Lengua (ox tongue). When ordered, these kits had to be cooked at home, and so they came with QR codes which, when scanned, gave one access to the instructional video as a guide. 

Gallery by Chele offered these kits for several months until lockdown restrictions eased and dine-in was allowed again just this October—and the restaurant resumed their dine-in services again that same month. The restaurant put safety measures in place, including the spacing of tables one meter apart, cutlery storage in a front-of-house UV box, and contactless payment options. 

In reopening, however, some restaurants decided to take it slow. Café Ysabel, for one, opted to open for dine-in only on weekends, therefore keeping operational costs low and focusing all attention on customers on days when the restaurant is open. Nobu Manila, which reopened in November, is open only from Wednesday to Sunday, dinner only, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 

On hiatus, then back

While a number of restaurants and bars fell by the wayside due to the pandemic, a bigger percentage simply went on hiatus during the strict quarantine months and opened only when restrictions were relaxed. 

The list included Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel’s famous buffet restaurant Spiral, The Peninsula Manila, Blackbird, Chef Jessie’s Place and Chef Jessie Rockwell Club, Chef Myke ‘Tatung’ Sarthou’s Talisay Garden Café and Pandan Asian Café, followed by Refinery in Rockwell, The Wholesome Table, and lots of others. 

The restaurant scene in Metro Manila seemed to have returned to normal. But, no, not quite. Spiral, for example, reduced seating capacity to 30 percent and implemented a one-dish-per-plate policy, a strict one-way route around the food stations, and cashless payment options. 

All restaurants that have reopened are trying to make their way back to pre-pandemic normal while adjusting to the demands of the new normal in the meantime.

Banner photos from Ikomai on Facebook and Spiral Manila on Instagram.