To Hell With Gastropubs: Why Manila Needs A Different Concept NowAugust 26, 2019
A few weeks ago, I made the terrible mistake of going to one of the latest gastropubs in the Fort area. It served the saddest fish pie I might have ever eaten, in a place that seemed to take way too much advantage of its ‘English’ roots— which by the looks of the interior, were already far removed. There are countless gastropubs in the metro, still sprouting up years after the idea first made its mark. Undeniably, the most famous one (still quite delicious, I might add)—and probably the one which started the craze in Manila—is Draft, with several branches strewn across the city. Like Draft, the gastropubs in Manila tend to have menus which serve an amalgam of American food and greased up European classics, sometimes with a Filipino twist thrown in. A gastropub doesn’t necessarily have to name itself as one; nowadays there are many places masking themselves as restaurants or bars, but are still harbingers of this concept, with all the telltale signs. Amped-up comfort food, a selection of beers and the occasional cocktail, interiors that must have some kind of wood furnishing, a bar and a chalkboard menu.
What is a gastropub anyway? In its simplest form, it is a pub/bar which puts emphasis on high-quality cuisine. It is an evolved version of the English pub, which traditionally served a few items on the menu that were hardly of stunning restaurant quality— a Ploughman’s lunch, fish pie, fish and chips, maybe a Sunday roast if you’re lucky. The term was coined in1991 by a couple of English blokes who bought a traditional pub called The Eagle, but decided that as chefs, they wanted to serve higher-end food at their local watering hole. They definitely had the right idea. Bridging the gap between more refined cuisine and a laidback atmosphere and setting was a spark of genius, and it took off, with the concept making its way to the States, eventually finding itself around the globe.
But that was decades ago. There is a reason why Good Food Guide banished the term gastropub from their pages in 2011, and do so until this day. It is a tired and overused term, and in 2014, when there are so many great new concepts and restaurants that serve better food and drinks in an entirely different atmosphere, it just seems unnecessary and lazy. That especially rings true for Manila. At a time when our food scene is flourishing, when we are becoming as much a dining destination as our neighbors in Asia, these identical and interchangeable gastropubs bring nothing new to our table. Instead, they all seem to serve iterations of the same thing, where you are bound to find a version of fish and chips, something with pork belly, burgers, maybe even a house specialty fried chicken. They insist on popping up everywhere, a surefire way to make a buck, because of how easily they transition into a drinking place. These places have the same manufactured atmosphere, and hardly serve the exquisite food which made a gastropub ‘gastro’ in the first place.
It’s about time we slowly forget the gastropub, and leave the wooden bars behind. I’m tired of being served the same old shtick, and expected to pay exorbitant prices for food that has an identical twin out there somewhere. There are more modern concepts that are also amenable to epicurean delights with a relaxed atmosphere—for example, a craft cocktail bar, or a Latin American cantina. With the rise of talented local chefs, access to great produce both local and international, and a more intellectual food culture, it’s a challenge for the Manila culinary scene to truly step up the game.