Having been around for over three decades, it is no wonder that Café Ysabel brings to surface a deep sense of nostalgia for an old world Manila—whether romanticizing days now only known in Nick Joaquin short stories (in which Café Ysabel’s 105 year old house could have very well been a setting), or as old as five years ago sitting with your family and enjoying your favorite, and most constant, dish. Though the heritage home is filled with turn-of-the-century antiques, there is something about being in the space that feels as though you are suspended in a nondescript time—as something generally ‘past’—filled with familiarity and contentment.
Chef Gene Gonzalez admits that his customers do not respond well to change. “They’ll get upset if you change a recipe,” such that many of the recipes have stayed the same since the Café’s opening, like the classic Pasta Ysabel (pictured above)—creamy, sweet, and comforting, like a dish your lola put together on a Sunday morning to anticipate your birthday. In fact, a third of the dishes have remained essentially the same for the 35 years that Café Ysabel has been open, with the rest of the menu adapting to dishes or ingredients that are “in vogue” or simply to the Chef’s tastes and interests of the time.
Ambiance plays a large role. In the case of Café Ysabel, it prepares the customer’s frame of mind to dine in the fashion of the old world.”
“I like the old world style,” he tells us, which does not surprise us one bit. Chef Gene seems to know as much about interiors as he does about food, admitting that collecting antiques are a hobby of his. He explains the aspects of the house’s reconstruction in great detail, going into the master muralist who did the work in the dining room, the tiles that are relatively new but were created by the same company who did them a hundred years ago, and the custom chandeliers from a master welder in Spain. He tells us of the armario from his ancestral Kapampangan home, the 19th century table known as the “billionaire’s table” where billion-peso contracts have been signed, and the vintage glass lamps that hang from the ceiling.
The original Café Ysabel house was on Wilson street, and they took from it the bar that now sits in the corner of the current café location. They also extended the restaurant onto the balcony, which has a view of the greenery of the trees and the suggestion of city beyond their leaves. The glass walls that line the former balcony light the room with a sepia haze (or maybe we just imagine it so because we wish it).
The house holds special memories for Chef Gene, whose very own children ran through and played games in these halls (They are now both in the food industry, with his son Gino an accomplished chef and his daughter Giannina a sought-after food stylist). The house has hosted a number of esteemed guests, as Chef Gene lists, “Queen Sofia of Spain, Tony Bourdain, and Bobby Chinn,” the latter for whom one of Café Ysabel’s most popular pizzas is named. The house was also the setting of food events that were at the time unheard of in the Manila food scene, such as a cigar-food-wine pairing events, or chocolate dinners before it became popular to mix the rich, brown confection with the savory.
Beyond his own personal memories, the café is also near and dear to its many customers. One such instance, Chef Gene recalls, was when he was on “restauranteur mode”: spots a man on his knee and instantly comes up to him to ask if he’s all right, only to discover that he has interrupted a very intimate moment and relationship milestone for the dining couple. As Chef Gene prepares to say goodbye to Café Ysabel’s long-time home, it is timely for the author with over two dozen cookbooks under his belt to prepare for the publication of his first memoir, in which many of the stories happened within these old walls.
Though the restaurant itself is a nothing short of grand, Chef Gene clarifies, “We’re a bistro . . . A lot of people [have] the mistake of saying we’re a fine dining place. No, we’re not. So when you open to the menu, it’s all café items.” Though he explains that the restaurant has a rich history in tasting menus or degustacións, which they have been doing since they opened, their day-to-day operations are dedicated to comforting food that one can eat everyday, without having to dress up.
That’s what the dining experience is all about: eliciting emotion. Especially when you have food that is good and unpretentious.”
Chef Gene tells us that though the restaurant has been leasing the land for the past three and a half decades, the house belongs to him and they will be preserving as much of it as they can in their new location. As heartbreaking as it is to see a structure like the century-old Cafe Ysabel house as it stands being torn down to make way for a commercial building (have you heard how much we hate malls?), we are excited to see the next steps for the restaurant house (a short 5-minute drive from the current house) that is scheduled to open in October. “I’ve found a house that’s 7 years younger than this house . . . probably in the areas of 1920, 1918. It’s a beautiful house [which] I’m going to be re-embellishing with the lamps, and all that.”
Café Ysabel is a heritage Filipino restaurant whose flavors are influenced by Chef Gene Gonzalez’s training in France and Italy, and our country’s history with Spain and America.