Opinion: The Endangered Local Restaurant

Throw a stone in any mall and you’re bound to hit an international food chain that has gained steady local clientele. We’re looking at casual dining restaurants like Friday’s, quick snack spots like J.Co, milk tea joints like Cha Time, and their ilk. But step out onto the streets of Manila and you may notice the budding revolution of our very own local food scene. New classics like El Chupacabra, Your Local, and Sweet Ecstasy show us what local concepts have to offer, and imply that the hey-day of local restauranteurs and chefs is now. Or, if we’re not careful, yesterday.

The Philippines has long had a penchant for international cuisine: birthdays spent in Chinese restaurants, gimmicks at Italian pizzerias, and anniversaries in French bistros. Manila’s food scene was a melting pot of cultures that seemed to exclude our own; 10 years ago, it would be hard for you to find Filipino cuisine in any given location unless it was in the corner carinderia or someone’s home, with restaurants like Abe, Mesa, and Kanin Club more novelty than staple. Today, we are seeing a fusing of these two kinds of restaurants, as Filipinos take advantage of techniques and recipes from foreign influences, toss them together with local ingredients, and create something we have neither seen nor tasted before. Call it our own gastronomic renaissance, or call it something less corny, but the Philippines is in the midst of creating its own identity beyond the “sticky, fried and brown” Filipino food stereotype.

The battlecry that has echoed throughout the food scene is “Support local!” And with the pride that Filipinos take in calling something their own, Filipinos have responded to that battlecry with gusto. Tamarind, ube, and salted egg are no longer novelty nostalgic snacks but have become the stars of the plate. Homegrown concepts, ingredients, and chefs are lauded for their unique ability to take the familiar and transform it into something new and exciting.

But this new culture that small restauranteurs are trying to build is threatened by a larger-than-life culture that has long persisted. We are referring to America’s actual greatest legacy in the Philippines: mall culture. When the government has to regulate mall sales in order to stifle daily carmaggedon, you know your country really does “lovEMall.” Filipinos know that we have inspiring local restaurants beyond the borders of these four walls that they are itching to try, but could they bring them a little closer? Because the aircon feels so nice before our long commute home.

Unfortunately (whether that misfortune falls upon the restauranteurs or the mall-goers is up to you), independent, small food businesses cannot normally afford the prohibitive mall rental rates, and become excluded from the mainstream. And by prohibitive, we mean rentals that can cost up to ten times the rate you would get outside the mall, plus giving the mall a portion of your profits, and paying a deposit that is equivalent to a downpayment on a Corolla Altis. Not to mention the restaurant owners who decisively wish to stay out of malls out of choice, in preference for supporting small local businesses, being a part of the community, and trying to create something personal, even special, that we can call our neighborhood spot.

Whether these independent restaurants are out of malls by monetary limits or choice, it is upon their shoulders that we hope to finally create a food culture we can call our own. Can we adventure beyond the comforts of the mall and into the site where revolutions oft begin: our own city streets?

The streets where you can hear the distant sounds of karaoke; where the smog only adds to the taste of your burger; where you bang your elbow into the person seated at the neighboring table, and lift your San Mig with a smile to say Sorry, friend. Have a good one. And yes, the streets where, when it rains, you find yourself holing up for a little while longer with old friends, maybe new ones, and a couple more beers than you originally intended. I urge you to step out of the mall bubbles that make the saying “Parang hindi nasa Pilipinas dito” seem like a good thing, and get to know your local neighborhood spots, whether that is in BF, Maginhawa, Burgos, Kapitolyo, or wherever your budding local chefs lay out their knives.

8 Responses

  1. Hi bea,

    I enjoyed reading these observations of the manila food scene and agree with your mall points.
    As my city, Iloilo expands, so does the mall food culture. But if i may speak for ilonggos in general, we still are happiest with food outside the malls– in unpretentious, casual, open areas that serve food close to heart and where we can eat with gusto. Think Brealthrough by the sea and Tatoy’s at Villa and the coastal joints like Bulljack’s, Bebot n Mila and in Dumangas, Piad’s and Joy-Joy’s.
    I dont think our population is that big enough to provide customers to all these cafes and restos sprouting up in Iloilo now. Its usually a one time visit to check out the place and for millenials, for their selfies.

    1. Hi, Joy! So glad you enjoyed the article. How lucky that Iloilo is able to enjoy the local food community that exists outside of malls. Hope to visit those restaurants someday!

  2. BF, Maginhawa, Burgos, Kapitolyo and other food parks are dominated by food joints that focus on the international cuisine though. ramen, yakitori, mexican, burgers, italian, pizza, are almost no different from what you can find at a mall. save for a few a few “filipino” offerings food parks still don’t quite do that for the local food. so whilst it is easy to use food parks as an example of where good “local food” can be found, it is still not the best.

    you guys do a good job at covering “stand alone” local joints though. please do more of that. it doesn’t always need to be a new or exciting fusion place that does something no one has heard before, it could just be any filipino eatery that does a dish very, very well, like you guys have done in some past articles.

    website fan karl

    1. Hi, Karl! Really appreciate your feedback. I guess I didn’t make it clear in the article and that’s my bad – I mentioned restaurants like Your Local and Sweet X, which are not strictly “local” food but are local concepts. Manila is a melting pot of food cultures, and with these chefs exploring food outside of the “sinigang pot” (while still incorporating local ingredients, even local methods, and homegrown ideas), they are able to create a food culture that has a distinctly Filipino voice without necessarily being Filipino cuisine. Does this make sense? Let me know what you think!

      I agree that food parks aren’t necessarily where you’ll find the best food. I do think though that they serve as a great opportunity for local chefs to at least put themselves out there, try new things, and learn.

      If you have any particular stand alone restaurants or particular dishes you think deserve attention, and we’d love to explore them.

      Thanks again for the constructive and thoughtful comment. 🙂

  3. i noticed that restaurants would pop up so quickly and would not last more than one year. their life span is so short!!! too many too soon…

    1. Yup! 🙁 If only we could give them all a chance, but our wallets and schedules just can’t keep up!

  4. Well said but there’s a new reality now in the business of malls. Retailing is dying as people now look for bargains online or even shop abroad and use balikbayan boxes for delivery. You will notice that the local retailers like Bench, Kamiseta and Penshoppe seem to have downsized their stores, and some are even entering the food business.

    The downside of locating a food business in malls is that the developers are now overloading on food concepts and cutting back on retail shops. The balance has tipped so much that malls are beginning to look like giant food courts. Notice that Megamall and Aura are converting former retail shops into restaurants. Ayala’s UP Town Center is also an example of a mall of restaurants. The economics of having a mall based restaurant has changed for the worse due to this imbalance. High rents coupled with low foot traffic for the number of establishments spell disaster for a good number of these businesses.

    Metro Manila is also overmalled. Just look at the graveyards they call The Circuit, Ayala Fairview Terraces, Venice Piazza, and maybe Estancia. I heard that even Robinson’s Galleria and Shangrila Mall are difficult areas for food establishments. Am not sure how The 30th and that new Marikina mall of Ayala will fair, but at this point it doesn’t look good. Developers usually overpromise but underdeliver in terms of foot traffic. The mall boom seems heading towards a bust mode if they continue building in every nook and cranny.

    Lastly you didn’t touch on the effects of the boxparks. While many boxpark establishments have barely edible fare, their sheer number are beginning to have an impact on the business of malls. I don’t know the long term viability of having so many boxparks, but at this point I am sure they are having a negative impact on mall based restaurants.

    1. Hi, Monty! Thanks for this comment. You make an excellent point about boxparks; we did not look into it and perhaps we should have. The point that we were making though is that stand-alone neighborhood restaurants may not do as well as restaurants located in malls due to the high foot traffic, comforts and conveniences of the mall. These assumptions were based on conversations with restauranteurs who have been in both settings and their experiences in and out of the mall. We did not analyze the overdevelopment of malls as we assumed they were in the established and centralized malls like Glorietta, Eastwood, etc. I understand where you’re coming from and I should have made the distinction of centralized malls.

      We have noticed that competition within malls are getting more fierce as a result of the closure of retail establishments, and the relegation of their spaces to restaurants. The feedback that we have received from restaurant owners though, is that restaurants generally do perform better in these centralized malls than on a neighborhood street, particularly during the rainy season (which is a topic I wish I delved into further). Maybe the profit gap is closing in relation to the point you’ve made. Perhaps we can tackle it in a future opinion article! Thanks for pointing it out. 🙂

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