Manila, Philippines: The coolest bars, cafes, and restaurants, according to local bartender David Ong
When travelling around Asia, most of us make a beeline for renowned cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok. Granted, these make for fantastic holidays with jam-packed days of moreish food and shopping in metropolises that never sleep. But here's an up-and-coming destination that will change the little that you know about it — Manila in Philippines might not be your top vacation pick, but it definitely has more to offer than meets the eye. There's the swanky Bonifacio Global City (BGC), an upscale locale that is home to various office skyscrapers, luxury condominiums, and shopping malls to rival any major city in the world. It is also here that global burger chain Shake Shack and Kyoto's %Arabica has chosen to open its doors.
There's no better person to tell us about Manila than local bartender and scene leader David Ong. Ong was born and raised in Manila, but being the global citizen that he is, has also spent seven years in Vancouver and a year in Shanghai. At present, he is soaking up paradise at the W Maldives as part of the hotel's bar takeover initiative. He owns several coffee and cocktail concepts in Philippines' capital, including The Curator Coffee & Cocktails and OTO. Ong describes the current dining scene in Manila has young and thriving, though a lot more experienced than before in the newfound energy and optimism the industry is dishing out. Below, Ong shares his top picks on where to go in the dense city. You'll be hard-pressed to find reasons to leave.
The Curator Coffee & Cocktails
Coffee service by day, cocktails by night. Does it get any better than that combination? Your cold brews and flat whites happen in the front of shop, where the space is bright and airy, while the cave at the back is dedicated to your favourite tipples once the sun goes down. As far as accolades go, The Curator is the best bar in the Philippines and is ranked 37th in Asia's 50 Best Bars 2019. Try their signature #StillHurting cocktail, an amalgamation of tequila, vermouth, mezcal, Campari, and orange bitters — which marries an initial sweetness with layers of bitterness.
Toyo Eatery focuses on elevated Filipino cuisine using local ingredients and is a reflection of Chef Jordy Navarra's heritage, memories, training and experience. Navarra, who previously trained at The Fat Duck in the UK and Bo Innovation in Hong Kong has put Philippines on the map after securing the 43rd spot in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2019. Their tasting menu is the way to go, which is both traditional and inventive at the same time.
According to Ong, ask anyone in the local F&B scene in Philippines and they will attest to how cerebral Mecha Uma's Chef Bruce Ricketts is about his craft. Expect Japanese fusion dishes that celebrate punchy flavors — Ricketts is all about exploring new techniques and applying taste profiles one would never think would work. Mecha Uma, an abbrievation of a Japanese expression which means "absurdly delicious", is very much so, and their omakase experience is simply out of this world.
Located in Poblacion, Makati, also known as the poor man's Lan Kwai Fong of Manila, OTO is a bar which focuses on a love for music. Some would say it's more like a listening room, as it features an excellent range of speakers, amplifiers, turntables, and vinyl records. This is where you'll want to take your girl gang or audiophile date for a guaranteed good time. Ranked 47th in Asia's 50 Best Bars 2019, the drinks list is of a much smaller variety than The Curator, but is just as memorable.
Gallery by Chele
You don't quite expect a chef in Manila to have worked in kitchens as renowned as Andra Mari, El Bulli, and Mugaritz, but Chef Chele Gonzalez has been there and done that. Originally of Spanish descent, Gonzalez now calls the Philippines home and delivers a sensational tasting menu at Gallery by Chele, which showcases his love for locality and seasonality of ingredients in the country. He pushes the creative boundaries on Filipino food, such as the application of techniques like fermentation, but is careful about safeguarding its heritage.
This 10-seater, counter-service restaurant in the heart of BGC is an expression of Josh Boutwood's life experience and culinary training. The evolving menu at Helm melds his love of ingredients and global perspectives of gastronomy. Designed with a minimalist eye in palettes of black, white, and grey, the dining experience centres on the one-on-one interaction between kitchen and guest, where dining becomes theatrical and much like a culinary performance. Prepare to be wowed.
If you're lucky enough to be in the Maldives, catch David Ong at W Maldives as he takes over the hotel bar from 5.30pm to 10pm on 23 and 24 October. He will also be conducting two bar masterclasses for Marriott Bonvoy Elite guests and in-house guests.