Formerly home to the city’s red-light district, Poblacion – with its trendy bars, innovative art spaces and a blossoming restaurant scene – has gradually evolved into one of Manila’s most buzzing neighbourhoods. Today you’ll find an ever-changing, constantly growing clutch of the city’s hippest venues opening up in the area, where they continue to live in glorious – if sometimes surreal – harmony with remnants of the past.
Writer and food critic
As a respected Filipino food critic and a resident of Rockwell Center, a high-end development in Poblacion, Clinton Palanca appreciates living in an area with a thriving culinary scene. Though Rockwell has always had its fair share of hip cafés and fine-dining places, it’s only recently that the other, older side of Poblacion has witnessed a culinary boom, heralded by the small establishments “[emerging in] what used to be a slightly seedy area,” Palanca says.
One of these is Tilde Hand Craft Café. “Tilde represents the old-world Poblacion that has been gentrified,” he says. “It’s bohemian, with lots of creatives popping in and out. It makes its own beer and [does] a naturally fermented sourdough bread.”
Over in Rockwell is Wildflour Café + Bakery, another standout for fresh bakes and top-notch coffee. In contrast to Tilde, “Wildflour is upscale and a bit pricey, but worth it for its American-style breakfasts and great espresso,” Palanca says. “I love that I have access to both.”
Palanca also singles out fine-dining restaurant Chef Jessie, as well as Grace Park – an eatery helmed by Margarita Forés – as must-visits.
“There were a lot of plucky restaurants that set up shop to cater to the Rockwell area when it was first developed,” he reveals. “The ones who persevered have become the anchors of the dining scene.”
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Partner at Wantusawa
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Christine Zarandin of Wantusawa, the oyster bar she opened with friends this January. The southern edge of Poblacion, where Wantusawa is located, is where the first wave of new establishments started to put up stakes.
Zarandin cites the neighbourhood’s community spirit as a big reason why she set up shop here. Like Zarandin, many proprietors along Felipe Street patronise the area’s other bars and restaurants, and have banded together informally to look after their shared interests.
The dream, Zarandin reveals, is to keep Poblacion as quirky, artistic and authentic as it is now. “We want to make it the SoHo of Makati, focusing on small businesses and boutique hotels,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s possible to keep the big businesses out… but the vibe’s still organic, and we want to keep it that way.”
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Owner of Oto
David Ong has a knack for finding the right, if unusual, location. His first two bars, EDSA Beverage Design Group and the Curator, are successful establishments located on the EDSA highway and Legazpi Village respectively. It’s the same with Oto, his third concept, which opened just over a year ago on Poblacion’s Enriquez Street.
According to Ong, there seems to be a new place opening here every week. “When we opened, there was only El Chupacabra, Tambai, Z Hostel, as well as Bucky’s, Alamat, Smokeyard and Wild Poppy,” Ong says. “But now you’ve got all these new places… the competition is good for everybody.”
Manila’s drinking scene may be insular, but it also fosters a cooperative brand of competition. “Dr Wine is the only wine bar… and it’s quietly carving out its position,” he says. For those who prefer beer, Ong recommends Polilya and Joe’s Brew. “As with any place that’s experiencing such a boom, you’re going to get places that do it right, and places that are [here] just to make a quick buck,” Ong concedes. “There are some [spots] that are trying out something interesting, like the Workshop; it’s a leathercraft store that busts out drinks on Friday nights. That works: doing something for the community, and the community responds.”
Owner of the Clipper Hotel and La Casita Mercedes
Standing on a busy corner in the heart of the red-light district, the Clipper Hotel was a stylish harbinger of the good things that were to come for Poblacion. A decade ago, it was what owner Juan Ramos calls “a derelict and defunct strip club”, which he painstakingly renovated into the charming aircraft-themed boutique hotel it is today.
But Ramos didn’t stop there. He then purchased one of the neighbourhood’s last Mid-Century houses and transformed it into La Casita Mercedes, a bed-and-breakfast that opened in 2015.
This knack for seeing the beauty of a property across eras explains why Ramos is so drawn to Poblacion. The area, after all, hides pockets of the past in plain sight. A prime example is the 500-year-old Saints Peter and Paul Parish Church, one of the country’s oldest. “To find a centuries-old church in the middle of a city playground is unique,” he says.
Ramos also cites the Filling Station as another fascinating throwback. Located on P Burgos Avenue and opened in 1994, Filling Station is the brainchild of an ex-US Navy cook who retired in the Philippines. “Filling Station is very well done and [the 1950s nostalgic Americana vibe is] authentic,” he says.
According to Ramos, scruffier areas like P Burgos Avenue are what give Poblacion its character. No doubt, it’s a marvel that old standbys like Filling Station can co-exist with newer places like taco spot El Chupacabra and street food venue Crying Tiger, and it’s a contrast that makes Poblacion special.
Better by design
Art-forward spots to visit in Poblacion
1. PhoeNix Home
Interior designer Nix Alañon’s store is also the headquarters for his firm, FTA Design. Enter the showroom and you’ll find a collection of sleek, modern furnishings and ornaments, such as couches, cabinets and drawings.
2. Pineapple Lab
This contemporary arts space champions independent brands and up-and-coming artists, particularly those that may otherwise have trouble finding a place in mainstream galleries. You may find musicians one week and art exhibitions or theatrical performances the next.
3. House of Laurel
When top Filipino designer Rajo Laurel opened an atelier in Poblacion, it was a final stamp of approval that signalled that the scrappy neighbourhood had firmly achieved mainstream status. House of Laurel is where you’ll find the couturier’s impeccable collections.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY TAKESHI SHINOHARA
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This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine