These decades-old establishments (one has been around for more than a century!) can surely teach new restaurateurs a thing or two on how to play the long game.
Nobody comes into the restaurant business hoping to last at least a couple of years. The goal is to be able to build a long and enduring brand, a household name that Filipinos of all ages will try at least once. An elite group of Manila-based restaurants has achieved that status; some are even older than our grandparents, and for many of our balikbayans, a visit to these beloved establishments is a must.
The secret to their longevity? Consistency. Their menus have barely changed from the day they opened decades ago, and when possible, they retain their original cooks so that they stay true to their time-tested recipes. While other restaurants feel the need to constantly diversify and modernize, these places know their market and choose to stay loyal to them, catering to their cravings for their classic dishes. The true originals, these are the Manila restaurants that will outlive us all.
When Mario and Nenuca Benitez opened their original Mario’s in Baguio City around 50 year ago, the top vacation spot was badly in need of continental dining for the well-heeled set. Soon, the restaurant became a regular stop for the rich and famous who feasted on their Oysters Rockefeller and Caesar salad— prepared table-side, of course— when they vacationed to enjoy the cold mountain air. Mario’s expanded to several branches in the 1980s, but as competition got stiffer, the family chose to retain only two—the original Baguio branch and the one along Tomas Morato, Quezon City. Now operated by Mario and Nenuca’s son, Fil Benitez, fans of their continental cuisine are happy to report that everything about Mario’s is just as they remember it.
Ma Mon Luk
A Cinderella story of a penniless Chinese immigrant who arrived 1918 in Manila, Ma Mon Luk is legendary for making chicken mami and siopao as Filipino as adobo and pandesal. Ma came to the Philippines to hopefully make his fortune in order to win the hand off his beloved Ng Shih, whose parents disapproved of him because of his financial instability. Determined, Ma persevered and peddled his hand-cut noodles in broth up and down the streets of Manila, going as far as Intramuros and Sta. Cruz, carrying his vat of soup on a bamboo pole. Eventually, he opened his first eponymous restaurant in Binondo along Tomas Pinpin Street, and then moved to a bigger location nearby at Salazar Street. After becoming well-known all over the Philippines, Ma did get the girl, and he died a legend in 1961. HIs children opened more branches after his death, and currently still own and operate the last remaining one in Quezon Avenue, Quezon City.
What started as a dairy bar in the 1950s continues to be one of the most beloved names in the Manila dining scene. The original location made it a favorite hangout for college students in the area as well as visitors and inhabitants of Malacañang Palace which was nearby. When the original owner migrated to the United States, the Araullo sisters bought the rights to the establishment and added dinuguan, chicken asparagus sandwich, and other kapampangan specialties. Now helmed by chef and restaurateur J. Gamboa under the brand Milky Way Cafe, they remain true to their over 70-year history, still serving their famous halo-halo topped with homemade ube ice cream, as well as their line of Filipino food favorites and coffee shop classics both for dine-in and in ready-to-heat packs.
Founded by Doña Asiang Reyes more than 80 years ago, this Filipino favorite proves to be resilient having survived not only a world war but also the deadliest pandemic of our time. Their bestselling chicken barbecue, served with their classic Java rice and smothered in their sweet, peanut-y sauce, proves to be the quintessential comfort food for many Pinoys. It provided solace for many of us during the lockdowns, which helped The Aristocrat survive when many other F & B establishments perished. In fact, under the leadership of 3rd generation president and CEO Raymund Reyes, the brand continues to thrive, opening in more locations and designed to attract a younger demographic of chicken barbecue lovers.
Alba Ristorante Español
When Don Anastacio de Alba opened his restaurant 70 years ago, he was very sure about what he wanted it to be known for—and that is to be the home of traditional Spanish cuisine in the Philippines. Now owned and operated by son, Miguel, he and his wife Cachelle not only succeeded in taking the brand into the next century but has made it even more successful than ever. Without changing the menu that made them famous, the younger de Alba made the necessary updates to their operations and marketing, as well as a buffet set-up in some of their more spacious branches. Alba continues to be a popular draw despite the growing number of Spanish concepts all over the city, proving that good food is truly ageless.