Manila After Dark
Manila's cool crowd is climbing down from the club tables and tucking into quiet corners. STEPHANIE ZUBIRI explains why the trendsetters are sneaking sips secreted away, and acts as our GPS to the city's new night-owl Nirvana. Photographed by SONNY THAKUR.
Published on Sep 16, 2016
"What do you mean, 'Meet me in the 7-Eleven storeroom'?"
Sometimes I think my conversations on where to rendezvous with my friends in Manila are so down-the-rabbit-hole surreal as to be farcical. These days, you can't plan a night out without making sure everyone has detailed directions, the odd secret passcode and the blueprint plans to the bowels of buildings—plus a strong sense of irony coupled with the inclination to lose all notions of time and place. Where the coolest scene once surrounded anyone who snagged the spotlight tables at the see-and-be-seen clubs, now it's about having the confidence to squirrel away and drink in the dark, opting for quality over quantity in terms of both company and cocktail intake.
Reidel Room's stogie stash.
Manila is mushrooming into unassuming black holes, meant to be places of refuge, where an "oldie" like me can avoid all the blingy, glamour-crazed, EDM-pumped millennials in the large clubs and trendy lounges. Hidden behind greasy spoons and old wooden cabinets, on the rise are nooks where you can have a proper drink accompanied by a real conversation. Where you can be civilized and act your age as opposed to dancing on a ledge while showing the world your underpants. That's not to say no one indulges in getting blissfully blotto. I vaguely recall, for instance, tumbling out of the sliding metal-grill door of an antique elevator-to-nowhere one predawn, as if a reverse vortex had spat me out from the shadowy, vintage comfort of the doubly concealed speakeasy pictured here, leaving me dazed and confused at the contrast with the vulgarly neon-lit sidewalk on which I had been deposited.
That was my last hurrah, as it happened, before I got pregnant. Having been making the social rounds recently while sober, though, I've had more clarity to assess what's going on after hours in the Philippine capital, to analyze the anthropological and architectural elements that have driven this city out of the light and to the clandestine. As the smart set matures and relaxes into its skin, they're seeking out diversions that are actually enjoyable rather than simply enviable. Steady, comfortable and refined, the new Manila thrives in hidden alleyways, blossoms in the shadows. Here's a roadmap and a flashlight; go explore the dark.
The Convenience Store Cache
Your uninitiated friends are going to get lost and then they'll get incredulous en route to meeting you for a drink at Bank Bar, which is nestled deep—and I mean deep—inside a corporate tower. To up the already sky-high exclusivity level, the owners have contrived to make you sneak into 7-Eleven storage room in which a hidden entrance opens up into a cavernous space that looks like a posh industrial warehouse vault with velvety armchairs and touches of granite, serving delicious bar bites and the most inclusive list of alcohol in the metro. Built on a vast network of single shareowners who pay for extra perks, the A-list clientele ranges from bankers (naturally) to society mavens and celebrities to good-looking expats who have managed to divine their way to the door and past the doorman. A quieter crowd looking for an after work wind-down paired with the tastiest truffle french fries in town starts trickling in from 6 p.m. When a friendly mixologist makes his way to your table with a tinkling martini cart filled with the finest gins and vodkas from around the world, making almost indecent proposals to whip you up whatever you want right here and now, you know you're in for a night of high-class indulgence. The vibe picks up around 11 p.m. with upbeat early-2000s house music and people swishing their cocktails and clinking Krug glasses as they hop from table to table. It's a crowd of regulars, like Cheers—if draft beer were small-batch sake and Norm and Cliff were the beautiful people.
GF RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center, 25th & 26th St., Bonifacio Global City, Metro Manila; +63 2 544 5776; reservations recommended, the smarter your attire the better; drinks for two P1,000.
The Bank Bar has a huge collection.
An old-school speakeasy with the old-school touches to match, ABV is hidden behind a not-so-secret door in a fake phone booth that leads to a vintage elevator cage in the owners' neon-lit, diner-style, burgers-and-hotdogs joint. Cozy banquettes, aged brick walls, flickering candlelight and rocking cocktails: the place is for me the ultimate vortex. Oddly funnel-shaped, with no windows to help ground you in time or location, it's a seemingly civilized atmosphere lubricated by deliciously potent drinks that abduct you for a few hours. It's easy to go with the flow when partner Lee Watson is on hand for a hello hug and you're sure someone you know is going to sweep through the curtains any minute. An entertaining observation I've made sober was that people are so blissfully unaware of their Stockholm syndrome, like willing prisoners of the whiskey sours and Moscow mules expertly crafted by ABV's Diageo World Class mixologist Ken Bandivas, that many don't realize their state until they get up and their knees buckle. Yes, the name stands for "alcohol by volume," and a lot of it would clearly show in a blood test after a few hours in this place. Which makes me wonder if the cheeseburgers are there to hide the ABV for more than one reason.
BF 22 Jupiter St., Makati, Metro Manila; abv.ph; drinks for two P700.
Obstacles to ABV include burgers, a phone booth and an elevator shaft.
THE RIEDEL ROOM, AT ELBERT'S STEAK ROOM
The Mad Men Mirage
The Riedel Room at Elbert's Steak Room is the base camp for the refugees of the closed longtime iconic whiskey establishment Kipling's—young-in-years but oldsoul guys and few sophisticate gals who were drinking single malts before it was "a thing." And while you may be aware that the days of plain old Black/soda are gone, replaced by the Strathisla, Bruichladdich, Yamazaki and a whole bunch of other exotic names you wind up slurring at the barman by the end of the night, do you have the chops to dive headfirst into the hardcore, enlightened drinking crowd at this decidedly masculine establishment? A very early-60s dapperdon atmosphere tucked away in the second floor of a dingy office building with no elevator, the ambience is intimate with the clients manning the music with their personal iPods. Coming here could go one of two ways: you could feel like you're awkwardly gate crashing a private party, or you could be welcomed with open arms and make lifelong friends. How the evening swings is up to you and how much charisma you gain with each glass of whiskey.
2F Sagittarius III Bldg., 111 H. V. de la Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati, Metro Manila; +63 2 519 8665; steakroom.com; drinks for two P500.
Channel your inner Don Draper in Riedel Room.
MANDALAY WHISKY & CIGARS
At the end of a somberly lit sparse hallway behind a casual sport pub, a large wooden wardrobe stands ceremoniously—the C. S. Lewis-inspired time-machine entrance into the colonial East Indies. Mandalay, with its large green palms, rich woodwork and those iconic giant Chinese foo dogs standing guard over the bar, is one of the most beautiful and aesthetically interesting establishments in the city, conceived and decorated as it is by local set designer and director Luis Tabuena. The Asiancolonial-era interiors are reminiscent of the time when people had nothing better to do after sunset than drink the night away, with stuff simpler and stronger than any pretty pink cocktail, which you certainly won't find on the menu. It’s an old-world backdrop for a vibrant crowd that—discerning whiskyphiles though most of them are—feels far from stuffy, mirroring the personalities of the owners, a group that includes local football stars and young entrepreneurs. With a very large, winding bar counter, as well as lots of little enclaves and cozy corners, you can come with the intent of showing off your new beau or hiding your secret lover.
100 C. Palanca St., Legazpi Village, Makati, Metro Manila; +63 2 834 5292; drinks for two P700.
Foo dogs guard the old world at Mandalay Whisky & Cigars.
Shoping Mall Secret
Do go into the light… on a guided path towards enlightenment based on your heart's deepest desires and the needs of your soul. I know it sounds wacky, but an evening at Lit is almost a spiritual experience, with bartender and whisky expert Francis Tosei adhering to the Japanese principles of omotenashi, or, as he describes it, trying to tune in to the same frequency as the customers and really putting himself in their shoes in order to prescribe them the perfect malt for their mood. The man has recommendations for all occasions, from what to drink when you’re heartbroken (Hibiki Japanese Harmony or Nikka 12, the latter of which, he has said, "gives you a tender mental massage") to what to serve your future mother-in-law (Ichiro's Malt Chichibu Port Pipe—feminine color and a hint of umami). In this tiny, quiet place with almost temple-like interiors completed by minimalist yet warm décor and strategic lighting, reverence and esoteric conversation reign. Leave all your frivolities at the door, please. That is, if you can find the door, hidden next to a bookshop among a slew of standard shopping mall storefronts.
GF Serendra, Bonifacio Global City, Metro Manila; +63 917 510 0014; fb.com/litmanila; drinks for two P1,000.
Whisky whisperer Francis Tosei reads minds at Lit.
THE BONBON CLUB
The Gin Joint
The capital's one and only bar dedicated entirely to gin turns out to be a welcome reprieve from all the upscale fancy-pants places; it's got an industrial hipster vibe that feels more like you're on someone's terrace than in a cocktail bar. Board games, low seating and a record player where you can pick your beats from stacks of vintage vinyl… The Bonbon Club is a great neighborhood spot to have a relaxed moment with friends or chat up the bearded hipsters next to you. Unfortunately, I discovered this joint—in the heart of the Makati CBD, on one of these oft ignored side streets that hold mostly back entrances and parking garages—while in my pregnant state and so was only allowed to drink a really rocking fresh lemonade soda. But by the looks on everyone else's faces and the increasing volume of their laughter ricocheting off the walls, I could tell that their cocktails were damn potent. My husband was drinking round after round of their signature, deceivingly deadly Dr. Sylvius, made with tangy citrus, fragrant lemongrass and spicy ginger, like it was some sort of soft drink. It was the only time during my pregnancy that I felt I was really missing out on the alcohol, the one night I definitely wanted to be sipping on gin in my juice.
16 Tropical Palms, Gallardo St., Legazpi Village, Makati, Metro Manila; +63 2 801 4840; facebook.com/thebonbonclubmnl; drinks for two P700.
The chill Bonbon Club feels like your friend's terrace.
The Big, the Bold, the Flashy and the Splashy
On the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from this set of subtle speakeasies is the hypercharged massive clubbing complex The Palace. At full capacity, it can hold up to 7,000 party people—impressively way more than the total population of most Kiwi towns. The complex is currently made up of four venues: expansive nightclub Valkyrie, where international DJ's come to bring the house down and VIPs toast champagne glasses in the balconies above; the day-to-night The Pool Club, where the young and gorgeous have a space to flaunt their impeccable bodies while nibbling on bites from Café Naya; and the most recently opened lounge Revel—more exclusive and plush, with an Austin Powers feel. For most people in the metro, no matter how much you try to escape the crazed club scene by hiding away in some nondescript bar, after 2 a.m., all roads lead to The Palace to party like kings and queens. thepalacemanila.com.
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