There’s a Growing Restaurant Problem in Manila But You Can Be Smarter About It

Cuadril / Picana

I gingerly sliced against the blood red fibers of Cuadril, the rarest meat I’ve had, the texture chewy and the meat flavor intense. “Known as Picana in Buenos Aires, this meat is the Pope’s favorite,” the owner of the Argentinian parilla La Cabrera in Manila shared the story of the third piece of steak in the degustacion. La Cabrera holds the 17th spot in San Pellegrino’s list of 50 Best Latin American Restaurants in the World. The classy Manila counterpart celebrated its first year of withstanding the cutthroat restaurant industry, a milestone that restaurants today should make an effort to recognise.

Along the streets of Tomas Morato and within the nooks and cranny of narrow “Scout” streets, one might notice how quick such establishments flourish and dissipate after a good six months. Aside from the overhead brought by labor, licenses, lease negotiation, and operating costs, restaurateurs need to fight one element that they can never control: time. Time will eventually make their restaurant passé. As sad as it seems, today’s economics suggest that a year or two is all the restaurant has to prove itself to remain relevant in the metro, or risk a newcomer stealing all the attention. For example, the unlimited pizza toppings concept Mad for Pizza has painstakingly fought to keep itself alive, bringing down the cost of their pizza Php 5 cheaper than the Project Pie chain. Unfortunately, the latter had opened its own store not too far from the ambitious casual pizza place, its modern, well-lit interiors attracting both the new and loyal patrons. Mad for Pizza had no choice but to close its doors to the public.

Competition is part of the equation and in the entire spectrum of the restaurant business, but one has to dig deeper at the real reason why restaurants don’t easily thrive as well as it was before. When unbacked by a veteran restaurant group, most restaurants today are opened by novice entrepreneurs, whose experience in the restaurant business is limited by their perception of reality. Hire a network of bloggers to hype about the restaurant to make some noise in social media, and execute trendy dishes that appeal to the public. Such is the world of startup restaurants. LA Times reports that the risk for such ventures are so high, investors get wary, and restaurants run out of business within the next five years. Unless one is a chef prodigy with the mastery of taste and cuisine like Aiden Byrne, dishes from these startup restaurants often come out as prototypes with substandard or substitute ingredients, hurried cooking, and unreasonable prices.

Slow Cooked Adobo

A couple of weeks ago, I dined at a newly opened restaurant specialising in pork belly, hyped by a television network and bloggers. As it was their specialty, I ordered the 12-hour pork belly priced at Php 650 that the waitstaff claimed to be good for 2 to 3 people. For a lack of better word, disappointing doesn’t come close in describing the portion size. “Slow-cooked” Adobo was absurdly priced at Php 350, when everyone knows Adobo is the simplest Filipino staple that anyone can conjure at home.

I believe the brand has the responsibility to choose carefully to whom they decide to expand their business.

The problem doesn’t stem only from these newly minted restaurants founded by young entrepreneurs. Big brands originating from other countries bear a huge responsibility of upholding the their public image and ensure that the quality remains the same as their flagship stores. Such act is tough to replicate in a country where port congestion poses as a nemesis and takes more than just burning cash to solve the problem. I believe the brand has the responsibility to choose carefully to whom they decide to expand their business, as one wrong move nowadays can ruin the brand for good. It takes more than just bringing in Panko breadcrumbs and training minions in the kitchen. Having a healthy supply of investment money doesn’t also warrant better customer experiences and restaurant operations.

If there’s any advice I can offer to foodies who can’t wait to share on Instagram, dine at these restaurants or coffee shops within its first two months of opening where the trained expatriate chefs or master baristas are legally allowed to orchestrate the kitchen and where the best of the ingredients go all out. The reverse is true for novice restaurants. Wait at least six months before dining there, where their mastery of running the restaurant like a well-oiled machine is already their second nature.

It is more often than not that we find ourselves only enjoying a small fraction of the new restaurants population, the words “overhyped” and “never going back” decorating the ratings of the restaurant in Yelp and Foursquare. If one’s intent is to enjoy good food and make the most of weekly earnings, then the Washingtonian editor and renowned food critic Todd Kilman has one advice for you: “Go High or Go Low”. Simply put, when eating out, he suggests to eat in either the cheapest restaurants in the metro, or go all out and simply dine at the best. In other words, avoid eating at restaurants in the middle.

We deserve ingredients that are properly handled and the portion size deemed fit for the average Filipino, yet still remain adventurous to try out restaurants that could become a candidate for a daily meal.

The vast middle is tricky that it’s almost possible to skip all new restaurants that are popping in every corner. Kilman suggests to ignore them, those “eat fresh”, go local-slash-organic, comfort food restaurants that sell pretentious cuisines and rob people of their budget. If one wants to go towards the extreme of this concept, the contrarian foodie, economist and author of The Economist Gets Lunch Tyler Cowen strongly recommends snubbing city centers and going all out in rural areas for exotic cuisines that are cheap and innovative.

I lean towards mixing Cowen and Kilman’s rules on how to eat better everyday. We deserve ingredients that are properly handled and the portion size deemed fit for the average Filipino, yet still remain adventurous to try out restaurants that could become a candidate for a daily meal. On the other hand, I ultimately agree that the whole organic, farm-to-table movement, no matter how fresh the ingredients may be, merits no right to position itself as elitist cuisine. Organic food doesn’t necessarily equate to having more nutritional value versus conventional ones. A farmhouse salad priced at Php 550 renders itself as a sanctimonious, differentiating cuisine, whereas a DIY salad store offering the same salad selection sells their own bowl for Php 225. Neologism (or “locavore” to the layperson) gives itself little right to become a for-profit business, when the very essence of its existence is to promote consumption of locally produced ingredients and become environmental friendly. In his book The Locavore’s Dillemma, economic geographer Pierre Desrochers argues that the sole reason the rebellious, anti-urbanisation movement has continuously disappeared and appeared over the years is because it’s simply local, the liberal food concept resulting into higher food prices.

“Food doesn’t need to be in fine dining or pricey in order to be delicious.” — Chef David Chang, Momofuku

One must be even more wary of restaurants serving “pretty food” or dishes that come out as an eye candy. Those that label themselves as “ authentic” and market themselves in big, bold, red letters as the number 1 restaurant chain in La-La Land is bound for failure. And the middle expanse is full of these restaurants, especially those who call their pieces of meat as “Wagyu”, “Mayura”, or “Matsuzaka”, when very few consumers could actually tell the differences in marbling and fat percentages. I recall being served a matchbox size of duck confit roast pork, drizzled with balsamic reduction, magnificently priced at Php 350. Another dressy restaurant highlights their Macaroni and Cheese dish for the elite, conveniently named by its Italian term “Maccheroni”. David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar in his book Momofuku was fond of saying, “Food doesn’t need to be in fine dining or pricey in order to be delicious.”

How does one decide where to eat best, in pursuit of making the most of money and having better experiences? Call it geeky to be putting all restaurants with the same dish into comparison before ordering, but it puts things into a different perspective. In the simplest of analogies, McDonald’s will always be at reach for anyone with a dilemma on where to eat for lunch. As fast-food is a grey area many perceive as cheap, it is inherently deceptive. McDonald’s Quarter Pounder meal, sans french fries and soda, is currently priced at Php 131.00. The 1/4 pound patty is dubious, the quality monotonous as a result of daily operations, and is bordering on expensive for a fast-food joint. If I wanted a 1/4 pound burger, 8 Cuts Burger Blends sells their Super J. Wimpy with number 3 sauce in a sesame bun for Php 145.00. I get the juiciness and the expertise of their house blend burgers at a price that is more reasonable. Teddy’s Bigger Burgers sell their 1/4 pound Classic Burger for Php 158, the patty thicker and tastier than competition, one that I’m willing to stretch my budget for.

How one determines if a restaurant plays in the middle of the field is entirely up to economic conditions. The purpose of such writing doesn’t prevent you to explore newly minted eateries but teaches you to become smarter consumers. If situation calls for finer dining prospects, such experiences offer sharpening of the palate, then one must be cautious in a French restaurant when served with pieces of cheese in a platter. If one’s preferences call for hole-in-a-wall, ghetto thrills that come in the comfort of few friends without burning a hole in your pocket, then that’s what makes it real comfort food. When gastronomic journeys stray toward the middle, one must remember to keep one eye closed in light of the food, and the other eye basked in the circus of social gatherings.

As for restaurateurs and ambitious young chefs who’d like to get a piece of limelight from bloggers and foodies alike, the message is simple. The public needs hole-in-the-wall eats that don’t scream food-world pretentious and merges the best of paradoxical public preferences for restaurants ~ healthy yet appetising, affordable yet impressive, and new yet familiar. Gastronomy is full of contradictions and not a single restaurant is perfect to withstand subjectivism. But for future references, become one of these blind item restaurants wired as a cash cow, and expect to close your doors within a few years.

Follow me on Instagram: @candidcuisine. For more gastronomy and travel tales, visit CandidCuisine.net.

Media and dystopia. I have a lot of ideas. And I share them here.

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