MANILA BAY BATTLE OF CHINESE RESTAURANTS

Manila, May 17, 2003 (STAR) By Wilson Lee Flores - Exactly 105 years after US Admiral George Dewey led seven heavily armed battleships from Hong Kong to vanquish the larger Spanish fleet of Admiral Patricio Montojo in the May 1898 Battle of Manila Bay to signal America’s rise as a superpower, there is today a new and more positive war in this beautiful natural harbor fronting Roxas Boulevard – the Battle of Chinese Restaurants. This breezy area seems determined to upstage Greenhills and Binondo as the country’s new bastion of fine Chinese restaurants.

The Manila Bay area Chinese restaurants showcase China’s 5,000-year-old culinary traditions, though their focus is limited only to Cantonese and Szechuan cuisines, and they have yet to serve the fantastic cuisines of Jiangsu, Zhejiang (Shanghai/Hangzhou), Beijing, Fujian, Chiuchow, Yunnan and other regions. After a Philippine writers’ delegation from Unyon ng Mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) was awed by the exotic cuisines of Yunnan province a few years ago, the writers have since dreamed of opening a Yunnan Chinese restaurant. The UMPIL writers couldn’t forget the delicious and historic dish Crossing the Bridge Noodles, which was the favorite of an ancient scholar.

In recent months, the Roxas Boulevard area fronting Manila Bay had resiliently defied the sluggish economic climate with the opening of new Chinese restaurants and the frenetic renovations of the more established ones to keep up with the competition. Perhaps all these Chinese restaurants can come together for an annual food festival that will help the public judge the best of the lot and to further promote the area for increased tourism.

GLORIAMARIS RESTO AT CCP COMPLEX

Out at the CCP Complex area is the Gloriamaris Restaurant, which its owners had bought and transformed into a fine dining Chinese restaurant from a previous project of then First Lady Imelda Marcos. Known for the reliable good quality of its Chinese food, Gloriamaris had since become a restaurant chain of different fine dining and dim sum outlets throughout Metro Manila.

In the Westin Philippine Plaza Hotel, the China Sea Restaurant serves exquisite Chinese food in a most elegant ambience. A staff told Philippine Star that the establishment used to be called Yaman Dagat, but had since changed to its present-day China Sea Restaurant.

SZECHUAN HOUSE AT ALOHA ON ROXAS BLVD.

Hot, spicy and fiery is the world-famous Szechuan Chinese cuisine offered by two establishments old and new – the Szechuan House Restaurant at Aloha Hotel on Roxas Boulevard near the Manila Yacht Club, and the Fishing Village Restaurant at Golden Bay Hotel (formerly Hotel Aurelio) near the US Embassy.

According to real estate tycoon Manuel O. Chua, he built his Aloha Hotel in 1965 and got its name from the suggestion of his friend, the late famous movie director Manuel Conde. Three years later in 1968, he inaugurated Szechuan House, which has become well-known for its delicious yet affordable Chinese dishes. Apart from Szechuan dishes and the less spicy Cantonese dishes served by its mainland China chefs, the restaurant also serves Japanese dishes and sashimi. The place was recently renovated after many years, perhaps due to the new competition. It has ample parking space for diners.

When Philippine Star ate at Szechuan House with some friends, seen dining there, too, were Marinduque Governor Carmen Ongsiako Reyes and her husband veteran politician Edmundo Reyes, who said that it has been one of their favorite restaurants for the past 30 years, that their son Edmund Reyes is now the congressman representing their province. Carmen’s sisters are the widows of Negros Governor Montelibano and PLDT boss Ramon Cojuangco.

FISHING VILLAGE RESTO

The Fishing Village Restaurant is owned by Moldex PVC pipes tycoon and 1322 Roxas Blvd. condominium developer Jacinto Uy. His daughter-in-law, businesswoman Sandy C. Uy, said that the tycoon invited China’s famous Beijing Sichuan Restaurant last year to send a master chef over, so now Fishing Village Restaurant serves both Sichuan and Cantonese dishes.

She told Philippine Star that among the international VIPS who had dined at Beijing Sichuan Restaurant were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, US President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. (Incidentally, Sichuan is the new pinyin spelling of the traditional Szechuan name referring to the giant province with a population of 100 million, well-known for its world-famed pandas and for being the home province of the late heroic leader Deng Xiaoping.)

Fishing Village has become one of the Manila Bay area’s top restaurants because of its delicious offerings. Its only temporary disadvantage is the ongoing construction of the 1322 Roxas Boulevard condominium nearby, with some of the construction activities blocking the restaurant’s visibility from motorists and cars passing by.

DRAGON GATE SEAFOOD AND SKY HIGH

Once while dining as a guest at a reception at the new Dragon Gate Seafood Restaurant (site of the former Josephine Restaurant) along Roxas Boulevard near the CCP Complex, this writer had gestured to a waiter if it was possible to recharge my cell phone. Surprisingly, an elderly man passed by and offered to personally bring the cell phone to the cashier’s counter for recharging.

When asked who the humble man was, the waiters said he was businessman John The, owner of the sprawling establishment that had become a new favorite place for traditional multi-course lauriat Chinese feasts.

A businessman told Philippine Star that the owners of this new restaurant were former partners of Sky High Chinese Restaurant beside Malate Church, which is also doing well. However, he does not know why the partners parted ways. Dragon Gate Seafood Restaurant has various function rooms on its second floor, and seems to be doing brisk business.

CHINESE PLACE AND TONG YANG AT AT PAN PACIFIC

Not far from Roxas Boulevard with its own panoramic view of Manila Bay is the Pan Pacific Hotel in Malate. It has its own China Place Restaurant. Also inside Pan Pacific is Tong Yang Chinese Restaurant, whose owners, the Go family, said they used to operate the Meylin Restaurant along Carvajal St. in Binondo, Manila, which SM Group founder Henry Sy used to frequent. It was Sy’s encouragement that emboldened the family to expand into the Tong Yang, Meylin, and Pot and Noodle chains in Metro Manila.

The Chinese restaurants and the other food outlets at the hotel seem to be doing well, although Dome Café reportedly closed its branch, and Pan Pacific now welcomes new tenants for its ground floor dining area.

CENTURY SEAFOOD

One of the Manila Bay area’s most successful Chinese restaurants, quite popular for all kinds of receptions, is the Century Seafood (formerly East Ocean) Restaurant beside Century Park Hotel and within the Harrison Plaza complex. The huge establishment is run by the enterprising Robert Sy, who used to own and manage the East Ocean Restaurant in Greenhills and the former City Garden Seafood Restaurant (now the Christ Commission Fellowship, or CCP, a Protestant church) across SM Megamall. This writer always sees the middle-aged owner personally supervising restaurant operations, fussing over details and talking to customers.

Century Seafood also has access to the huge volume of receptions at the hotel grand ballroom, often catering the traditional wedding lauriat receptions of Chinese weddings and parties there. Despite the closure of East Ocean and City Garden in other parts of Metro Manila, Century Seafood Restaurant is doing brisk business as never before, with some receptions attended by this writer having extra tables overflowing out into the arcade section of the hotel. Years ago, the former East Ocean could not serve Chinese lauriat for weddings at the hotel ballroom. However, a businessman told Philippine Star that the owner seemed to have since taken in Lucio Tan, or his hotel, as a partner in the renamed Century Seafood.

HK GOLDEN PAVILION IS NOT PAVILION COURT

Amajor new Chinese restaurant on Roxas Boulevard is owned by Hong Kong and Guangzhou foreign investors, who leased the former Hua Ting Cantonese Restaurant of the Heritage Hotel, renaming it the Hong Kong Golden Pavilion Restaurant. The luxurious new establishment also offers entertainment, such as singers and even nights with ballroom dancing. Like Szechuan of Aloha Hotel, this restaurant also serves Japanese food. The Hong Kong Golden Pavilion Restaurant is owned by the same group who invested in the Fort Ilocandia Resort, Casino, Golf and Country Club in Laoag City, Ilocos Norte province.

While most foreign investors have a pessimistic outlook about Philippine tourism, the group behind Hong Kong Golden Pavilion and Fort Ilocandia reportedly has faith in the long-term prospects of the country’s tourism industry. Before the Iraq War and SARS, this investor group even arranged direct chartered flights of wealthy tourists from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China, and Kaohsiung and Taipei in Taiwan.

A good place for sumptuous Chinese dishes is the Pavilion Court Chinese Restaurant at the Manila Pavilion Hotel (since March 1 this year, the new name of the former Holiday Inn Manila) along United Nations Ave. in Ermita. The reason for the name change? The owners of the hotel reportedly didn’t renew their contract with the Holiday Inn chain, the same reason for Gokongwei’s Manila Midtown dropping the Ramada and Lucio Tan’s Century Park dropping the Sheraton in its names. The advantage of Pavilion Court and HK Golden Pavilion is that both restaurants are strategically located inside deluxe hotels with casinos where, win or lose, many local high-rollers and moneyed tourists are among their many diners.

EMERALD GARDEN AND BANANA LEAF

Astrong mainstay of the Roxas Boulevard restaurant row is Emerald Garden Restaurant near the US Embassy, and owned by the family of the late Chinese community leader Benjamin Chua, Jr. of Cathay Pacific Steel Corp. Its affordable prices and the consistent quality of its Chinese food have made Emerald Garden a popular venue for lauriat receptions. A cum laude engineering graduate of UP, Chua was the popular president of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Inc.

One of the newest contenders to the Manila Bay Battle of Chinese Restaurants is the popular Banana Leaf Restaurant, which had leased the ground floor space of the Gedisco Bldg., owned by Chinese community leader and Chinese Commercial News veteran columnist William Chenglay, Jr. Like its branches at The Podium in Ortigas Center and Greenbelt 1 in Makati City, Banana Leaf along Roxas Boulevard is doing very well due to its delicious food.

FU MANCHU BECOMES DIAMOND VILLA, MABUHAY NO MORE

One of the positive developments in the Chinese restaurant row in the Manila Bay area is the renaming of the former Fu Manchu’s Chinese restaurant at the Grand Boulevard Hotel into its much-improved present name of Diamond Villa. The former name was hilarious and a faux pas, since it carries a negative stereotype of Oriental characters in Hollywood in the past. Can the new name and new image welcome more business?

At the historic Manila Hotel, its media-shy owner, tycoon Emilio Yap, had reportedly once dreamt of creating the finest Chinese restaurant in the Manila Bay area that he named "Mabuhay" and had personally refurbished. However, this project was short-lived. Sources told the Philippine Star that Yap continues to serve sumptuous multi-course Chinese food every week to close friends and a select group of business taipans in his home on United Nations Ave. near his Philtrust Bank headquarters.

Apart from Manila Mayor Lito Atienza’s lighting up and beautifying the waterfront of Roxas Boulevard, another strong impetus to tourism and commerce in the capital city is the dynamic, healthy competition among many Chinese restaurants in the Manila Bay area. If you’re not planning to visit East Asian destinations this summer, drive to the scenic bay area and savor the culinary treasures of Chinese civilization and choose which among the rival restaurants is the really the best!


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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