Binondo is known as the oldest Chinatown in the world. With 400 years of history, it is home to some of the most iconic structures in Metro Manila. Heritage sites within this part of the City of Manila include Binondo Church, and Escolta’s El Hogar, the Regina Building, the First United Building, and the Captiol Theater.
In addition, Binondo is also known as a haven for foodies where Filipino and authentic Chinese delicacies can be found. Some of the restaurants here have been operating for decades, serving the same dishes that have made the district famous. This doesn’t mean, however, that it does not offer anything new to locals and visitors. While conducting my own Binondo Walk, I chanced upon new restaurants and cafes that are giving Binondo a breath of fresh air.
R Café + Bar
A.CBK Building, Hormiga Street corner Quintin Paredes St.,
R Café + Bar is the first rooftop space in Binondo. Its indoor area functions as a café and space for private events, while the outdoor area is for their speakeasy bar. The café has a modern contemporary design using soft, bright colors, light-wooden furniture as its décor staple accented by Tiffany blue chairs, indoor plants and tropical hut-esque pendant lights; while the bar area features white furnishings and a foosball machine, and offers a spectacular view of the Binondo skyline.
The café offers sandwiches, pastas, rice meals, and bar snacks such as chicken wings and nachos; while their drinks list includes crafted coffee, local craft beer, international beers and cocktails.
It is the perfect place to rest, sip a cocktail while listening to some good tunes after a food crawl.
Grand Café 1919
Juan Luna St., Binondo, Manila
Prior to becoming the Grand Café 1919, the building it occupies was once the former main office of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC).
Built from 1921 to 1922, the Neoclassical five-story concrete-encased steel structure suffered years of neglect before it was finally acquired by a new owner. By adaptively reusing the building, the new owners were able to use the ground floor as a restaurant and café by retaining the 23-foot high ceiling, intricate grill windows, columns and marble floors but adding a mezzanine floor to offer more seating.
Grand Café 1919’s modern contemporary interior blends well with the original elements of the building, while the building’s main entrance lends a timeless elegance to the exterior. Plastered on the walls are old pictures depicting what Binondo looked like in its heyday, while one section of the restaurant has a plaque that tells the history of the building.
The menu offers varied offerings of soup, salad, mains, desserts, beverages and coffee. I, for one, recommend the Taro Cloud Roll — a soft butter roll with taro and cream filling topped with fruit. It has just the right amount of sweetness and can be shared by two people.
I also recommend speaking with one of the restaurant’s accommodating waiters for a brief chat on the history of the building and how it was renovated and turned to what it is now.
HUB Make Lab, First United Building,
413 Escolta St, Binondo, Manila
Once a glamorous commercial and business district, Escolta was the place to be before its decline sometime in the 1960s. But in recent years, the district has experienced a boom, becoming an artistic and cultural hotspot. It is also home to The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture. This café integrates culture, art, love for heritage and love for local coffee — a haven for artists and cultural workers.
The Den’s menu offers pasta dishes, pastries, sandwiches, waffles, rice meals, and salads. Their coffee is sourced from Kalsada Coffee, a team of coffee lovers who champion Philippine specialty coffee thereby supporting local producers and communities. One delightful discovery is the Iced Cascara Tea, an herbal tea made from coffee husks and dried berries. Make sure to order this drink to pair with their zesty Lemon Mushroom Pasta.
While Binondo and Escolta may have a rich multi-layered history that many overlook, with these new restaurants, cafes and bars, the district will hopefully experience the same boom that it enjoyed all those years ago — one that can also cater to all generations.