In Makati’s red-light district, a flurry of restaurant openings, new coffee shops, and artistic venues are quietly recasting the area as a hip enclave for denizens of the Philippine capital.
Poblacion has long been known for its raunchy bars and nightclubs aimed at a certain class of foreign visitor. But these days the central Manila neighborhood has evolved beyond its seedy reputation, thanks to a crop of new restaurants, boutiques, and creative spaces that have sprouted up in the past two years. Now more cultured than crude, more edgy than sleazy, it’s become the haunt of intrepid expats and hipsters looking to get their fill of great food and drink—and perhaps score a few unique finds.
True to its name, Commune (63-2/275-6324) on Polaris Street is a place for conversations and gatherings. From weekly improv shows to the occasional creative workshop, it regularly serves as a venue for small-scale social affairs. Any given day, it’s open from brunch to late night, serving locally sourced coffee alongside sandwiches and pastries. Its new section, Poblacion Dining Room, specializes in Filipino comfort food.
Tucked down narrow B. Valdez Street amid graffiti-strewn walls, recently opened Bistro Manuel (63-2/871-8566) sets itself apart with white linen service and the well-loved creations of chef Ariel Manuel, who once helmed the kitchen of Manila institution Lolo Dad’s until its closure at the end of 2013. He returns with favorites such as baked oysters with foie gras served atop angel hair pasta and melted Parmesan cheese, alongside new offerings including a whole range of char-grilled pizzas. Downstairs, he also runs Taperia Poblacion (for tapas and pintxos) and The Sippery wine bar. Five minutes away on foot, months-old OTO (63/917-793-7787) seems like a regular, well-designed café and bar at first glance, but the massive speakers—along with the amplifiers, turntables, and extensive collection of vinyl records—suggest something else is at play. More than a cool drinking spot for specialty coffee and craft cocktails, this listening room also dishes out good music in a relaxed environment that’s padded with echo-eliminating insulation.
One of the eateries that have given new life to Don Pedro Street is The Wild Poppy (63/995-990-8737), which hosts post-work tipples and late dinners for the young corporate set. Inventive Southeast Asian small plates and cocktails are the main attraction; don’t miss specialties like the chicken rendang in a fluffy gua bao bun and Thai Me Up, a zesty concoction of vodka, lemon juice, basil, and apple. Next door, Alamat (63/917-530-2580), literally “legend” in Tagalog, takes going local seriously. The bar menu is a celebration of Pinoy drinking culture, featuring cocktails spiked with arrack (fermented coconut sap) and ginger tea. A variety of draft beers from across the archipelago is on tap, while the inspired bar chow includes standouts like piyanggang chicken wings —a Sulu-style snack covered in toasted coconut meat—and a selection of artisan sausages.
On the corner of Rockwell Drive and Kalayaan Avenue, BBZ Bistro (63-2/777-2229) is the flagship outlet of homegrown brand Beer Below Zero, whose owners have invented a refrigeration technology that allows beer to be stored at subzero temperatures without freezing over. Here, the variety of local and imported craft brews are paired with a smorgasbord of hearty dishes like callos (braised oxtail and ox tripe) and crispy pata (deep-fried pork knuckles). For dessert, ice cream gets the boozy treatment with flavors such as Butter Pecan Baileys and Tequila Rose.
Poblacion these days is known to Manileños as an emerging foodie destination, but inveterate shoppers will also find plenty to ogle at. For ready-to-wear garments that express a unique sense of aesthetics and impeccable craftsmanship, head to House of Laurel (63-2/899-9946), the Makati atelier of leading Filipino designer Rajo Laurel. The seasoned couturier has dressed both local and international celebrities and was once a resident judge of TV show Project Runway Philippines. Laurel’s partner, interior designer Nix Alanon, is also a part of Poblacion’s creative force. His boutique, PhoeNix Home (63-2/568-2469), sits along busy Kalayaan Avenue, providing a sanctuary for decorating solutions and artistic inspiration. The place is replete with of-the-moment furniture and quirky ornaments.
On R. Palma Street, which runs through a predominantly residential area, Calima Jewelry (63-2/239-6458) draws collectors seeking out the bold and exotic. Taking inspiration from the art of pre-Columbian cultures, the intricately designed pieces showcase traditional, centuries-old crafts. Expect to see colorful bags known as mochilas, shoes, and belts handmade by Colombia’s Wayuu tribe. A few doors down, Pineapple Lab (63-2/834-5763) serves as a platform to make art more accessible to a wider audience. Its spaces are dedicated to exhibitions, performances, and other projects, including the annual Fringe Manila festival. Although it has shown the works of international artists and collaborators, Pineapple Lab aims to cultivate a deeper appreciation for local Filipino flair.
Another unusual creative venue takes pride of place on P. Burgos Street. Cuts and color may be the primary offerings at Kapwa Studio (63-2/805-7948), but this barbershop and salon has more to offer than the regular hair appointment. The industrial-looking space, sparingly adorned with paintings and tribal decor, also hosts workshops, photo shoots, and exhibitions, reflecting the strong artistic leanings of both staff and clientele.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Manila Makeover”).