Before trendy food parks and hipster cafes became common sights in the neighborhood, Sikatuna Village was a quiet place punctuated by small commercial establishments. Today, any person who ventured to the village, especially to Maginhawa and its nearby streets, would come across a small business every few meters. It has everything you could dream of: restaurants, cafes, eateries, food parks/halls, bars, and bookstores. It even has an independent cinema and a 24-hour gym.
Capitalizing on Maginhawa’s popularity, many businesses began operating in Sikatuna Village. Over the years, however, tough competition, high rental rates, and conflicts with landlords forced several establishments to close only after a year or two. Maginhawa regulars said goodbye to early favorites like Ahi Hawaii and The Breakfast Table. Some of the more classic Maginhawa restaurants, like Jek’s Ku-Bo, Sancho, and Gayuma, also bit the dust.
In the past, running a business in the popular food strip was a more communal experience. Pebble Lim, one of the owners of a pioneering Maginhawa business (Friuli Trattoria), shared: “Before, there were very few food establishments. And these establishments were not air-conditioned. There was sort of familiarity among the people hanging out in Maginhawa. Owners of other restaurants and establishments knew each other and supported each other. Now, of course, you see more buildings, there are more comfortable restaurants. Diverse businesses. You see celebrities around. But familiar faces and the academic atmosphere are still there.”
Competition is the lifeblood of our economic system. While it would be wonderful to go back to a time when Maginhawa was a random high-traffic street with a few neighborhood restaurants supporting one another, it’s foolish to think that the food strip will return to what it once was. The only thing left to do is to move forward by learning from the past.
Focus on the Food
A plate of toasted ravioli landed on my table. Deep-fried and breaded, this version of the traditional stuffed pasta is far from authentic, but it’s a cool take on the dish. The origin of toasted ravioli is hazy, although it was popularized in St. Louis, Missouri, a predominantly Italian neighborhood. It’s not entirely what you could get in Italy, but it’s something that Italian immigrants have invented in order to make their food more exciting to new markets. Friuli Trattoria’s version is filled with ground meat and comes with marinara sauce for dipping. It is one of the trattoria’s most talked-about offerings.
Following the ravioli is Friuli Trattoria’s Tre Formaggi. This pie is famous for being called “the best pizza in the house” by Our Awesome Planet Founder Anton Diaz, and for good reason. The distinct but pleasant funk from the blue cheese stands out, giving any diner a one-of-a-kind and delightful experience in every bite.
Over the years, Friuli Trattoria has expanded its menu to include more Italian favorites. The Cheese Steak and Spiced Romano pizzas are among the best of these additions. The huge, stringy mozzarella cheese sticks also make excellent appetizers.
It’s rare to come across a Maginhawa establishment that promises a satisfying meal on every visit, just like what Friuli Trattoria does. A lot of the establishments build on hype or gimmicks, like one that offers unicorn-themed drinks and desserts or cafes that focus on books or board games rather than food. Of course, these are exciting additions to the string of restaurants that line Maginhawa street. But to truly survive changes in trends, you have to offer something timeless. And that is what Friuli Trattoria has done.
Friuli Trattoria embodies what a true neighborhood eatery should be: a welcoming, friendly place that serves quality food at affordable prices. Even after so long, it has maintained its price points by keeping its profit margins low. As a testament to its success, the original branch in Maginhawa now takes up twice the space that it used to. What’s even more impressive is that Friuli has managed to open a location in a mall, UP Town Center, without drastically increasing prices.
Maginhawa has become saturated with restaurants that offer the usual takes on pasta, burgers, ribs, and Tex-Mex favorites, but there are very few that offer inventive, delightful dishes at affordable prices. Soru Izakaya, Meshwe, Grape Escape, and Provenciano are some of the best restaurants in Maginhawa–and even in Metro Manila–but there are few neighbors that can match their quality.
You might argue that the other foodie neighborhoods I’ve mentioned aren’t specifically targeting students. But think about it. Kapitolyo’s Bullchef, Kanto Freestyle Breakfast, and Naan offer satisfying meals below P200. B.F. Paranaque’s La Chinesca offers the best tacos in Manila at even lower prices. If restaurants in other neighborhoods can offer amazing food at these price points, why can’t Maginhawa establishments do the same?
Some of the few restaurants in Maginhawa with affordable food that’s worth trying are Vietnomnom, Leona’s Art Cafe, and Caution Hot!, but these are still few and far between compared to other foodie neighborhoods. In order for Maginhawa restaurants to rival those from Banawe, Kapitolyo, Salcedo Village, Legaspi Village, Poblacion, or B.F. Homes Paranaque, we will need more than just neighborhood joints offering passable food, then making their low price points as an excuse for the ho-hum quality. As of this writing, Sikatuna Village only has 12 restaurants rated above 4.0 on Zomato, compared to Kapitolyo’s 18, Salcedo Village’s 19, and B.F. Paranaque’s 15.
I’m hoping that in the future, entrepreneurs who’ve set their sights on Maginhawa or are already operating in Maginhawa, understand that in order to become a place that people will flock to, you have to focus on the food. Developing great recipes and training your cooks to become more consistent is key to becoming a great neighborhood restaurant.
Seeking Support From the Government, Landlords
To enable Maginhawa establishments to become more successful in the future, Pebble Lim said, “Landlords, tenants, and the government should cooperate, [because] it will also be for the betterment of the community.” For safety reasons, I cannot disclose some of the conflicts Maginhawa tenants have had with their landlords. Nevertheless, one advice that a Maginhawa insider gave us is this: “Tenants should also learn more about lease agreements. They can get legal advice early on or even before they enter into a lease agreement to know how and what they can negotiate in the contract. They can negotiate for remedies or ‘safety nets’ in the contracts should the landlord fail to deliver on their obligations.”
Aside from landlords, it pays to know what the government has done for Maginhawa. City ordinance 2559-2017 seeks to provide a revitalization plan for Maginhawa Arts and Food Hub, though sources on the Internet are unclear on what the plan entails. I emailed the QC government for a copy of what the ordinance contains, but they said they had no copy available. When asked if the government provides incentives for Maginhawa startups, the Quezon City government replied, “The city has no formal incentives at the moment, though there are ongoing studies on incentives.”
While this is the case, it’s no secret that the QC government recognizes what Maginhawa has become. To maintain the area’s entrepreneurial vibe, the city makes sure to prioritize local businesses when issuing permits to people who want to do business in the area. According to the government, “The Maginhawa Food Hub is a special zone where local businesses are given priority.”
Additionally, Quezon City’s tourism department organizes the annual Maginhawa Food Festival, which was first held in 2014. Commending the government’s efforts to publicize local businesses, Pebble Lim remarked, “Restaurants were full most of the operating hours. Lots of people filled the streets.”
In August 2016, however, the QC government imposed a curfew which prohibits minors from staying in public places from 10:00 PM – 5:00 AM. For Friuli Trattoria, in particular, sales dropped significantly during weekdays after the ordinance was passed. While the benefits of this law are evident, it was one of the things that impacted Maginhawa-based businesses because they mainly cater to students who are mostly still minors.
Nevertheless, the QC government is doing what it can to help sustain businesses in the area. Recently, it ran tests to see if e-trikes can be used to give commuters more options for transportation. As of this writing, the study results are being analyzed for the program’s regular implementation. A terminal/charging station is also being constructed at Kalayaan Avenue for the e-trikes. More transportation options would highly benefit commuters since parking is always limited when it comes to Maginhawa.
A Citywide Challenge
Someone told me a year ago that there are only a few good restaurants in Quezon City. I was appalled. I knew there were hundreds of hidden gems in Maginhawa, Fairview, Novaliches, Banawe, Brgy. Laging Handa, and Cubao. They just aren’t as publicized as restaurants from other cities like Makati or Taguig.
A problem that most restaurants in Maginhawa face is the lack of media attention. A lot of the Philippines’ most influential bloggers are based in the south. Most restaurants trying to penetrate the Philippine market normally open their first branches in Taguig or Makati then expand to the north after gaining the interest of the general public.
In order for restaurants in Maginhawa and other areas of Quezon City to gain traction, people who live in the city need to use their social media influence, no matter how small, to show what their neighborhood has to offer. We need to give restaurants close to us more exposure.
It’s a citywide challenge, then, to help our neighborhood restaurants flourish. Millennials aren’t just people who walk into restaurants without knowing anything about the menu or without reading reviews. As diners, we need to take time to talk about our experiences, so that others may be compelled to experience the same. Moreover, it’s time people stop judging Maginhawa or QC restaurants in general by their own standard. Late in 2017, I read a review for Soru Izakaya that said, “the place is so nice, it should be in BGC!” In 2016, I also read a review for a traditional Japanese restaurant that went, “The sushi was so fresh! I didn’t expect to find this in Quezon City!”
It’s time to stop being surprised by the talent we have in our neighborhood. Let’s give the restaurateurs who chose to operate in Maginhawa and other parts of Quezon City their own merit.
It’s a no-brainer that for Maginhawa restaurants to become even more successful, effort must be made on all fronts. Restaurateurs must challenge themselves to offer food that rivals those from neighborhood restaurants in other cities. Landlords need to support their tenants by not asking for ridiculous rental rates and by fulfilling their obligations when it comes to leasing agreements. The QC government must find ways to support and publicize local businesses. As for the dining public, we need to talk about our experiences to give our neighborhood restaurants more publicity.
To be honest, I am cautiously optimistic about Maginhawa’s future. But if we begin to seriously think about the future of the food strip, and bring to light the issues that it needs to address, then perhaps Maginhawa can move forward and become the great foodie neighborhood Metro Manila needs.
Full Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this article reflect the author’s points of view as well as the points of view of the persons she interviewed. The author did not seek compensation from any of the businesses mentioned. All photos included here were taken by the Manila Food Crawl Team as paying customers.