Goodnight, Sweet Prince

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Esquire (Philippines) - - MAHB SECTIONDINING - BY AU­DREY N. CAR­PIO

Prince Al­bert, for four decades, has al­ways had its cat­e­gory of loyal clien­tele: CEOs, high-rank­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, movers and shak­ers of so­ci­ety. Not so much celebri­ties, or young up­starts— the restau­rant is en­dur­ingly un­trendy, re­sis­tant to change, and wears its old-fash­ioned­ness like a pair of starched cuffs. This was the kind of se­ri­ous place one’s par­ents and grand­par­ents went to, and for the same thing al­ways, the prime rib. Ser­vice was discreet and per­son­al­ized, and many high-pro­file men have felt com­fort­able enough to take women who were not their wives there to dine. The In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Manila an­nounced that it would be clos­ing down for good on De­cem­ber 31. Af­ter 46 years, the Philip­pines’ very first 5-star ho­tel will be turned over to Ayala Land. Some say it has over­stayed its wel­come, a fad­ing rem­nant of its ‘80s/’90s glory days. No­body has at­tempted any protest move­ments to “save” the In­terCon, de­spite it be­ing a Le­an­dro Loc­sin- de­signed build­ing. The htoel was wit­ness to Philip­pine po­lit­i­cal history dur­ing a 1989 coup at­tempt, but even a her­itage buff like Car­los Cel­dran barely gave a shrug to the news of the shut­ter­ing of the once-grand dame of ho­tels. Its beloved Prince Al­bert Ro­tis­serie, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent story, and will go down in restau­rant history as a true clas­sic, but per­haps no­body will miss it as much as Rod Mal­abrigo. Prince Al­bert’s head waiter has been with the In­terCon for 29 years, and in those 29 years he has never had a Christ­mas hol­i­day, a New Year’s Eve night off,nor a Fa­ther’s Day, and es­pe­cially not a Valen­tine’s Day. But he has no re­grets. Mal­abrigo started out as a ban­quet waiter and worked at the ho­tel’s dif­fer­ent out­lets from Gam­bri­nus to Jeep­ney Cafe and Where Else? When he was made a reg­u­lar em­ployee af­ter one year, he promised him­self that each year would mark an achieve­ment of a dif­fer­ent goal. He would be a model em­ployee. And he was—for three con­sec­u­tive years, he had per­fect at­ten­dance. He rose up the ranks, form bus­boy to waiter, to cap­tain and som­me­lier. He has been sent all over the world for train­ing and re­ceived VIP treat­ment him­self in ho­tels abroad, when the GMs would find out his prove­nance was the famed Prince Al­bert. “I love In­tercon. I was so sad when they an­nounced the clos­ing,” Mal­abrigo says. “Prince Al­bert is my sec­ond home. Ev­ery­day, I would leave my house at 8 in the morn­ing and get back at 1 am. Then I still had to help with my kids’ home­work. It was very dif­fi­cult, but I love it.” His son had his wed­ding re­cep­tion in the In­tercon ball­room. There will be many other mem­o­ries for Rod to take with him, but the defin­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing at Prince Al­bert was get­ting to know all the big­wigs. “I met all the high­est gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, GMs, pres­i­dents. I’d in­tro­duce my­self and give them my card. When they need a reser­va­tion or a spe­cial ta­ble, they’d just call me.” In would leave my house at eight in the morn­ing and get back at one in the morn­ing. Then I still had to help with my kids’ home­work. It was very dif­fi­cult, but I love it.” His son had his wed­ding re­cep­tion in the In­tercon ball­room. There will be many other mem­o­ries for Rod to take with him, but the defin­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing at Prince Al­bert was get­ting to know all the big­wigs. “I met all the high­est gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, GMs, pres­i­dents. I’d in­tro­duce my­self and give them my card. When they need a reser­va­tion or a spe­cial ta­ble, they’d just call me.” In re­turn, he was helped by many when it came to visa ap­pli­ca­tions and the like. They were mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ships.

Just who are the VIPs who reg­u­larly en­joyed the prime rib, the tableside ser­vice, the crepe sa­mu­rai? “Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano likes to sit here with his mom. Sir Ra­mon Ang, over there or there. Mr. Chen, here,” Mal­abrigo says, point­ing to cor­ner ta­bles or the pri­vate and stately Car­los P. Ro­mulo room, whose ghost pur­port­edly haunts the es­tab­lish­ment. “Ka­t­rina En­rile al­ways or­ders the pep­per steak. Char­lie Co­juangco just comes here for the pep­per steak or the steak tartare, noth­ing else. PNoy has only been here twice. But this was a fa­vorite place of Glo­ria’s.” Pres­i­dent Estrada, he adds, would hand the servers ad­di­tional money if he no­ticed that other cus­tomers didn’t leave a tip. One won­ders where Mr. Coy­i­uto, who dines there at least once a week, will be spend­ing his lunch hours now.

Mal­abrigo has on oc­ca­sion helped a phi­lan­der­ing cus­tomer or two es­cape when the wife would hap­pen to walk in the restau­rant. “We led one guy out through the load­ing bay. What­ever hap­pens in Prince Al­bert doesn’t leave Prince Al­bert,” he chor­tles know­ingly. Of course, back in the ‘80s/’90s there were only hand­ful of fine din­ing es­tab­lish­ments, so the ac­tion seemed dis­pro­por­tion­ately cen­tered in Prince Al­bert. And what­ever tran­spired here un­der Mal­abrigo’s nose can prob­a­bly fill col­umn inches worth of gos­sip, but will dis­ap­pear in dust with the build­ing it­self.

Amid the rise and fall of many other fash­ion­able restau­rants through the years, the menu of Prince Al­bert has scarcely changed. The prime rib and the French onion soup are pre­pared the ex­act same way since day one (the orig­i­nal chef is said to haunt the oven). They have since added pasta dishes, and you can even find quinoa in the cur­rent salad buf­fet, but by and large what you get at Prince Al­bert is the same fare you’ll find at a clas­sic bistro in France, and it’s this same fare that loyal cus­tomers keep com­ing back for.

De­cem­ber is the fi­nal month of ser­vice for the staff of Prince Al­bert. Through­out this month, dis­tin­guished chefs who have called the In­tercon home at some point in their ca­reers will re­turn to each ex­e­cute a spe­cial din­ner: chef Jessie Sin­cioco, chef Billy King, chef Cyrille Soe­nen. De­cem­ber 31 will be the last night of ser­vice ever, and af­ter the last guest leaves, Rod Mal­abrigo will close the cur­tains to the Car­los P. Ro­mulo room one fi­nal time and bid adieu to the restau­rant he gave his life to, but in re­turn gave him so many great op­por­tu­ni­ties. Mal­abrigo’s fu­ture is safe; of­fers from as near as Makati Av­enue to as far as Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong have been com­ing in, and of­ten he has no idea upon whose rec­om­men­da­tion. He hasn’t de­cided yet where he’ll don his next uni­form, the only thing he knows is that he’ll fi­nally take a few months off and treat his wife to a Euro­pean hol­i­day. It’s about time.

“What­ever hap­pens in Prince Al­bert doesn’t leave Prince Al­bert.”

2 PHO­TOS FROM CAR­LOS P. RO­MULO’S LIFE HANGS IN THE PRI­VATE DIN­ING ROOM NAMED IN HONOR OF THE PRINCE AL­BERT FREQUENTER.

1 THE END OF AN ERA OF TRA­DI­TIONAL FINE DIN­ING AND FRENCH TABLESIDE SER­VICE.

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