Goodnight, Sweet Prince
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.