CAFE YSABEL 2.0
“Everything New is Old Again.”
It was truly the last of the great romantics. The legendary Café Ysabel, a landmark on P. Guevarra St. in San Juan for over three decades, shut its doors for the final time at the end of July last year. It was a historic restaurant, housed in a century-old home, and it carved out a singular reputation, thanks to its chef and his singular vision, that will likely never be paralleled. Its cuisine withstood the test of time—it never needed to conform to the latest culinary trends—because the restaurant’s loyalists, who number in the thousands, across three generations or more, resisted change. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” was their common refrain. And Chef Gene Gonzalez-- a fencer, a painter, a fighter, a writer – an authentic modern day Renaissance man, valued and respected tradition above all else. And so, Café Ysabel prospered in its timeless bubble until the harsh realities of urban development forced the beloved café to close. But before it did, the Chef Patron promised that it would one day, live again.
That day has come, and happily for all, sooner than expected. After a mere eight
months, the new Café Ysabel, now on M. Paterno St., just behind the San Juan City Hall, quietly opened its doors once again, and welcomed back its relieved patrons. The restaurant gods must have been smiling down on Gene when he was looking for a new location; the new one is actually another century-old house, with very similar architectural features, so much of the look of the original has been retained. The frescoes on the ceilings? Check. The stained glass accents? Check. The ornate marble floors? Check. And best of all? “Seduction Lane”, the row of tablesfor-two on the café’s balcony, has magically been transported to the new address. The sexiest dinner spot in all of Metro Manila now overlooks a work in progress, the sprawling front yard of the house, which is being converted to an “edible landscape”. It will be filled with boxes to grow edible flowers, a greenhouse for microgreens, and terraces, not unlike a Tuscan villa’s where figs and other fruit-bearing plants, not endemic to the Philippines, will be cultivated by the Gonzalezes, now plural, now father and son.
Gino, the only son of Gene, will now play a larger role in the new Ysabel. The chef on the rise will design the “blackboard menus”, the changing platescapes-- with an emphasis on seasonal produce and a devotion to rare varieties of red, yellow,
and blue local rice—will complement the now 36-year old core menu of the restaurant. Those dishes after all, are sacrosanct. All the classics are still on the menu: the lengua, the callos, the paella, the caldereta, and that rustic star of the dessert menu, the strawberry shortcake.
I’m comforted by the thought that Café Ysabel is back. It has deservedly earned its place in the pantheon of great Filipino restaurants, and I’m very pleased that it is around once again to charm a new generation of diners and lovers. Welcome home to the first of the new romantics.
“AFTER A MERE EIGHT MONTHS, THE NEW CAFÉ YSABEL QUIETLY OPENED ITS DOORS ONCE AGAIN, AND WELCOMED BACK ITS RELIEVED PATRONS.”
Café Ysabel’s Strawberry Shortcake
033 Old Café Ysabel Dining Room
021 New Café Ysabel Facade2 Old Café Ysabel Facade
044 New Café Ysabel Dining Room
10 Strawberry Shortcake 10
5 Lengua Sulipeña6 Spaghetti with Angry Sauce7 Chef Gene and Chef Gino Gonzalez8 Old Café Ysabel Balcony 08
9 New Café Ysabel Balcony 09