Wine & Food
Elbert Cuenca elevates the speakeasy experience at the Upstairs Bar
‘SWANKY.” If you ever needed one word to describe Elbert’s Upstairs Bar, that would be it. You couldn’t tell it was even there, hiding in plain sight above Mendokoro Ramenba BGC, without signage nor indication. A nondescript flight of steps leads you, first, to question whether you’re in the right place, and then, up to a gorgeous room you had no idea was even there.
“People have to trust you to walk up those stairs,” he says, understanding both the risk and benefit of being consciously low-key. He isn’t fazed; in fact, he prefers it that way. There is an excitement to being slightly inaccessible. It bears a sense of adventure and mystery. The tentative journey up the stairs ends in wide-eyed amazement; it’s like discovering the mythical Shangri-La. It adds an element of surprise to your Elbert experience.
Those unfamiliar with the Elbert restaurant concept, whether it’s the Steak Room, Pizzeria, Diner, or a bar, should know that his brand maintains a low profile, but upholds only the highest quality. And he values simplicity above most things. There is no need for smoke and mirrors when you’re banking on excellence. Whatever it is he chooses to do, he focuses on it, and he does it well.
Even the formulation of his restaurants’ names are straightforward and nothing fancy. It is what it is, and you go in knowing pretty much what to expect. Or do you? Sure, you come in for a steak, or pizza, or in the Upstairs Bar’s case, a cocktail. But do you know how magnificent the experience will be?
“(The) simplicity (of your operations) allows you to focus on the quality (of your product). You have no choice but to be good because that is the only thing you do.” As long as the Elbert name is attached, rest assured, you are coming in for the best.
And this man does not scrimp. As a restaurateur, his greatest power, apart from his taste, is his insight into customer service. As a customer himself, he applies his understanding of an excellent restaurant experience to his operations, thus making them intuitive.
Elbert’s Upstairs Bar is no different. It does not aspire to be a place to be seen. Instead, it is a place to simply be. It is a swanky and sophisticated, yet cozy, watering hole where intimate relationships are cultivated—a charming setting for lovers, business partners, or friend groups who want to go out, but not go wild.
Plush and sophisticated, its interiors keep the eyes busy without affronting them. It works with English heritage as a base, but with modern masculine yet inviting seating, and finishing with playful and trendy touches of tropical luxe. Lighting is soft and intimate. Music is noticeably kept at a low volume, which makes it conducive to conversation—a quality difficult to ask of bars.
Clearly this is not one of those speakeasies that Manila has come to know. There are neither gimmicks nor cheesy Prohibition-era-themed memorabilia here. Drinks are neither sold in shots nor by the bottle, and the bartender won’t keep it for you after you’ve gone.
Instead, Elbert’s has an algebraic approach to cocktails. First, choose a drink. Their cocktail menu is a one-pager of classic formulae. Again, straightforward and simple. Second, customize your drink: the following menu pages contain an impressive, well-curated bar list from which you can choose a base for your cocktail. So you can nominate your favorite bourbon to go into your old-fashioned, for an ultimately bespoke experience.
“I judge a bar based on how well they can do an old-fashioned,” says Elbert, citing the classic as his baseline. Needless to say, he has seen to it that Upstairs does not fail this cutthroat judgment. Their bloody Mary is also a crowd favorite. And the secret, says their bartender, is the tomato juice. And just like the rest of Elbert’s menu offerings, his ingredients are the best there are around. The gin basil smash is disarmingly refreshing! It tastes like an afternoon garden picnic, and is an easy favorite. You might mistake it for a non-alcoholic beverage if you didn’t know better; it doesn’t taste like it, but it is potent. Elbert’s Upstairs Bar has cleverly figured out how to serve great food despite the absence of a full working kitchen. Like their cocktail menu, their food menu is a lean but heavy-hitting selection of high-quality cheeses and charcuterie. Those, and prime roast beef sliders, made with the same beef you can find at the Steakroom. Elbert—both the man and the brand— is not one to do shortcuts. His commitment to the use of high-quality ingredients, consistent delivery of excellence, and equally thoughtful customer experience is unrivaled in today’s restaurant landscape. His focus and distaste for fancy gimmicks ascertain that when you say his name, you know you’re getting the best, and only the best. That’s what makes it “swanky.”