Review: Grand Cafe 1919, the restaurant that resurrected an abandoned colonial-era building in Manila’s Chinatown

Photo: Angelica Reyes.
Photo: Angelica Reyes.

Walking around Manila, you don’t get a sense of the city’s rich and layered history from the street level. Destruction from World War II and the severe lack of preservation initiatives has gutted the Philippines’ capital of the historic structures built during centuries under Spanish and American rule.

This is probably why many rejoiced when photos of the now-renovated former HSBC building in Manila’s Chinatown, Binondo went viral on social media late last month.

Located in Binondo’s Juan Luna St., the Neoclassical structure erected in 1922 now houses, in its lobby, the Grand Cafe 1919.

“It became sort of like a museum of old photos of Manila’s past,” Roselle Barlan, the cafe’s manager told Coconuts Manila in Filipino, during a visit one recent Sunday afternoon.

Entering Grand Cafe 1919 is a nostalgia trip: The building’s original facade and columns were kept intact, and photos of old Manila hang on the restaurant’s walls.

Photo: Angelica Reyes.
Photo: Angelica Reyes

The cafe’s overall feel, however, is more modern than it is classic.

Brown wood panels cover its walls and its high ceiling is decked in minimalist light fixtures ubiquitous in hipster cafes the world over.

The seats are upholstered in bright, Skittle-colored fabrics, and built-in shelves on the walls are filled with wine bottles and various coffee-making equipment.

Photo: Angelica Reyes
Photo: Angelica Reyes

Barlan said she’s been in the industry for 8 years and has experience running Chinese and Thai restaurants. You can see reflections of this mixed background throughout Grand Cafe 1919’s menu and visual identity.

The restaurant’s top floor, for example, has several private function rooms similar to Chinese tea houses in the area. Apart from having Chinese translations of its offerings, the restaurant’s menu also includes pre-set meals that are common in Chinese lauriats (meal for special occasions).

Inside a function room. (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Inside a function room. Photo: Angelica Reyes

It’s only been about a month since Grand Cafe 1919 started its soft opening, but Barlan said that they have been welcoming hundreds of customers every day.

“We really have a full house every day,” she said. This was true the day we were there when the place was filled with families having Sunday lunch.

Barlan said that they were actually forced to open earlier than expected after the restaurant went viral on the Internet. “There were suddenly so many people … I can’t turn them away, so here we are,” she said.

During our visit, we were able to see signs of this hurried launch — most of the staff seemed like they were all still learning the ropes. Our server, for example, seemed confused when we asked him what menu items he would recommend.

There’s not much information yet about the restaurant online, so we ended up ordering several dishes from the menu. Right off the bat, we can tell you this: The desserts are the best things coming out of this kitchen.

Fashion cake (left) and Oreo Cheesecake (right). (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Fashion cake (L) and Oreo Cake (R). Photo: Angelica Reyes

We ordered the Fashion Cake (PHP150/US$2.83) and the Oreo Cake (PHP150/US$2.83), which were both very good.

The Fashion Cake had custard sandwiched between three layers of chiffon and topped with slices of strawberry, kiwi, and dragon fruit. It was light and creamy but the slight acidity from the fruits made it refreshing, too.

The Oreo Cake was a standard cheesecake done well. It had a thick consistency and was topped with just the right amount of cream and crushed chocolate biscuits. The slice was also pretty substantial and was good for two people.

We paired the cakes with coffees, which were also solid.

Caramel Macchiato (left) and Iced Latte (right). (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Caramel Macchiato (L) and Iced Latte (R). Photo: Angelica Reyes

The Caramel Macchiato (PHP180/US$3.39) was frothy and not too sweet, unlike those found in other cafes that often go overboard with the caramel drizzles. The Iced Cafe Latte (PHP180/US$3.39) might be a little acidic for some, but we found the mix of coffee and milk to be well balanced — not too bitter, but not too rich, either.

Where Grand Cafe 1919, in its current iteration, falls flat: The mains.

The presentation of the Thai Beef Salad (PHP230/US$4.33) was underwhelming, and we often wondered where the promised beef bits were. The dressing was good — salty, sweet, and citrusy — but the vegetables looked and tasted dull.

We liked our other appetizer option, the Vegetable Dumpling (PHP120/US$2.26), a lot more. The dumpling wrapper was thick, giving it a satisfying mouthfeel. The filling made up of mushrooms and garlic was very savory and would appeal to non-vegetarians too.

Tip: Grand Cafe 1919 has an entire section on its menu dedicated to vegetarian dishes. This is virtually unheard of in most restaurants in the Philippines, so props to them for that.

Vegetable Dumpling (front) and Thai Beef Salad (back). (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Vegetable Dumpling (L) and Thai Beef Salad (R). Photo: Angelica Reyes

The Pasta Negra (PHP430/US$8.10) tasted so-so, and its serving size was too small to make for a proper meal. It only had two pieces of shrimp and a few pieces of clams and squid. The sauce made of squid ink was not as rich as it should have been, and lacked seasoning.

Pasta Negra. (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Pasta Negra. Photo: Angelica Reyes

The Baked Rice Caldereta (PHP490/US$9.23) was underwhelming, too. Caldereta is a Filipino beef stew made with vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and olives.

Grand Cafe 1919’s version was baked in a dish topped with melted cheese. The cheese certainly made it more decadent, but the sauce itself was bland; there was not much meat in it, either.

It actually tasted more like callos, another Filipino dish with Spanish origins that also makes use of tomatoes.

Baked Rice Caldereta. (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Baked Rice Caldereta. Photo: Angelica Reyes

The Four Kinds of Cheese Pizza (PHP520/US$9.79), however, was pretty great. It was small, pricey, and not at all authentic — whatever that means — but, was satisfying to eat.

It’s made with cheddar, mozzarella, and parmesan, but what makes it feel decadent are the cubes of cream cheese scattered on top. The crust was soft and had a slight char, too.

Four Kinds of Cheese Pizza. (Photo: Angelica Reyes)
Four Kinds of Cheese Pizza. Photo: Angelica Reyes

We found that most of the food offered in the restaurant were unnecessarily “upscaled,” which was not the case with the pizza. It was good because it was straight to the point, and wasn’t trying too hard to be fancy.

Food aside, what the cafe really has going for it is its location. The building, which is still surrounded by abandoned buildings and informal settlers, was in danger of being demolished up until recently, so the fact that it still stands today is a novelty in itself.

Ultimately, we don’t think it’s worth braving Manila’s weekday traffic congestion for, but Grand Cafe 1919 deserves a visit if only to bolster support for preserving the city’s historic sites.

The cafe’s dessert and beverage menu is a great alternative to chains like Starbucks, for those who happen to be in the area, and is especially nice for tourists looking for a respite after a long day of sight-seeing.

Grand Cafe 1919’s grand opening is set for December. 

Grand Cafe 1919 is at Juan Luna St., Binondo, Manila. Sun – Sat 11am –  11pm

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