Feature

Poblacion Reinvention

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Barangay Poblacion, the red light district of the Makati CBD, has been reborn as the city’s most interesting neighborhood.

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Fruhlein Econar
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Poblacion—also called the Burgos Area, “Williamsburgos,” or Backwell, depending on who you ask—has been home to Makati’s red light district for quite some time. Girlie bars, pimps, and prostitutes have ruled this scruffy bit of the city for many years. And they still do today… though they do have some new neighbors.

Poblacion didn’t start out in such an insalubrious way. I remember there was a German Café called Bunchum’s there in the 1980s, right in the middle of Burgos Street; a wholesome kind of place you went to for afternoon dates. There were also other “normal” restaurants, like Korean Garden, Dean St. Café, and the Danish Connection. Sure, there was a sprinkling of girlie bars even then, but they were mostly set up on the quieter side streets, away from the limelight.

But in the early 1990s, then-mayor Alfredo Lim went on a moral crusade in the neighboring city of Manila; starting a crackdown on prostitution and shutting down all bars in his city that catered to the trade. Needing another home, the Manila go-go bars soon started to creep into Makati via Burgos street, turning the street’s atmosphere from squeaky clean to something a bit… um, less virtuous. As a result, many of the “decent” places moved out.

Sports bars then started to open in the area around the late ’90s: The Holy Trinity—or 3H’s as they’re sometimes referred to—of Heckle & Jeckle (now H&J), Handlebar, and Howzat became an option for Makati’s resident expats looking for beer, live music, and sports (and who didn’t mind the proximity to girlie bars). The sports bar advantage was immediately obvious: one could now go to Burgos legitimately, and not have a suspicious spouse wonder why they were seen lurking around the area in the middle of the night. (“But dear, I was just havin’ a few beers with me mates an’ watchin’ the footy!”)

And then, as though in a parallel dimension, Poblacion began to develop a split personality: becoming known as Little Korea Town. A number of Korean restaurants, karaoke bars, groceries, and “spas” gradually opened and made their presence felt, and catering to the sizable Korean population that had moved into the neighborhood when no one was looking. The Korean community are currently situated in a large chunk of the area, fairly close to Burgos Street. To their credit, they’ve undoubtedly added an interesting cultural dimension to an already intriguing Poblacion demographic.

So, old-time residents, prostitutes, pimps, sports bars, and Koreans. I like it.

Go-go bars soon started to creep into Makati via Burgos street, turning the street’s atmosphere from squeaky clean to something a bit… less virtuous.

The real gentrification of Poblacion, however, would take place around 2013. That year, my brother Dixie transformed the Mexicali commissary into a street taco joint and cheap beer bar, naming it El Chupacabra. Some plastic tables and chairs, funky bright murals, cool Latino music, roadside tacos, the aforementioned cheap cervezas, a slick of red paint for the tired walls, and that was it. For some reason, though, this little street eatery struck a chord.

Maybe it was the lack of pretense, or possibly the food, but people started to come by in droves. Magazines, food bloggers, tv shows, and newspapers all started to feature this ramshackle little hole-in-the-wall situated in the middle of nowhere. El Chupacabra started appearing in Top 10 lists, side by side with posh restaurants like Blackbird and Wildflour. We were the talk of the town in the food-and-nightlife world, and people waited for tables for up to two hours standing across the street (they still do!). We were stunned.



I guess this seemed to be a new kind of nightlife: a laid-back, come-in-flip-flops nightlife that was common in cities like Bangkok but atypical for posh and polished Makati. Personally, it was what I was looking for. Was it the gritty charm? Whatever it was, it had soul. A few months after El Chupacabra opened its doors on what was formerly a dark and ominous Felipe street, the old sports bar Heckle & Jeckle closed their Polaris Street location and moved right across. A scene was born.

One evening a while back, my English friend took me to a Turkish joint on Burgos Street called Argos. The food was okay, but it was the ambience I found interesting: another place that had open-air seating, yet it was cozy, and we could people-watch. Granted, most of the people we were watching were “sexpats”—White men and their young things—and it made for some interesting, if a bit voyeuristic, viewing. There was drama, and there was dirt. It was real.



My friend then told me about this new-ish place around the corner, a French bar called Le Café Curieux. I was intrigued. We walked over, and soft French music was playing in—once again—a cozy, open-air place. It had a French bartender who had that unkempt but charming vibe about him, a Belgian chef very much like the young man in the film Ratatouille, and a simple, tasteful bar area with that friendly European side street bar feel.

I thought there might be some catch—girls in the back room, maybe?—but the menu seemed legit; not overpriced French food, but simple, well-prepared bistro fare (and affordable wine!). Plus they had a nice garden in the back with lots of greenery. No filles de joie walking around. There was no catch! I loved it. This was too much for me; from nowhere-interesting-to-go-on-a-Friday-night to this?

A combination of seedy irreverence and global cool... It’s real. It’s organic. It’s local. It has soul.

After a lovely night out, we then walked back to El Chupacabra for a nightcap and passed The Clipper Hotel along the way. It was another appealing addition to the area, and unlike anything within miles around. The Clipper looked like something from the golden age of travel: with its unique art deco architecture, a streamlined retro logo, and a Pan Am bar. I decided for myself, this was my kind of town. Finally.


I started taking friends on walking tours around the area, usually during drunken evenings at El Chupacabra. They’d be reluctant to cross to “the other side”—the dreaded Burgos Street, which was for them a no man’s land filled with dodgy characters and dubious deals in the night. Are you serious? We’re going to walk to Burgos? But as they trudged along rather anxiously, it turned out to be an eye-opener for many. One could finally walk through Burgos without shame or fear, and discover quaint places around it.

I posted my thoughts on Facebook, and said I would take Burgos Street to Burgos Circle at the Fort any day. My comment got a lot of likes but also quite few negative reactions; one from my friend who lived in and ran a business at The Fort. I apologized and told him not to worry; my little post wouldn’t put a dent in his sales.

Filipinos are looking for something deeper, for something to connect to, for a place that tells us who we are as a people.

I also said this: “Enjoy this now. It is the Golden Age of Burgos and will probably last around five years.” In a few years, I fear it will get overdeveloped, as these things usually do. The big guys will come in, people will sell their houses, and rampant commercialization will commence. We always sort of screw it up, don’t we? I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t go that way.

Taking El Chupacabra’s lead, more cool open-air bars on Felipe Street opened the following year, like Tambai, a cheap beer and kebabs place; and Red Light, another bar. Many said it felt like the new Malate. This is actually true—I know because I am from Malate myself, and the reason Poblacion works is because, like Malate, it is part of a neighborhood, and it has a red light district. A combination of seedy irreverence and global cool. It isn’t a manufactured, manicured development done up by a giant conglomerate. It’s real. It’s organic. It’s local. It has soul.


The other thing Poblacion has going for it, according to a young Spanish guy I heard from, is that you can actually walk around the neighborhood: No jeepneys, lots of trees and—get this—sidewalks. Sidewalks in Metro Manila that haven’t been cluttered up by street vendors? Who knew? It’s been said the success of a city is not how many cars it has, but how many sidewalks there are for its people.

Finally, what we also love about it is: it’s not a mall. Poblacion, like other similarly-growing hip neighborhoods within the metropolis, is an indication that there are local people who’ve grown weary of the malls with formulaic concepts and gleaming yet ultimately artificial environments. People just want to get down. Who knew Filipinos would go to places without air conditioning!

Okay, there are still some friends who say, “I heard so much about your place and I’d love to go, but there’s no AC.” But for many, especially young people, the open-air bars and cafés are tolerable, if not downright fun.

This year, even more new places have opened, which are giving Poblacion more flavor. The groovy Z Hostel roofdeck bar has a DJ on weekends, and is a fun mix of young locals and foreign backpackers. It’s a state-of-the-art hostel, following modern European design for the more affluent backpacker. That is a new scene right there. And weekends are big.

A few steps away, next to Howzat, is a two-story standalone Mediterranean restaurant called Fig, skewing even more toward the high end. It’s got a roofdeck, too. We’re apparently realizing that we love roofdecks—to sit outside and relax with a drink looking at the sky in the middle of Makati. You don’t often get to do that.


Señor Pollo, El Chupacabra’s sister company, opened a street away. A similar vibe, but this time with Latin-flavored rotisserie chicken—just as popular as its sister. More recently, what some have called El Chupacabra’s Asian counterpart, Crying Tiger, opened on Guanzon Street on the other side of Kalayaan Avenue. Its interiors (no AC, of course) remind you of a street joint in Bangkok, and so will its fiery food. It has pretty much the same clientele as El Chupacabra and Señor Pollo (expats, both young and old; backpackers; office workers; local neighbors; girls on a night out; and families, too). Not far away is Beni’s Falafel across Makati Avenue, now so wildly popular that Beni had to open another space across the street. It’s a great place for a meal after a night of drinking, and people often eat standing up in this Jewish-run hole in the wall.

I’m so glad there are so many food choices now—authentic falafels, Asian street food, Mexican street tacos, Turkish kebabs, authentic Korean dishes, Spanish food (the old guard of La Tienda and Alba are still in business), Mediterranean fine dining, Latin roadside chicken—it’s all too exciting.

Poblacion is also home to well-known fashion designer Rajo Laurel’s House of Laurel; the cool art gallery/photo studio-cum-events place Pineapple Lab; therapist/biodynamic agriculture enthusiast and ISIP founder Reimon Gutierrez; jeweller Bianca Santos-Tambunting; and Calima, the creative, colorful Colombian jewelry shop owned by Claudia Hernandez-Mabanta.

Not far from Fig is the area’s newest darling: La Casita Mercedes, a rundown old house transformed into a beautiful bed and breakfast, restoring the Filipino architecture and details. It’s the newest work of Juan Ramos, owner of The Clipper Hotel, who put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this venerable house to make it what it is today.

Juan is a rare character, who clearly created both The Clipper and La Casita because of his passion for heritage. Seeing it for the first time made me think of an old Filipino house magically transplanted to New Orleans. No high, barbed-wired concrete walls to protect it; just a lovely, cozy, welcoming house. It almost feels like an apparition—a magnificent white structure which makes one say, “I wish all of Manila was like this.” A phantom of our past majestically preserved for all of us to see (and sleep in).

There is a new-found energy in this part of town, and the enthusiasm is infectious.

I had a meeting with Juan at La Casita one afternoon, and he showed me the new B&B. Right before I left, I asked if I could take photos and he said sure. I ran up, took a few snaps and “filed my story” on Facebook that afternoon. I knew people would like it, but I didn’t know to what extent. Almost instantaneously, it received over 1,200 likes and was shared by 448 people. It’s a clear sign that, again, Filipinos are looking for something deeper, for something to connect to, for a place that tells us who we are as a people. They are attracted to our graceful heritage, and not just to a modern style. Many said it reminded them of their childhood and hailed Juan as a hero.

There is a new-found energy in this part of town, and the enthusiasm is infectious. There are even plans to pedestrianize some streets (thanks to urban planner Julia Nebrija!).

By the way, that guy I earlier wrote about who lived in and ran a business at The Fort, who berated me for writing that I preferred Burgos Street to Burgos Circle? He now lives on Burgos Street.

--

This story was originally published in GRID Issue 10.

This story was originally published in

Issue 10 | People Who are Changing the Way We Travel

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