For more than 36 years, Café Ysabel—the 1912 ancestral house-cum-Filipino restaurant on the corner of P. Guevarra and Wilson streets in San Juan City—has been a popular destination among diners, not only for its distinctive menu but as a charming escape within the bustling metro.
Named after her aunt Ysabel, the bistro—which began as an 11-table restaurant on Wilson before eventually taking on the Caribbean-style ancestral house—is a labor of love by its founding chef Gene Gonzalez, who paid close attention to every dish and every piece of antique décor served and presented in his domain.
So popular did Café Ysabel become that it remained a top choice for young ones going on first dates for almost four decades, as well as wedding proposals for its regulars.
As such, it was not surprising when Gonzalez’s loyal clientele were crushed by the news that Café Ysabel as they know it, will close its doors come July 31.
“One lady actually came to the restaurant and hugged a pillar when she found out. Apparently, this is where she and her husband dated, where they held their wedding reception, and where they had their firstborn’s baptism party,” Gonzalez as he hosted Café Ysabel’s final event, San Miguel Purefood Corporation’s “Pagliyab” on July. The event served as a culinary showcase featuring traditional Filipino dishes and cooking styles.
It was in December 2016 when Gonzalez confirmed Café Ysabel would merely bid farewell to its beloved location, to reopen nearby at San Juan’s M. Paterno St. Apparently, his lease had finally expired and the property’s owners no longer renewed it, revealing they had a buyer for the house.
“They told me, ‘We’are selling the house, but you still have a first crack at it,’ I had the figures computed by the bankers to see how feasible it would be even if I already knew the rising prices of real estate here in San Juan. It was an option for us to buy the property yes, but it’s kind of impossible for us to pay the bank P800,000 a month—it’s just too much. By the end of the day, I’ll have nothing left,” Gonzalez carefully explained to The Manila Times at the sidelines of Pagliyab.
He related that the space was going to turn into a community mall once the sale is made.
Ready for closure
Gonzalez further confessed he almost decided to simply end the café’s run rather than reopen at another location. After all, he could easily move his school, the Center for Asian Culinary Studies, somewhere else, and concentrate on running it, while doing consultancy work for other restaurants.
“But then I saw all these people who writing and reminiscing about Café Ysabel, my employees and my kids who said, ‘You’re gonna die in two years,’ meaning I’d be bored stiff without it, which I eventually admitted is quite true,” he chuckled.
He then realized, “This is my life—more than half my life is Café Ysabel. It’s a part of me.”
After coming to terms with his feelings, Gonzalez then had to deal with the problem of looking for the right place to reopen.
“It’s a hard to recreate a restaurant like Café Ysabel because you really need an old house to get its feel. We almost wanted to build an old-looking house from scratch when we couldn’t find a property but knew deep down it wouldn’t work,” the chef detailed.
Perseverance paid off, however, when Undersecretary Bobby Lim offered his family’s 1919 ancestral house in M. Paterno to become the new home of Café Ysabel.
New house, same old vibe
While there were offers from Gonzalez’s patrons to buy bits and pieces of Café Ysabel—especially its antique tables—the chef divulged that he will methodically tear down the original, including its floors and panels, and reconstruct it at the new site. Of course, everything else inside will come along with him, including the antique 18th century lamps for his ancestral house in Pampanga.
“The likes of Jose Rizal and Arthur and Douglas McArthur saw these very lamps installed at that house,” he proudly shared.
The grand chandeliers made by the now defunct Arte Espanol and the landmark white fountain at the property’s entrance sculpted by Ducusin of Arte Italiana, will also go with Café Ysabel to its new location. And if everything goes according to plan, the restaurant’s reincarnation will take place in December this year.
Not the sentimental type, Gonzalez is therefore pouring all his attention to the reconstruction rather than leaving Wilson St. As a result, he refused to mount a farewell party as his regulars requested, instead choosing his final event to be San Miguel Purefoods’ Pagliyab, what with the company supporting him since the 1980s.
“After all, we’re not saying goodbye, it’s just see you soon,” Gonzales ended.