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Collection Cuisine

Text and images by NATE C. BARRETTO

What’s there to love about a restaurant? Some say the food, others the place. If you enjoy both at the same time—you’ve found something special. It’s that place you reserve for family celebrations, impressing the fiance’s parents, the big business meeting, and if you’re one to self-indulge, perhaps, the payday.

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The trinkets at La Scala include a veritable collection of items from times past

La Scala Café in Malate fits that category (if there is one). Tucked in the mezzanine floor of a family-run hotel, the restaurant is owned by Crispin K. Go, a collector of pop culture items since the 1950s. For this reason, one could only guess what charms of old Manila are there to behold.

When Crispin finally decided to put up a restaurant in their building-of-a-dozen-enterprises in 2007, he filled it with his most favorite things. “The collections I kept over the last 60 years had flooded the third floor of my house. I had over 2,000 vinyl records, but I was the only one who enjoyed them. I wanted to share them with others and that’s how I thought of the concept of a restaurant, antiques, and music bar,” he says.

He named it La Scala, after their grocery store of the same name back in 1952 at the corner of Dakota and Tennessee (now M. Adriatico and Gen. Malvar Streets), which was a block away from the Assumption College and Convent on Herran in Ermita (now Robinsons Place Manila). Way before the mansions of New Manila and Forbes Park came to be, Malate was home to the “old rich” folks.

His tastes reflect the colonial mentality of Pinoys then, so much that his collections have Elvis enthroned as king of his treasure cove, followed by Cliff Richard, Coca-Cola freebies, DC and Marvel comics, vinyl records, and other symbols of work, leisure, and vices.

To grow up in this neighborhood allowed Crispin to develop fine tastes. He savors that thrill before entering a restaurant for the first time—that moment when your emotions are just slightly suspended as they’re drawn into the door in sweet anticipation: where to sit, what to order, the crowd, the music, the ambiance. All the senses become tactile that you mind the sound of your feet across the floor and take a welcoming smile of the staff like an embrace. Of course, that doesn’t happen all the time unless you’re dining at a hotel of celestial class, but that’s how he wanted his restaurant to be like.

“This is my home and when I welcome guests, I want them to feel excited to enter my house. I want them to be comfortable. I want them to enjoy the food and the music we had back in the day,” says Crispin.

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Some of the items at the La Scala collection

Through the years, a dozen businesses had occupied their building, but he takes pleasure most in the restaurant. Crispin may be born of Chinese immigrants, but his best friends swear he is very much Filipino at heart—generous, jolly, sociable, and enchanted as much by Hollywood as by Sampaguita Pictures and “Regal babies.” His tastes reflect the colonial mentality of Pinoys then, so much that his collections have Elvis enthroned as king of his treasure cove, followed by Cliff Richard, Coca-Cola freebies, DC and Marvel comics, vinyl records, and other symbols of work, leisure, and vices. Even foreign tourists who walk in say there’s no restaurant in the world quite like it.

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Elvis Presley figurine

For Crispin, all the best restaurants have a selling point—La Scala’s were his collections. Almost always for most pig-out spots, it is the food they serve that made them famous, a house specialty attached with the claims of being “the best,” “the original,” or “the authentic.” Crispin prefers not to make any such claims, but ensured that his slow-cook kitchen was worth the wait. Avid customers swear there’s no other restaurant in Manila that comes close to its best-selling paella, salpicao, and gambas.

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Fish and Chips from La Scala

“Parties used to be held at home and that’s what we ate in the ’50s and ’60s,” recalls Crispin as memories of family and friends race in his head. The food that they served then were full and hearty—a diet Filipinos inherited from the Spanish. Known food critic and the Manila Bulletin columnist Sol Vanzi had described La Scala Café’s menu as a mix of “homecooked favorites from several continents—Asia, Europe, Middle East, North, and South America.” Crispin put it simply as Filipino families’ all-time favorite food from foreign cuisines like fish and chips, grilled steaks, hamburgers, and shakes from the Americans, shrimp tempura from the Japanese, chopseuy and sweet and sour pork from the Chinese, pasta and pizza from the Italians, quesadilla and hot chicken wings from the Mexicans, and so on.

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Salpicao Gambas

“People these days want to enjoy eating, but want everything they eat to be healthy. I believe God made our bodies so perfect that our craving actually tells us what food our bodies need,” says Crispin, who happens to be in great shape at the age of 72. That explains why the menu has an answer to every craving. He offered this assurance to all La Scala customers: “We only serve food that I would personally put in my own mouth.”

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It isn’t that big a restaurant either, but it is the type that lets you chill. Former US ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas, who spent hours per vist, referred to La Scala Café as his favorite restaurant in Manila, always complimenting the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s music and vibe. He once said, “Coming here is like traveling back in time” through music.

Like the ambassador, many customers who get a taste of this homey restaurant’s culinary treats for the first time, swear on their special experience and come back in bigger crowds. And speaking of his reference to time-traveling, young ones do find their visit at La Scala to be a magical discovery of something old. While the “young once” are gifted with a place frozen in time to reminisce the good old days.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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