Sala Restaurant has been at the Locsin Building in Makati for over a decade. What many may not realize is that it first opened in Malate, Manila in 1997.
Chef Patron Colin Mackay, a Scotsman, was working in Hong Kong and by 1992, he regularly vacationed in Manila, enjoying the laid-back vibe that was the complete opposite of frenetic Hong Kong. By February 1996, he was living at the art deco Michel Apartments in Malate. The next year, Sala opened on Julio Nakpil Street in Malate.
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When Mackay started visiting Manila, the area around Remedios Circle was gentrified. There was Café Adriatico right on the corner of M. Adriatico, an introduction to Larry J. Cruz’s version of the café lifestyle. A refurbished old home, furnished with Filipino antique furniture in dark wood, clay tiles, outdoor seating. On the opposite side of the circle was Penguin Café, attracting artists and bohemian pretenders, the smoke-filled room always buzzing, the open-air rooftop (the 2nd floor actually of a 2-storey building) teeming with Manila’s denizens. Designers of note had their ateliers cum residences off the circle. The area was the center of Manila’s night life and the gay culture capital.
Not finding a location for his restaurant-to-be, Mackay explored the fringes, discovering quiet Julio Nakpil. In that block bounded by Jorge Bocobo and M. Adriatico was Casa Armas, John Glenn Sunga’s bar Blue Café, Insomnia, and Café Iguana.
Mackay found his spot, gutted an old building, and with Architect Jim Tan, proceeded to create a clean, cool, and calm space. It had a glass window facing the street, a 45-seat restaurant that had banquette seating for 20 up front, and the rest of the tables on a step-up behind.
The menu was modern European, small and brave with only five starters and five main courses printed on a plain sheet. The Machuca tiled floor, soft lights, as well as elegant floral arrangements warmed the room. I remember the waiters were always attractive dark men, lean, and dressed in black, hand-picked by Mackay. Crystal, silver, and white dinnerware were spotless, white tablecloths were starched and pristine. Sala drew a discerning clientele who appreciated the attention to detail and the well-curated menu. It defined Julio Nakpil for the dining crowd and soon enough, other establishments followed.
In 2000, Mackay opened People’s Palace next door. The menu was small, the Thai dishes featured were everyday food but the flavors the restaurant was dishing out were all spot on. I had my weekly dose of green curry chicken and unlimited steaming hot Jasmine rice for many years at the Palace. In 2001, Mackay opened dance club Joy on Jorge Bocobo. Sadly, it didn’t have the same staying power as his restaurants.
Malate slowly succumbed to gritty by the middle of the millennium, unable to fight back urban blight. Makati was pitching to be the next center of lifestyle and by 2005, People’s Palace moved to the new Greenbelt 3. Sala held on to 610 Julio Nakpil for as long as it could but by 2007, an expiring lease put it at the crossroads. Mackay was offered the space once occupied by Luz Gallery at the podium level of Locsin Building. It was perfect. The relocated Sala opened in August 2007; three months later, Sala Bistro opened at Greenbelt 3, a door away from People’s Palace. Once again, Mackay’s restaurants were within arm’s length of each other.
People’s Palace was, and still is, a Thai restaurant on steroids. Always busy, packed with regulars who never tire of the food. Woe to those who do not have reservations. It can be a long wait or even worse, a "cannot accommodate." The food is as I remember it from its Malate days, consistently spot on. Sala Bistro next door, still Mackay's, on the other hand, is less frenzied. Busy but calm, it is the definition of smart casual. Its food is both Old World French classic and New World Australian modern, with a more eclectic selection ranging from mezze platters to share, to grilled steaks and sandwiches, served bistro style. A two and three-course brunch is popular on Saturdays and Sundays.
On Sala’s 20th year, it went through a major renovation, shutting its doors for a few weeks while Mackay transformed the restaurant from classic monochromes of grey, beige, mahogany, and white to alluring jewel box colors of violet and duck egg blue. The ceiling was replaced by a skylight and the indoor to outdoor feel heightened, lightening the look and atmosphere of the place.
The current menu remains modern European, featuring updated classics that never grow old. The food and the service reflect its identity of true fine dining. That has never changed, from Malate to Makati.
Mackay’s runaway success is Blackbird at The Nielsen Tower but it is Sala that is personal. It is what got him started. It is where he struggled and persevered, living workdays that never seemed to end. Sala Malate’s floral arrangements always made a statement and Mackay recalls hieing it off to Dimasalang immediately after the restaurant closes to buy flowers for the next day, returning in a few hours to prep for another day of service. Today it is no longer the flowers. It is herb and vegetable gardening in Mackay’s Tagaytay home, practicing the true virtue of farm to table. Bread and ice cream continue to be done in-house, making the effort even if no one else notices.
Colin Mackay has never been about trends but he is always current. His restaurants are the epitome of taste and style. His food and commitment to service keep him among the best in the business. And his nose, I must say, allows him to be lavish. Where else can you find Penhaligon in the powder room of a restaurant?
Sala, Podium Level, LV Locsin Building, 6752 Ayala Avenue, Makati City, (02) 750-1555
Sala Bistro, Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati City, (02) 729-4888
People’s Palace, Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati City, (02) 729 2888
Blackbird, 1229 Makati Avenue, Makati City, (02) 828-4888
2018 Sala photos by Jar Concengco for Metro Society Magazine
Other photos courtesy of Colin Mackay