Like his famous Quezon City restaurant, Jose Mari Relucio was never one for drama and making a fuss. That is why when it felt time to close Uno, the well-loved dining spot he opened at Sct. Fuentebella 25 years ago, he put up a notice on Facebook in the simplest way possible: an elegant drawing of the restaurant facade beside a message that said it’s closing at the end of business day December 24. “It truly was our pleasure and privilege serving you all these years,” said the note.
Through those two decades and a half, never did the establishment call attention to itself, arriving at the scene sans fanfare in 1995 and letting its loyal customers sustain the business and voluntarily spread the word. Even its name is spare and straightforward, and yet says everything that needs to be said: food as top priority, the restaurant top of mind. It used to be Quezon City’s best kept secret—held close by writers who liked to work alone in its almost monastic environment, and men who like to make pa-impress to their dates. Bosses and creatives from the nearby warring TV networks would become patrons over the years. Who knew you could get so much mileage out of bare walls, clean white linens, and writing the day’s menu on a chalk board?
According to this story from the Mabuhay website, Uno founder and chef Jose Mari studied at the California Culinary Academy before returning to Manila in 1989. In the Quezon City restaurant, he made the breads himself, a selection that includes baguettes, focaccia and ciabatta, among others. His menu changed a lot, his dishes were made from fresh, honest ingredients, and the bread’s arrival on one’s table as excitedly anticipated as one’s chosen entrée.
There was something truly comforting about the place. It was the opposite of so many garish, loud spots in the area. “There’s no music, there's no wifi, they don't accept credit cards (to repel the boorish Makati crowd, I presume) and my favorite corner is still often vacant,” said the essayist and fictionist Sarge Lacuesta in 2008, talking about the restaurant as one of the best places to do one's writing. “And they still serve the most underrated food in the city: well-thought out daily specials, a fantastic menu that changes (too) often, the best cheesecake in QC—and they serve Cerveza Negra.”
The news of its closing came as a surprise although it was not entirely unexpected. A few of our favorite establishments have already closed this year, months before Uno. The times doesn’t exactly make for the most encouraging business climate.
Jose Mari says it was a difficult decision shutting down. People’s jobs depended on the restaurant, for one. But he maintains that he decided to close Uno not entirely due to the pandemic.
“Sometimes there are events in life that bring you to a point where you just need to make a decision,” he tells ANCX. “Not because of the pandemic, but because the event of the pandemic called for a need to change and to rethink a path forward and a lot of thought needed to be given not just for me but for my business and the relationship I have with my staff. A pandemic is life-altering and I feel that we cannot simply move forward as if nothing happened or that it is one of the usual things that happens in life.”
Before the lockdown in March, the Quezon City area was already building itself up as the new dining destination, with exciting restaurants opening like Hapag, Prologue, Myke “Tatung” Sarthou’s Talisay, and many more. It would have been nice to see Uno in good company, and the neighborhood get the same stature as Poblacion or BGC. But just as people caught up on what Uno started, the world turned upside down.
Jose Mari has nothing but gratitude, however. “Ever since, it had always been the return of customers that had always given us a clear purpose for our business,” he says when asked what had been the greatest compliment of the last 25 years. “For strangers to accept what I decided to share as far as my competencies are and for the customers to repeatedly give us the privilege of serving them and making us part of their family events.”
He says he will miss his routine the most, and the little nuances of running the place. As for us, we will miss the bread, the Christmas pâté, the way sunlight falls on our immaculate tables on an early lunch, and the comfort of knowing our favorite restaurant is just a short ride away. And the parties and the special occasion dinners we will miss too and, well, let’s better end it here. Drama is not very Uno.
[Photographs courtesy of Mabuhay. Photos by RG Medestomas]