In keeping with this article’s theme of recalling the past, maybe it would have indeed been better to visit Old Swiss Inn in Paco, Manila. After all, the Paco branch is the original, having opened more than 70 years ago in 1946.
Katrina Limcaoco Alcuaz, owner and manager, must have thought so, and was on her way there to meet me when she was informed of the mix up that made her turn around to go back to the Makati branch. Because convenience is a venue decider today for commuters like myself, Makati turned out to be the better option over Manila.
Makati Old Swiss Inn has the touches of its Paco counterpart restaurant. The stained glass once adorning windows are now part of the divider and wall decor. They are by Kraut Art Glass whose works are in many old buildings and churches. The themes of the glass art are Swiss sceneries of hills and trees and houses that sometimes make one want to yodel. The wooden chair design is called Heidi, a name that might not touch a chord with youngsters, but the older set will recall the young Swiss girl with the same name in books and in a movie starring Shirley Temple.
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For many of my generation, the Paco Old Swiss Inn was a serious date place. It felt very European with its long bar and pressed tablecloths, was more expensive because very good imported steaks were served, and it was dark. Kat's parents had their dates there, chaperoned properly, she recalled. Those of us who weren’t chaperoned were reminded not to drink too much and to never accept an invitation to go up the Swiss Inn Hotel which it operated at the time.
The steaks were what I remembered of that time, char-grilled till black beef tenderloin on the outside and pink inside, which is why it had a nickname, “black and pink.” This steak dish is still being ordered today, exclaimed Kat. Even if, she added, that the better and more flavorful beef cuts are available and as tender, as they can cook steak better, and not charred.
But one has to understand that food memories not only recall the taste, smell, and look but also include who you ate with, what the mood was, and the occasion. And so, it will not matter if the order is old fashioned, because every bite brings back those much younger, perhaps happier times.
With my own family, eating at the Makati Old Swiss Inn, had undertones of educating the younger generation about Swiss food. Dinner was always the chosen time because we still had, as that poem goes, “miles to go before [we] sleep.” The young boys (then) were surprised that the Makati restaurant is open 24 hours, but then they agreed that in the wee hours of the morning or in the late hours of night, at least good food could be had.
First lesson: the Corned Beef is not the shredded kind you get in a can. It is cured, boiled, and sliced, served with potatoes and cabbage, wiped with mustard and horseradish.
Second lesson: the Gnagi is not crispy pata though it looks like it. These are pork knuckles that are cured and then either boiled or baked. What looks like pickled shredded cabbage is sauerkraut.
Third lesson: the Fondue Bourguignonne will have you cook chunks of beef in a pot with hot oil on the table.
There was no need for lessons on sausages and raclette as my family's New Year's Eve parties always had those cooked on a raclette grill.
What I couldn't tell them was the history of Old Swiss Inn. That was provided by Kat in interviews. A Swiss chef, Emil Landert, on a visit to the Philippines decided to stay. He opened a restaurant on Roxas (then Dewey) Boulevard in 1946. He acquired a Paco property and in the 1970s, he built a branch and added an inn. The first restaurant was closed down after. The Paco branch had a devastating fire in the 1980s and Landert couldn’t sustain his restaurant and inn. In 1990, Kat's father, Felix Limcauco, acquired Swiss Inn. In 1994, the Makati branch opened and Kat said she quit her bank job when she was asked to oversee it. An Ayala Alabang branch opened in 2006 but has since closed.
Through the years, 73rd anniversary in Paco and 25th in Makati this 2019, there were several Swiss chefs who introduced new items on the menu. One of them was Martin Birrer who brought in T-bone steaks and the fondues, beef and cheese. Ulrich Williman introduced the chocolate fondue, made of Toblerone chocolate.
It should be noted that Landert, the founder, opened Swiback, a pastry shop, also in the 1970’s and was known for its Black Forest Cake. The name of the shop is a play on zwieback, a hard cookie made by baking loaf bread, much like the Filipino biscocho. The pastries at his restaurant today live up to the Swiback reputation—the Dulce de Leche and Salted Caramel Cake.
Don't let the name Old Swiss Inn fool you. Its menu standards still attract old and young, and it has also kept up with the times. For instance, there are wine pairings for the menu items, helped by Kat's fellow members from the Manila Ladies Branch of the International Wine and Food Society. That solves diners’ dilemma on what wine to choose with their food. With the craft beer trend, a beer menu was introduced, including imported specialty beers. Beer certainly goes well with the meat choices and it is impressive how imported beer orders are even served in specific beer goblets.
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The waitstaff in traditional Swiss folk costumes.
Swiss decorative touches like alpine cowbells and Heidi chairs.
Pepper Steak Swiss Inn.
The Paco branch of Old Swiss Inn today.
The bar at Old Swiss Inn Paco.
Old Swiss Inn employees circa 1967.
Asked what the preferences of today's generation are compared with the older generation, Kat said younger diners prefer cheese to meat. But it wasn't enough to rest on their cheese fondue laurels, and so a new cheese item was introduced called Scamorza. This Italian-style cheese is hung to dry and is as gooey as mozzarella and can substitute for it. The great news is that it’s made locally at the Limcaocos’ Pinkie’s Farm in Batangas, with milk from grass-fed cows, then smoked in apple wood. The Scamorza can be ordered as fondue, paired with corned beef in a sandwich, melted in a skillet with bacon and tomatoes, plain served with rye bread, or as pizzeta (thin pizzas) topping.
For Old Swiss Inn, keeping up with the times includes doing its own version of Corned Beef Sinigang, and even Caldereta. But it also means having a take-out option for some items like the Mechado, Callos, and sausages. From Pinkie's Farm, there is milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter.
The name Old Swiss Inn reassures those who still go to dine that their favorites are still served and can even be ordered out. But the younger generation who have tried the place know that the restaurant goes beyond the old standards to offer food and drink options more aligned with their current tastes.
G/F Somerset Olympia, Makati Avenue corner Sto. Tomas Street, Makati City, (02) 818-0098, open 24 hours
1030 Belen Street, Paco, Manila, (02) 521-3002, open Monday-Saturday, 10 am – 2 pm, 6 –10 pm
Photographs by Jar Concengco