There’s a “hidden” restaurant on the 14th floor of the Eugenio Lopez Jr. Communications Center inside ABS-CBN’s vast Quezon City compound. This secret dining space is not open to the public, only to ABS-CBN employees and their guests, and even its name, 9501, elicits much mystery. But by the end of this August, the restaurant (along with the rest of ABS-CBN’s F&B businesses) will be closing down for good, a casualty of the company’s drastic downsizing due to the denial of its broadcast franchise by Congress.
Former consultant Monchet Olives likens Restaurant 9501 to the country’s version of “the glamor of a Hollywood commissary” where ABS-CBN’s top brass would dine. “The stories that the restaurant can tell, the rise and fall of shows, the rise and fall of stars,” marvels Olives. “We went through an entire evolution. And I think that, in the stories passed on, there will be no restaurant like 9501.”
The corporate dining legacy
Restaurant 9501 wasn’t the first corporate dining facility among the Lopez family’s holdings. According to 9501’s first managing director, Myrna Segismundo, inspiration came from the Sign of the Anvil at PCIBank, which she happened to be running since 1984, before joining ABS-CBN. In turn, the inspiration for the Anvil came from the Lighthouse in Meralco, another Lopez-controlled company.
According to Segismundo, this vision of corporate dining really stemmed from Don Eñing Lopez, “to develop his executives in the fine arts of culture and dining and travel, because then, he felt as an employee moved up the ladder, his level of sophistication also had to move up.” She took this vision to heart, using her Hilton Manila training and experience to bring that refinement and quality standards to a corporate dining setting.
“It was called Project 9501 because it was the first project in 1995,” recalls Olives who was serving as chief of staff to then ABS-CBN Chairman Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III (now Chairman Emeritus). “Gabby really, really wanted to have a corporate dining room which was reflective of how we entertain our guests and how we want our executives and employees to be.”
To make that vision a reality, Segismundo brought along several Anvil staff members with her—Raul Ramos, Ruth Padilla, Chef Miguel Yadao, Lauro Maligat, Marlon Ramos, Richard Sosa, Mean dela Cruz, Chef Richard Arañas—to help her build the 9501 identity with the Sign of the Anvil as prime influence.
A fine dining showcase
The Restaurant 9501 space is huge, encompassing around 1,500 square meters, with a main dining area and several function rooms, including a wine room and originally a cigar room, that can collectively host close to 300 people. The kitchen is equally large, equipped with walk-in chillers, multiple cooking sections, and offices. With interiors done by Chat Fores, 9501 was stocked with “all the best” according to Olives, including starched white linens, Schott Zwiesel glassware, and Christofle flatware.
Olives will never forget the very first meal served at 9501 in 2001, with just Gabby Lopez and himself seated at table 001 in the corner. He still remembers what they ate—rack of lamb, potato purée reminiscent of Alain Ducasse, gazpacho, and the famous quezo de bola cheesecake—prepared by Chef Yadao. “Sitting there in the corner, window glass on both sides, overlooking Quezon City… It was a sunny day, you could see Manila Bay. I said, wow, this is ABS-CBN,” Olives shares.
Since that first meal, Gabby Lopez was a frequent diner at 9501, usually entertaining guests or meeting with company executives in the wine room. Segismundo remembers Lopez as a “flexible” diner who loved good wine, and enjoyed Japanese, Italian, French, especially Mediterranean fare, and occasionally Filipino.
Aside from hosting ABS-CBN executives, Segismundo also organized invitation-only gourmet dinners for Manila’s food and wine connoisseurs, like the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and the International Wine & Food Society. After all, she was well known in F&B circles, and a special dinner at 9501 was a much-coveted invitation for those in the know.
Filipino food first
Just like a hotel, the 9501 chefs could prepare any kind of cuisine, but Segismundo is most proud of the prominence of Filipino food at 9501. Many of its most famous dishes came from the Sign of the Anvil, including the bestselling Turon, Quezo de Bola Cheesecake, Potato Bread, and Adobo Paté. In fact, 9501’s bestsellers are almost all Filipino, including its Chicken and Pork adobo and Beef Tapa, “in the service of Filipino food,” she laughs.
Segismundo started “dissecting and deconstructing” traditional Filipino dishes with her chefs during her Anvil days, creating her iconic Lechon Roulade (using suckling pig not liempo, she specifies) in 1995, years before the lechon roll trend came about. “That’s the reason why I suppose I’ve created an identity for myself promoting Filipino food,” she surmises. That interest led Segismundo to participate in food festivals abroad, collaborate on the seminal Kulinarya cookbook, and speak about kinilaw at Madrid Fusión in Spain, among many notable endeavors.
Beyond the restaurant
While the Sign of the Anvil was the inspiration, Restaurant 9501 eventually evolved to become more in tune with the media and entertainment culture of ABS-CBN, a world away from the Anvil’s finance and banking milieu. “The sign of the times dictated that they open more to accommodate the other requirements of ABS-CBN which were not present during my Anvil days,” explains Segismundo. “All the big events used to be outsourced, but it was all in-house on our part because we had the capability to service the needs of all budgets, from high end to low end.”
It would usually fall to banquet manager Ruth Padilla to handle these special events. She admits, “I must say that I was the most well-known personnel of Restaurant 9501 because I handled reservations, F&B needs of in-house functions, press conferences, trade events, corporate Christmas parties, product launches, etc.” Serving as vice president before he retired in 2016, Raul Ramos recalls many memorable events catered by the 9501 crew: “The Christmas party, street party, then all the parties of the bigwigs, like the birthday of ELJ [Gabby Lopez], birthday of FMG [board director Freddie Garcia], birthday ng lahat ng mga sikat.”
Restaurant 9501 was also a useful content resource for news, TV shows, and even movies. Segismundo recalls, “I would occasionally get invited to guest on Tina Monzon Palma’s specials or the Channel 2 shows where they need to feature food, cooking demos, trivia. If anyone was shooting a film, they would consult us on culinary details.” She even had her own food and travel show, Fork in the Road on the Lifestyle Network (now Metro Channel). Segismundo also spearheaded the National Food Showdown, a nationwide culinary competition for HRM students and professionals. “That’s how in a way we blended in in the organization,” she adds.
A comforting haven
While these special affairs gave 9501 its prestige and visibility, perhaps what most ABS-CBN employees will miss are the comforting Filipino dishes, familiar faces, and relaxing vibe of the place. These day-to-day interactions with ABS-CBN employees may indeed be 9501’s most lasting legacy.
Serving as consultant from 2015 to 2019, Monchet Olives likened 9501 to the TV show Cheers where “everyone knew your name.” Regulars would come, sit at the same table, order the same dish, whether it was Salpicao Rice for one executive, Monggo with Chicharon for another. Just like a hotel, the restaurant offered room service, with meals that could be delivered anywhere in the building. Olives recounts, “You had the sales people who would come, they would get this long table, bring their baon, make it painit, then they would order pa food.” And that was perfectly acceptable. Olives explains, “We made happy food and that’s what 9501 became, a respite for a lot of people.”
The restaurant offered weekday lunch buffets at reasonable prices to encourage employees to enjoy a meal away from their desks, but without the hassle of leaving the building and braving the traffic outside. To cater to even more employees, Caffe Espresso had been set up on the 13th floor, which Olives calls “a sosyal turo turo,” where employees could quickly avail of menu favorites whether for takeout or dine-in.
A staff like no other
As 9501 evolved, it may be hard to reconcile its fine dining pedigree with its more casual appeal, but if there is one connecting factor, it has to be the level of its service, which diners can appreciate, whether they’re just catching a quick merienda or partaking of a five-course gourmet meal. Segismundo attests, “What we’ve always been told is that our service was so efficient that you didn’t even know the waiter was there… The way it was in the Anvil, was that we anticipated the needs of the guest so that the guest never had to call the attention of any waitstaff, and that was the training that we were quite strict about every time we conducted any training for service for the staff.”
Olives concurs as he remembers the “9501 ninjas” who quietly served during confidential meetings held at 9501. “We would be having these heated conversations in the wine room with Gabby and all of the others. You wouldn’t know, all of a sudden, your food’s there!” And the waitstaff became very familiar with the regulars, their preferences, how they wanted their food served, or the timpla of their coffee. And they remained loyal and discreet, no matter what was being discussed behind closed doors.
Many of the longtime staff moved up in the ranks. Raul Ramos was a manager in 2000, then became operations director, then vice president. Marlon Ramos started as a bartender and moved up to become head of purchasing. Currently OIC head of operations, Leah Bellin joined in 2002 as a secretary to the managing director. She shares, “[The bosses and chefs] nurtured us with their talents and gave us all the chances to learn from them, and they all helped in building up and improving our operations.”
With the closing down of 9501, staff members have expressed their gratitude for the productive years at 9501. Senior waiter Mike Mangonon who joined in 2006 shares, “Ang laki ng naitulong sa buhay ko ng ABS-CBN. Nabago po ang buhay ko, nabili ko yung mga bagay na hindi ko nabibili noon.”
Gerry Feniz, who joined in 1999 as a waiter then became a butler at the Executive Lounge, relates, “Nung year 2012, dumating sa buhay ko ang hindi magandang karamdaman sa puso hanggang sa na bypass ako. Hindi naman ako pinabayaan ng company. Buo ang suporta nila para sa akin, kaya bahagi na ng buhay ko ang 9501. Lalo na yung mga kasamahan ko sa trabaho. Sana kahit magkakahiwalay na kami, nandyan pa rin ang damayan ng isa’t isa.”
The last chapter
In 2019, Restaurant 9501 entered a new phase with the hiring of Chef Him Uy de Baron as head of ABS-CBN’s food and beverage program, encompassing TV Food Chefs (which 9501 is under) and The Chosen Bun (housing The Farm Organics and Heroes Burger). Already well known for his restaurants and consultancies, Uy de Baron was charged with developing new F&B concepts, including “preparing the 9501 kitchen for expansion to take in the load and build a proper commissary.” That “load” included new food concepts in the works for KidZania and The Loop (the food court on the ground floor). Uy de Baron says, “The whole program was to prepare for something bigger that ABS-CBN was building… Just this start of the year, we had earmarked so much activities for the F&B group, exciting projects and new things to test.” While circumstances have put a stop to these plans, Uy de Baron can’t help but remain positive. “I’m still hoping to see this vision come to pass.”
On July 17, Uy de Baron conducted a general meeting with his 120-plus staff members to inform them that operations would close down. As of this writing, Restaurant 9501 is winding down until August 16, and will close down completely by the end of August. As for the 9501 crew, some are retiring, some are embarking on their own food businesses, while others are still unsure of the road ahead.
Photos courtesy of Leah Bellin