How The Aristocrat restaurant started

By Karen Flores,

Posted at Nov 22 2012 03:31 PM | Updated as of Nov 23 2012 01:38 AM

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A facade of the old The Aristocrat restaurant. Photo: Handout

MANILA, Philippines – Even some of the members of the Reyes clan were surprised when the reason behind their restaurant’s name, The Aristocrat, was mentioned during the 100th wedding anniversary celebration of its founders, Justice Alexander “Alex” Reyes and Engracia “Asiang” Cruz Reyes.

The Aristocrat, now on its 76th year, recently got a facelift and was relaunched in an event-cum-family reunion held Wednesday night at the flagship restaurant along Roxas Boulevard.

A highlight of the event, which was attended by prominent personalities, loyal customers and members of the media, was a lengthy audio-visual presentation of the love story between the late Alex and Asiang Reyes, which resulted in the birth of The Aristocrat, now dubbed as the Philippines’ “most popular” restaurant.

While The Aristocrat is now marketed as a humble restaurant that serves “food fit for royalty,” many do not know the real story behind its name.

According to the AVP, it all started when Asiang decided to put up a mobile canteen in Luneta in the 1930s, back when it was a popular place for picnics and family outings on Sundays.

The suitor of her eldest daughter Teresita (more popularly known as Mama Sita for her contributions to the local food industry) volunteered his old car to be converted into Asiang’s second food venture. (The first one was a small eatery at the ground floor of their home, which was named Lapu-Lapu, after the Philippines’ first hero).

The mobile restaurant served sandwiches filled with adobo, fish fillet and her other Filipino specialties, competing with the many hotdog trucks in Luneta. She wanted to name it Andy’s, after her eldest son.

But Andy, who was then studying in an elite school, was not keen on the idea. Asiang read his mind and scolded him: “Bakit, nahihiya ka ba sa mga aristokrata mong kaklase sa Ateneo?”

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A sketch of The Aristocrat mobile canteen. Photo: Handout

Since then, the mobile canteen was named The Aristocrat and became a hit, even among Andy’s elite classmates. Several Reyeses, particularly the younger ones, were visibly surprised, cheering and clapping upon hearing the narrator’s delivery of Asiang’s lines.

The rest of them knew what happened next: a full service restaurant was put up along Roxas Boulevard, where it still stands today.

Birth of the chicken barbecue

After the flagship restaurant reached the height of success, another The Aristocrat branch was opened in Cubao. Asiang’s food was also served in their apartment hotel in Ermita, and a beach resort in Las Piñas.

The beach resort, however, posed some problems for Asiang, as customers tend to bring their own food instead of ordering their dishes. Addressing this, she decided to serve meals barbecue-style, which reduced the use of utensils.

Thus The Aristocrat’s Chicken Barbecue, now considered the restaurant’s signature dish, was introduced. Served with a "secret sauce" and java rice, the dish was an instant hit among customers.

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An old photo of Alex and Asiang Reyes. Photo: Handout

Before this, Asiang’s specialties included mainly merienda fare such as dinuguan at puto, pancit luglog, lumpiang ubod, arroz caldo and turon.

Because of her food and restaurant innovations (from popularizing banana chips and turon to introducing the idea of having ice sculptures in buffet setups), Asiang has been widely recognized as the "Mother of Filipino Cooking," with a street in Ermita named after her.

New look

From a small mobile canteen, The Aristocrat now has nine branches, with six of them in Robinsons and SM malls in Manila. Aside from the flagship restaurant at Roxas Boulevard, there are also outlets in Subic Bay and San Pablo, Laguna.

In time for the flagship restaurant’s 76th year of operation and the centennial celebration of Alex and Asiang’s wedding anniversary, The Aristocrat unveiled a new look and feel with the help of former Philippine Institute of Interior Designers president Jiro Estaniel.

“As we culminated The Aristocrat’s diamond year, the fourth generation of Reyeses got together and agreed that the restaurant needed to undergo some relevant changes in order for it to continue its position as a renowned icon,” said company president Priscila Reyes Pacheco.

Estaniel, for his part, said: “I was proud to be chosen to redesign an icon. More than the project at hand, I treated this as a personal milestone because the restaurant was very much a part of my college years.”

As a result, the newly renovated The Aristocrat features bright colors and huge glass windows to give customers a view of the sky and the bayfront of Manila, while letting outsiders get a glimpse of the diners and their meals.

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The Aristocrat restaurant today. Photo: Handout

“My design inspiration came from the legacy of the restaurant itself. I wanted to bridge the past and the present – in the way The Aristocrat has been serving its customers the past 75 years, what patrons have been used to, how they enjoy their food. I wanted my design to be attuned to the restaurant’s purpose,” Estaniel said.

With The Aristocrat’s new look, the Reyeses hope to attract not only its loyal patrons, but also the younger generations.