The announcement in late 2016 that Café Ysabel would close its doors was met with sadness by diners with fond memories of the restaurant.
For 35 years, the café in San Juan City—a veritable landmark—has been a popular romantic dining place for dating couples. A modified bahay-na-bato, it has a dramatic stairway up front, high-ceiling interior, and airy living area with a beautiful view of the garden.
Café Ysabel owner and chef Gene Gonzalez said that when he first took over the house, it was lopsided. Apparently, it had been through a number of incarnations—as an antique shop, a kindergarten, and as the setting of a movie that starred legendary actresses Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos.
“It took us a year to renovate and another year just to incorporate the details customers have come to identify with the restaurant,” he told Lifestyle.
These one-of-a-kind details include the baby grand piano and the oversized painting of Bacchus hanging in the function room, the paneled ceiling painting in the main dining room, the corner table nicknamed the Billion-
Peso Table because of the many contracts signed there, and the three hanging lamps Gonzalez had retrieved from his grandparents’ house in Pampanga “that cost more than the entire café.”
Aside from being a favorite dating place, Café Ysabel has borne witness to countless wedding proposals, anniversaries and baptismal parties in over three decades.
“There have been violin serenades and wedding proposals,” Gonzalez recalled, “including one where I wrecked the moment when I saw a man on his knee one night and asked him if he was all right.”
The man, with a pained expression on his face, told Gonzalez he was fine. It was only then that the chef realized he had interrupted the man’s wedding proposal.
“I was so embarrassed! I hurried back to the kitchen and didn’t come out again that night,” he said.
That faux pas turned out to be the least of his worries, as Café Ysabel faced a number of challenges that almost forced its closure.
Gonzalez recounted the hours-long power outages in the post-Edsa revolution years when the restaurant still hadn’t invested in generators, and during the Erap presidency when the dining clientele dwindled.
“We really almost closed during those times,” he said.
But he and his staff persevered and continued to serve clients who appreciated the restaurant’s ambiance and the consistency of the menu.
Gonzalez also put up the first Center for Asian Culinary Studies in the Café Ysabel compound. Several provincial branches have opened since then.
The menu has stayed the same since it opened in 1982. Roughly 60 percent of the dishes, including Gambas al Ajillo, Steak à la Pobre and Sopa Ysabel (saffron-flavored seafood soup), have been there from the start.
“Since the announcement, we’ve been holding pocket events in the past two months. Regulars have been coming to dine and reminisce,” Gonzalez said.
PR practitioner Zeny Iglesias said that she and her boyfriend and now husband Roy used to date at Café Ysabel.
“We loved it so much, we held the baptismal parties of two of our three children there,” she said.
One regular was so distraught upon hearing the restaurant’s impending closure that she booked a table.
“Before she left, she embraced the wooden post in the main dining room, weeping,” Gonzalez narrated. “Some of the guests have even been spotted crying on the stairs leading to the restaurant.”
Regulars can still enjoy a meal at Café Ysabel before it closes in a few weeks.
They can look forward to the restaurant reopening in a bigger space nearby, hopefully by December.
“It will have a bigger garden, and parking for 50 cars. The cooking school will also be transferred to the new location. The food, however, will be the same, which is a good thing in this case,” Gonzalez said. “Our customers long for the familiar.”
Café Ysabel is at 455 P. Guevarra Street, San Juan City. Call 726 9326.
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