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Talking to Gene Gonzales about closing Café Ysabel

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CHEF Gene Gonzales
CHEF Gene Gonzales conducts a class for San Miguel at Café Ysabel.

A GENERATION had grown up, married, and started either families or companies since the doors of Café Ysabel first opened in the 1980s. Marriages, flings, business deals, and careers flourished under its trompe l’oeil ceilings, the scenes set to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” By the end of this month — in a few days actually — Café Ysabel in its present location will be gone forever.

CHEF Gene Gonzales
CHEF Gene Gonzales conducts a class for San Miguel at Café Ysabel.

Regulars need not fret as the restaurant is moving to a new location, also in San Juan, down Paterno St., and the menu will remain the same. “People get really emotional when they come here and then they say, ‘we went here for this!’” said chef Gene Gonzales, proprietor of Café Ysabel.

While he has made a name for himself in the culinary world (he is a member of the International Wine and Food Society, has presented in Madrid Fusion in Manila, and is a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs), the little restaurant in San Juan still forms a huge part of who he is. “It’s me,” he said, noting “It’s more than half of my lifetime.”

Asked about the famous people who have dined in its halls he giggled when he remembered, “Queen Sofia of Spain!”

Going through the decor, he talked about the chandeliers hanging from one of the ceilings. Older than the house itself, they came from his family’s old seat in Pampanga. “People who have seen this — are people!” Think both the MacArthurs, a Russian Grand Duke (before the Revolution), Jose Rizal, and many others who were around the scene back then.

The house was first built by the Ugarte family back when San Juan was a hideaway from the stress of the city, and it offered vistas of Manila Bay and both the Pasig and Marikina rivers. Built in the then fashionable Carribean style, it passed through several owners before Mr. Gonzales set up the restaurant that would become an institution. The lot it stands on remains in another family’s hands though, and they have sold it, which prompted Mr. Gonzales’ move. He plans to tear down the house and somehow use it in another old house in San Juan he has found.

“I’m not getting hit yet,” he said when asked how he felt. “My main concern that stresses me out is how to move this whole house.”

He could have quit the whole enterprise, anyway, he mused, but then, “I couldn’t close it.”

His children talked to him to tell him how ending Café Ysabel would end something significant. “In two years, we guarantee that you’re going to die,” they told him, “because you’re going to be bored stiff.” — JLG





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