food + drinks by Cedric S. Reyes

Elbow to Elbow in Legazpi

Sharing a drink is an intimate affair. Here, the boys from Blind Pig, The Curator, and The Belle & Dragon get personal.

Elbow to Elbow is a series of across-the-bar conversations with bartenders from Manila’s drinking districts. Every month, The Neighborhood speaks with the guys and girls in back about the mix, the tipple, and our life in the city. It’s a collection of field notes and kind advice between bar regulars and the people that keep them inebriated.

There are those who drink to get drunk, and there are others who’d just like to drink. Those of the latter persuasion come to Legazpi, where the bars are dimly lit and the cocktails are high-proof. Legazpi is an urban village found in a deep corner of Makati’s central business district. A straight-tie commercial area by day, Legazpi bares its teeth at night, when offices close up shop and employees scatter in search for some much-needed hydration.IMG_6796During the day, Legazpi’s bars are discreet enough to belong in the area’s corporate setting. These bars are designed such that they never draw any more attention than is due. One might drive right past The Belle & Dragon, Blind Pig, and The Curator, neighborhood staples, without batting an eyelash.

The Belle & Dragon is heralded only by a few large banners, bearing their name and obscuring everything that might suggest they serve alcohol. When the wind hits their banners just so, commuters get a glimpse of the long bar that stands like an institution in Belle & Dragon’s al fresco space.IMG_6771-3Just a few streets away, Blind Pig lives true to its tradition as a speakeasy. Demarcated only by a small sign in braille, Blind Pig asks even its regulars to leave a friendly knock on their wooden door before they’re let in to their cavernous space.

This is in stark contrast to The Curator’s decidedly young, come as you are approach. The Curator’s bar is the backroom of a concrete enclosure, the brightly lit landing of three steps. This entrance to the bar operates as a café during the day. After the café closes, the staff moves behind the sliding doors of their backroom bar. Inside, the interiors are decorated only by vinyl records and tall containers filled with citrus fruits. There’s no signage announcing the establishment out front, only a fluorescent light fixture that asks in sans serif – How does it feel? As it turns out, a few drinks in Legazpi is all it takes to find out.

The Belle & Dragon / Roy
Ask for the story behind your drink.elbow2elbow 3Sometimes, despite being confronted with an intimidating bar menu, I’ll choose something I actually like. Chances are, I’ll forget what that drink is called and start from scratch the next time I come around. I never remember what my drink is called because I never bother finding out the story behind the name. I ordered The Belle and Dragon’s Zero Tolerance, a sweet mix of Jameson, almond liquor, and lemon juice, thinking it might be a name I can actually remember.

As Roy serves the drink, he explains that despite its name, the Zero Tolerance is not for those with low alcohol tolerance. The reason for the name, he says, goes way back.

Roy is one of the originals. Together with a few other bar back boys, he’s been with The Belle & Dragon since its inception over two years ago, and remembers fondly the original team he was a part of. Most of the originals have gone overseas in search of better paying jobs, but Roy has stuck around. One of the originals, a close friend of Roy, was called Zero. Zero has gone abroad, too, but his name and the drink he created are fresh in Roy’s memory.

The Curator / Jeco Co
There are only four things a good drink needs to have.elbow2elbow 2Jeco is one of the founders of The Curator, where drinks have pride. He asks me gamely how I’m feeling and what I’d like to drink. He promises the drink he’ll make is for me and no one else. One word is all he needs to hear (creamy) before he starts picking up bottles and measuring liquor in cups. “I’d like to think,” he says, gesturing to the rest of the bar staff with his hands full of alcohol, “that I’ve instilled in these guys enough pride to change a drink if a customer ever sends it back to the bar.”

Every good drink, he says, boils down to four things: temperature, balance, dilution, and personality. This means that every drink has to be cold, has to have the right mix of ingredients, has to have the right concentration of alcohol, and must, above all, be alive. The drink he serves is a tall, frothy glass of Oban single malt whisky, egg whites, and cream, with a roasted slice of corn perched on top of the mousse. The drink is smooth, almost savory, and very, very cold. Jeco’s pride is rightly earned.

Blind Pig / Joey Cerdinia
In drinking as in life, be grateful.elbow2elbow 1Joey is alone behind the bar of Blind Pig, eagerly awaiting orders. He’s been doing this for six years now, since Blind Pig opened its sliding doors as the first speakeasy in the city. He credits the length of his stay to the kindness of his boss, and the small wins he’s earned for himself. Joey’s just happy to be here.

When he applied to be head bartender six years ago, he had no idea what a speakeasy was, or if the people hiring him were even legitimate. He walked into it all blind. But Blind Pig has since given Joey a kingdom to command and a home base to return to. As he serves us the Bequest, a bright pink cocktail, he confides that the drink is a tribute to the owners of the bar, who have trusted him all these years. The Bequest is rum, aperol, lime juice, and an elderflower liquor. It’s also Joey’s way of giving back, and leaving something behind.

Though different in their approach to the perfect beverage, these three Legazpi bars can all agree that a quality drink is an understated one. Because it’s without embellishment, drinking in Legazpi is the perfect prelude to an honest exchange. The regulars of Legazpi don’t drink to get drunk; they drink to talk with honesty. The prescription runs thus: one drink for quality conversations, two for a good time, three to bare your soul to a stranger. I quite like being sober, but the truth feels pretty damn good.

Photography by Nikki Bonuel

Cedric S. Reyes
Cedric had the squid. For more of this nonsense follow him on Twitter at @cedritoreyes.
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