An old family home is transformed into a charming dining destination that’s been luring illustrious patrons, writes Sheryl Ebon-Martinez.
It was the 2010 election year and the air was rife with promises and expectations of change. Mercedes "Peachy" Roces Prieto attended a government function in nearby Malacañan and happened to pass by her aunt Filomena "Menang" Roces de Legarda's 80-year-old house just across Gate 3 of the Palace. The remembrance struck a melancholic chord. She then decided to propose to the clan that they turn the neglected home into a restaurant. The enthusiastic response that she got more than inspired her to transform the ancestral house into what is now known as Casa Roces.
"Everybody pitched in," says Rod Baumann, the restaurant manager. Uninhabited for about 10 years, the house was stripped of plumbing and electricity. The renovation started in September 2010 and was completed 10 months later. The family wanted to keep the Commonwealth era feel of the house and removed the divisions between rooms to achieve the airy and bright interiors. Antonio "Tono" Versoza, a nephew of Prieto, came up with the name Casa Roces. "We really want the customers to feel at home here. We have retained the hardwood floors, windows, tiles, windows and doors," he says.
The interior designer Tina Bonoan deemed it wise to stick to the house's era and found antique furniture and designs that fit the period. The family also contributed a lot with borrowed furnishings, décor and paintings. The chandelier was original to the house. The large bedrooms were transformed into function rooms. "We want our diners to feel like they're going to someone's private house in comfortable luxury but with dishes that are of great quality and consistent," adds Baumann.
The public response was more than the family expected. Within six months of its launch, Casa Roces has played host to no less than President Benigno Aquino III, as well as the Vietnanamese president, dignitaries, ambassadors and high-ranking public officials. Its location, being just across Malacañan gave it an advantage no other restaurant in Manila possesses.
Diners are ushered into an antique double door engraved with the family crest: a boar on a tower and an inverted cross, a tribute to the family's Spanish origin in Asturias. The ground floor is casually arranged with Kape Chino as the focal point, paying homage to the legendary family member, Joaquin "Chino" Roces, who advanced press freedom with his various publications as well as radio stations and the television station Channel 5 during martial-law.
Kape Chino serves heirloom recipes that have been passed on to many generations. "The memories of those family get-togethers with these recipes linger long after the china have been put away," says Bianca Prieto Santos, who takes care of the restaurant's management together with mum Peachy. "We are sharing these heritage recipes with our diners so they may enjoy it, too."
Situated upstairs are the function rooms, aptly named after the titles the Roces publishing company has published since it was started by the patriarch and founder of the first newspaper chain in the country, Alejandro "Moy" Roces. There is La Vanguardia, The Tribune, Taliba, The Manila Times, Daily Mirror, among others. The collaboration with the Cravings Group has by far, been fruitful. The second floor set-up offers a la carte Heritage menu, highlighting heirloom recipes that chef Melissa Sison tweaks to adapt to a more contemporary palate. Every dish that comes out of the kitchen, however, is with expressed approval by the family.
The second-level is also home to Galleria Roces, an art gallery that was launched in November 2011 and will feature new works of art by different artists every month. "The gallery came about because art has always been a big part of the Roces family so we wanted to keep that as part of Casa Roces. We mix up-and-coming artists with the established ones like Rock Drilon, Impy Pilapil and Ed Castrillo," says Santos.
Servings at the Casa Roces are generous and reasonably-priced. It's open every day of the week, from breakfast to dinner. Time has been good, both to the house and the Roces clan. They have found a venue to showcase well-loved Filipino dishes in an upscale setting without the usual overprice typical of this combination.