Nov 28, 2019
Tracing her roots to Bacolod, Stephanie Zubiri discovers one secret to happiness in the Philippines’ “City of Smiles.”
“Are you the cousin of the aunt of so-and-so? Because I’m the sister of the grandmother of her brother-in-law! And she was at my wedding!” Every introduction in Bacolod begins like this—with customary air kisses accompanied by friendly interrogation into your extended family. Family is important in this town; it almost seems that for any friendship to begin, a familial connection must first be found, no matter how tenuous. After this has been established—“Yes! But you might be speaking about my sister-in-law; it’s my mother who was at your wedding, because she’s a distant cousin of your brother-in-law!”—you are welcomed like a long- lost relative into a world of laid-back plantation living and interminable happy hours.
In this case, I was a long-lost relative. My grandfather was a Spanish Basque who, during the Spanish Civil War, escaped the throes of Franco, and along with his brother and cousin stowed away on a cargo boat from Marseille, bound for the Philippines. Penniless in Manila, they spent what little they had on a lotto ticket and won. They split the winnings, went their separate ways and ended up in different parts of the country. My abuelito found himself on the island of Negros— specifically, Kabankalan City, an hour’s drive from Bacolod, where there was a large Basque community. There he met and married my grandmother, Rosa Rubin de Celiz, who came from a Negrense family of politicians and sugar planters. The rest, as they say, is history. Although my parents had lived in Bacolod during the Swinging Sixties, hopping between fabulous mahjong lunches and rum-fueled plantation parties, I was 25 by the time I set foot in the town—and I had not been back since.
Known as “The City of Smiles,” Bacolod is a hodgepodge of low-rise modern buildings interspersed with colonial-era homes and grand Art- Deco mansions such as Balay ni Tana Dicang and Daku Balay. Its avenues are wide and sparse, and most of the action, if you can call it that, happens along Lacson Avenue, a strip of restaurants and bars. Visitors generally split their time here traipsing from one specialty restaurant to the next, or traveling back in time via the city’s Downton Abbey–esque heritage buildings, or exploring local arts and culture at the Negros Museum.
“Patawhay” is probably how locals would describe Bacolod. Chill and peaceful. The city’s generations-old plantations set its unhurried pace: relaxed for six months of the year, hectic for the October harvest, then tapering off again in April. Even then, most operations run like clockwork. Clocks set, that is, to Bacolodian time.
“I go to the office in the morning and I’m usually done by 11 a.m.,” said Nico Gatuslao, with a laugh. Nico comes from a family of sugar planters and now works in my brother’s ice factory. “There isn’t really much else to do, so yeah. We just start drinking with friends. Bacolodians are known for being heavy drinkers.” Young and newly married, Nico was our designated tour guide and chaperone—a position assigned him by my relatives, because there was no way we (my sister-in-law Allana and me) would’ve been expected to fend for ourselves. We were long-lost family. We would have to say “yes” to every invitation—and to every bite of food and to every alcoholic drink.
In Bacolod, there was a lot to be had of both. In a culture where grandmother’s cooking is always best, only the top restaurants survive, guaranteeing that almost everywhere you go here, the food is amazing. The first meal of our visit was breakfast at Maria Kucina Familia, a cozy café that served up delicious home cooking. “People in Bacolod are so picky about their food,” explained owner Marili Bascon Gonzaga. “Everyone has their own family recipes, so our clientele is very critical.” Homemade chorizo, crispy fried adobo flakes, beef tapa—Filipino classics made to perfection and served with generous portions of garlic rice, eggs and pickled papaya made me feel like I was back at my Abuelita Rosing’s breakfast table. It seemed the ghost of my grandmother’s kitchen would pleasantly haunt me for the next three days. From the tangy cured anchovies, boquerones, at Café by The Ruins to the comforting batchoy noodle soup and crispy pigeon at Restaurant 21, everything had that homey, made-with-love flavor.
“Café and cucho-cucho; it’s a way of life here,” Allana said. “All people do is drink co ee and gossip all day. Until of course it’s time for happy hour!” Which was pretty much all the time. Later on, while visiting The Ruins—a storied Italian mansion gutted by fire during World War II and converted into an events space/tourist attraction—we were trapped by a torrential downpour, leaving us with not much else to do but chat over a few San Miguels in the café. Our next appointment was to meet a cousin of Allana at Urit Bar & Lounge for some more drinking. And though it was only 4 p.m. when we arrived, the bar was already full of raucous laughter. A large group was celebrating a birthday, taking full advantage of the P500 all-you-can-drink deal. Red-faced and joyous, they sent up countless refrains of “Cheers!” that became like a mantra—one that brought you closer to a karmic hangover than enlightenment.
After a few gin-and-tonics myself, I pondered the name of the bar. Was “Urit” someone’s nickname? “‘Urit na!’ is an expression that the field hands say at the end of the day,” explained Norman, Allana’s cousin. “It sort of means ‘The work is done.
Urit na, inom na ta!
It’s so good!
To catch up, chat and gossip
The day’s over; let’s go and drink!
That’s amazing!/ It’s amazing!
Let’s go!’ ‘Urit na, inom na ta!’— ‘Let’s go and drink!’ is something you’ll hear very often.” Up until that point, I had chalked up my penchant for a tipple to my Basque roots, but it became very clear that my Negrense origins might be mostly to blame. My abuelita, who died in her sleep at the ripe old age of 97, was a frequent drinking partner of mine. Lunches with her meant sharing beer, white wine or even a cognac, no matter if it were broad daylight.
The evening went on as it had begun, with more food, drink and distant relatives. A home-roasted suckling pig awaited us for dinner in the beautiful house of some good friends, where a crowd of 20 had rallied to give me a proper Bacolodian welcome. Then followed late-night truffle pizzas at Quedan, a cute little tapas place with a great wine list run by a cousin of mine.
All night, I fielded the question, “Why so short?!”—pertaining to my stay, of course. I effusively promised I’d be back; I meant it, too. There was still so much to eat (“you must try the inasal chicken from Chicken House”); so much to drink (“Please, no more”); and, importantly, so much more to see, particularly in the surrounding islands—Sicogon, Lakawon and Danjugan—famous for their fresh seafood, white-sand beaches and deserted coves.
In Bacolod, I felt at home. And I believe anyone would, because Bacolodians, regardless of who is related to whom, can’t help but welcome everyone like long-lost family. No wonder it’s dubbed “The City of Smiles.” I mean, who wouldn’t be smiling with all-day happy hour?
L Fisher The classic mid-range option in Bacolod might be dated, but it’s well appointed and well located with excellent service. lfsherhotelbacolod.com; doubles P3,500.
Seda Hotel Just two years old with sleek, modern rooms and nice amenities like a gym and pool deck. capitolcentral.sedahotels.com; doubles P5,000.
Maria Cusina Familia Home-cooked Negrense classics in a cozy home setting with a charming courtyard, famous for their all-day breakfast and cakes. 63-9/36-944-5416; brunch for two P750.
21 Restaurant This iconic dining hall is known for its classic batchoy noodle soup. The crispy pigeon and crispy crablets are also worth the extra calories. 63-34/433-4096; dinner for two P1,000.
Pendy’s A must for freshly made napoleones pastries and other local sweet treats like mango tarts and barquillos. 63-34/434-0269.
Felicia’s Pastry Shop Famous for its 12-layer salted caramel sans rival cake—drop by for a mid-afternoon sugar rush and coffee pick-me-up. feliciaspastry.com; cake and coffee for two P350.
Chicken House Most locals will say it’s one of the best places
to get local specialty chicken inasal—lemongrass-marinated and annatto oil–brushed chicken, grilled over coals and dipped into a mixture of chili, soy sauce and calamansi limes. 63-34/434-9405; chicken and rice for two P250.
Urit Bar Well located and lively with a great selection of gin and all-you-can-drink specials daily 4–7 p.m. instagram.uritbar; All You Can Drink P500.
Quedan This cute tapas bar seems to be the hot spot for Bacolod’s young and cool. It’s normally packed to the brim,
so be sure to reserve for a great wine list with Spanish-Filipino fare. instagram.quedanbcd; drinks for two P500.
The Ruins The ancestral mansion of wealthy sugar baron Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson, the Italian-style structure was built in the 1900s and gutted during World War II. It has since been refurbished into a beautiful events space with sprawling gardens and a nice café. theruins.com.ph.
Balay ni Tana Dicang Built during the colonial era and beautifully preserved, the Lizares’ ancestral home feels like a portal to another era. Don’t miss the small space near the entrance exhibiting the contemporary artwork of one of the family’s descendants. balaytanadicang.webs.com
Daku Balay Built and designed by prominent agriculturalist Don Generoso Villaneuva Sr. in the 1930s, the Art Deco structure is striking and worth a visit. Tours are by appointment only. 63-34/458-3109. — S.Z.