Malate watering hole Café Adriatico continues to lead the restaurant scene, now with the second generation in charge

MANILA, Philippines — When flames engulfed the second floor of Café Adriatico in Malate, news traveled as far as the United States.

The U.S. News Agency in Las Vegas reported “P200,000 worth of property destroyed by the blaze that started 10:39 p.m.” last December. This led to the temporary closure of the flagship restaurant of the late restaurateur Larry J. Cruz, causing a wave of dismay among regulars like controversial tour guide and RH Bill advocate Carlos Celdran.

“There is nothing like spending a Friday night watching a performance at the CCP and capping the night off with dinner and drinks at Café Adriatico,” says Celdran, one of the first outside the restaurant when it caught fire.

A prominent Malate landmark, Café Adriatico has attracted over the years a clientele of well-known artists, fashion designers, celebrities, government officials, and a chunk of Manila’s party scene, all of whom have taken to staying at the restaurant until the wee hours of the morning. “Café Adriatico is the heart of Malate,” declares Celdran. According to him, “It is what Manila should feel like—genteel, sophisticated, but not fussy; and it’s a place that’s also about the food.”


Hits, Misses
Employees of The LJC Group were celebrating their staff Christmas party in a Mall of Asia branch when news of the fire broke out. “Takbuhan kami agad dito (we all all rushed back right away),” shares Lorna Cruz-Ambas, president of LJC. “We were so worried–this place represented everything my dad worked for, stood for,” she says.

“The first thing we did after the fire was to hold a meeting with the staff,” adds Eugenia Billones, chief operating officer. She relates, “It was right before Christmas and everybody was worried about being out of a job. We made sure that everyone was still employed, even if it meant shuffling them to different branches while we worked on rebuilding.”

One of the oldest and most thriving restaurant groups in the metro, Cruz-Ambas says that more than its unique restaurant concepts, what has always been vital to the success of the LJC restaurants is its people, most of whom have been with the company since its early years.

“My father always emphasized maintaining a familial and personalized relationship with our staff, and I think this is what drives our success,” shares Cruz-Ambas. “They really stay,” she adds, “like there’s even one pioneer staff still with us today, and we gave him token shares of the company for his loyalty.”


Back in Business
Last May 17, Café Adriatico formally resumed its Malate operations. The group chose to maintain Larry Cruz’s stamp of old-world ambience. “It took some time to reopen because we wanted to make sure we captured the atmosphere my dad created almost 30 years ago,” shares Cruz-Ambas. “It’s a cleaner, brighter look and the essence is still there—all the paintings and the details,” she says.

Now calling all the shots at the LJC Group, Cruz-Ambas shares that the priority is really maintaining the character her father first conceptualized. She says, “I grew up in the business; it helps that I’m his daughter and I know him very well. I know what he likes, and what we’re really doing now is to make sure his legacy lives on, and the restaurant he’s built will continue.”

The re-launch of Café Adriatico is also an opportune time for Cruz-Ambas to introduce new innovations. “We’ve partnered with RCBC to come up with a lifestyle credit card, and discount card,” she shares, “and we’re doing a lot of upgrading in all our concepts. We also have a commissary now for all the restaurants.”

With all these improvements in place, the time may be ripe for expanding internationally. But The LJC Group chooses to maintain its local focus. “We’ve been there, done that—even all the way to the U.S. and Hong Kong,” shares Cruz-Ambas, “but if it’s too far, it’s harder to maintain a branch because first, you don’t have the support of the main commissary, and it’s quite difficult to personalize service, not to mention logistics…we’ve seen how it was, so we’re concentrating on local.”

When the late Larry Cruz was still running the place, it wasn’t really about making money. “All my father wanted was to really exercise his creativity,” shares Cruz-Ambas, “but now we have partners and we’re answerable to a lot of people, so we make sure that we deliver. Back then if we didn’t succeed, we’d just lose the shirts on our back, but now there are a lot of stakeholders and we try our best to do good by them.”

Published in the May 30, 2011 issue of the Manila Bulletin Business Agenda section.