The journey began and ended in the same place. For many barflies of my generation, it was our North Star. For a decade or so, it led us to our one true home, the legendary Penguin Café.
It was literally and figuratively the center of that neighborhood’s lifestyle from the late 1980s to the end of the 1990s. Located just off Remedios Circle, it was the heartbeat that set the pace for the quaint, cozy, and one-of-a-kind bars and restaurants that lined the streets of Remedios, Maria Orosa, Julio Nakpil, and M. Adriatico. It was the nexus, the only place in all of Manila where everyone was welcome, no matter the size or shape or gender or country of origin.
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Photojournalists from Time and Newsweek and all the wire agencies, wearing gritty vests packed with rolls of film, discussing the latest coup d’etat attempts against President Cory. The ace photographer and tireless dancer Eddie Boy Escudero was always present and accounted for. Ditto the very young guns who are now bywords in their respective fields: Elbert Cuenca and Katrina Lagman and Kim Atienza and Alex Syfu. And then there were the actors. Not the glam showbiz types, but the cool ones from the theater, or the independent film groups, notably Ronnie Lazaro, and the guys from Repertory. Performance artists and drag queens too. The original superstar of the LGBTQ community, Shola Luna. The “Mad Men” from J. Walter Thompson whose Philippine HQ was just a few blocks away. The country’s best fashion designers who’d made Malate their enclave were there, too: Santiago de Manila, Ben Farrales, and Gang Gomez (now the monk Dom Martin of Bukidnon’s Monastery of the Transfiguration), whose atelier/residence was right across the street. And then there was my gang of drinkers, all pre-med students from the UST; we’d wandered one day into Penguin and never really left until it closed its doors. It was just a P2.50 jeepney ride away from school, after all.
At Penguin, there was no dress code, nor was there any attempt to be hip. It was come-as-you-are all the way, every day. The total lack of pretense or ambition made it cool. It was a bar. Period. Drink. Smoke (you could do so indoors back then). Maybe Marlboro Lights, or in the back area, something more aromatic and organic. Talk. Fight. Make-up. Flirt. Hook up. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I can’t count the number of nights I spent there in the decade from 1989 to 1999. I was such a valued guest, I’d be the only regular invited to the staff Christmas parties, along with whoever my girlfriend was that year. The waiters and Penguin’s security guard/doorman/bouncer all became good friends. Amado, our tireless server, and Jun, the head waiter/maître d’ who always looked natty and sharp in his crisp white dress shirt, necktie, and black blazer.
So, what was the magic of Penguin that kept us coming back? It was everything really. The good vibes, the booze, the people, the nicked wooden chairs and marble tables, the warm, yellow lightbulb ambiance, and all the penguin bric-a-brac. And the music—Bob Marley and Enya and New Age and Blue Note Jazz—all on cassettes. The décor of the bar remains ingrained in my mind that if I close my eyes I can still picture everything including, yes, that retro Pan Am poster of a beach in Brazil that hung on the wall of the men’s room. After all, I stared at that for over a decade.
Penguin was never known for its bar chow. To be honest, the pickings were slim. The only one we ordered with regularity—because it was the cheapest item on the food menu—was Chicken Lollipops, smothered in some sort of molasses that stuck to one’s teeth. But the food was incidental. We were there for the Submarine, Penguin’s signature drink. A large glass goblet filled with Pale Pilsen, and then a shot of lambanog, shot glass included, will be dropped, like a submarine, into the sea of beer. That cost all of P18 two decades ago. The Red Horse version, 500ml in an even larger goblet, was P25. I remember saving up all week to have enough cash to enjoy at least four of those babies. I still have one of those shot glasses, and it’s a cherished possession that’s carefully stored in a place of honor in my bar at home.
I have to talk about the people I met in Penguin. Or to be more precise, the ladies I met in the bar’s hallway leading to the kitchen where the restrooms were located. I was reckless back then. Thanks to all those Submarines. I’d catch a hot girl’s eye, stare at her with my Scorpio Nights gaze, and once the signals were confirmed—whether she was with friends or with a date—I’d follow her to the hallway (there was a door leading to it, and we’d be out of the line of sight of everyone else) and chat her up, ask for her EasyCall or Pocketbell number. It was our “meet cute” in the era before Tinder. The following night we’d be back in Penguin but this time together, sipping our Absolut Kurants.
I wish I could say all this had a happy ever after ending. Alas, there was none. By the turn of the millennium, the over-gentrification of Malate had begun. Zoning regulations were thrown out the window, and high-rises redacted the charming shophouses of the old neighborhood. We the habitués realized what was happening and sought out other places to call home. Sad to say, nothing came close to our days of romance and bohemia, our Belle Époque. And nothing ever did. Or perhaps ever will. Penguin eventually closed its doors, and on the lot where it used to stand is now a Korean BBQ joint. In our minds and memories, however, we will always be young and wild and fearless and laughing and tipsy at Penguin Café.