The scene outside Oyster Bar. Rockwell was the place to see and be seen in the early 2000s.
Culture Spotlight

Nostalgia: Living and partying in Rockwell, the early years

As they try to revive the al fresco scene of this posh vertical residential community in the time of COVID, an OG resident looks back at the promise and spirit of Rockwell's early years 
Monchet Diokno Olives | Oct 25 2020

The people quoted in this story have all lived in this community for over 20 years. It began, as I recall, in the mid 90s with Rockwell’s best pitchman, the late Eugenio Lopez Jr, unveiling the scale model of Manila’s newest architectural marvel at the restaurant Grassi’s (then at Benpres). It was to be a lifestyle community rising from a mothballed Meralco power generation plant. It was known then simply as “Rockwell.”

In the crowd were family friends and group executives, and some of Manila’s movers. Mr. Lopez walked the floor inviting guests to look at the model while handing out reservation forms. One buyer and family friend was Robert Coyuito, Jr., well known in the insurance and automobile circles, and presently an adviser to the President of the Republic. If memory serves me right, he told Mr. Lopez, “Sige na, Geny, reserve na ako ng ilang unit for my children. I want a penthouse unit also.” To which his good friend and then Meralco Chairman Manolo Lopez said, “Sorry, I got those na….”

An all lit-up Rockwell makes it stand out from the rest of Makati. Image from Wikipedia

The West Block, the first four towers—Rizal, Luna, Amorsolo and Hidalgo, as they were named—would be home to just about 900 apartments on a few hectares of the property. Each tower came with a central garden and pool. The concept of a “Lifestyle Community” was Rockwell’s contribution to a burgeoning property sector. While condominiums were stand-alone blocks, Rockwell was to be the very first gated vertical village. Landscaped and walkable, livable in the style of a Forbes, Dasma or Alabang.

After all, it was post 1986, and the Philippines was in the process of rebirth. At the corner of what is now One Rockwell on Estrella sat the sales office of Rockwell Land. Rockwell was always about redefinition, and true to form, they didn’t build a sales center, they built a mini Rockwell. “Lifestyles by Rockwell” introduced Manila to designed model units, and offered a peek of what living in that community would be like. The Rockwell Club Lounge, a precursor to the then soon-to-open club, represented the service standard. The second floor of the sales offices had furniture and collectibles.

The vibrant scene at Lopez Drive, early Aughts. No wonder nobody wanted to be seated indoors.

Monette Mapa, one of the original Rockwell residents, had Old Asia on that floor. She recalls how Mr. Lopez approached her one day to say, “Mrs. Mapa, I hope they are taking good care of you, and I enjoy the Buddha I bought at your Megamall store.” Monette was delighted at the gesture, and even more delighted that he remembered her name. 

The second floor, as Rockwell executive and resident Malou Pineda recalls, “was our way of showing what options our residents had in preparing for their new homes. The apartments were unique, the model units, the items displayed at the second floor. We were defining the new way of living – Rockwell style.”

Lifestyles by Rockwell had Bibliarch (which would become Fully Booked), Santi’s, Starbucks Al Fresco (the first in the country), Brothers Burger and VMV Dermalogica. Lush landscaping became signature Rockwell, thanks to the development’s true oracle Nestor J. Padilla, or Tong to people close to him. “You know Monchet, to be unique you need to listen to the customer, and you must adapt, and you need to travel and visit developments,” he told me many times. “Santana Row in San Jose for example was the inspiration for what would be the retail component of the drawing board Joya.” 

The Power Plant mall was the anchor of all Rockwell action.

For my partner Margie and I, we had just come home to Manila from living abroad. We were planning to build our dream home in Valley Golf because of our love of the sport. It was to be designed by then up and coming architect Manny MiƱana (Manila’s de facto architect of choice these days). It was going to be a Balinese home with two bales and a pool overlooking the golf course. When Gabby Lopez asked me where I was planning to live, I said we would build in Antipolo. He said, “No, you should live in Rockwell. I will get you a discount and help you get a bank loan.”

Like Monette Mapa in Hidalgo, we moved in during the early part of 2001. We were among the first few residents. Living a few floors up were newly married Carlo and Charisse Katigbak. Carlo, 20 years later, would become President of the country’s largest media conglomerate.

For those who didn’t live in the community, especially in the early years, from 2001 to 2006, it was the Lopez Drive experience they would best remember. It was that scene that put Rockwell on the map for the evening crowd. Long before Wild Flour reintroduced “panic in the bakery”—that breakfast place turned titas-meet-millennials weekend party destination, there was the Strip. The Rockwell restaurants and bars set the pace for dining out, literally. It began from what is now Ogetsu to HSBC. Al fresco was suddenly the new way to party.

The scene outside Struan & Tang's. It will eventually become Rastro.

The king of the strip then was the Psinakis-owned and managed Mati. Its chef was then a young Robby Goco who learned the nuances of Greek cuisine from his trips to the restaurants near the Aegean and Ionian seas. Goco, with Steve Psinakis by his side, introduced Manila to agapo ti zoi, or loving life the Greek style. Ouzu, the anise flavored spirit, made its way to tables and long nights. There was no intention to make Mati a bar, but it attracted Manila’s darling set. Geni Psinakis, and her cousin Yorgos, made Mati the party central. And Rockwell became the place to see and be seen. Weekends were never the same.

Over the years, the strip has had its share of ups and downs. The Juice Bar at the far end opened and then made way for Kuretake who, like Via Mare, would have been the oldest restaurant in the strip. Oyster Bar had a chic Parisian feel, and served delectable mollusks served as you wish, with wines all day long. Tita Trillo opened her twins: Cork had a place at ABS-CBN in Quezon City and at the Strip, introducing denizens to wines, instead of having the usual scotch. Not long after, it closed to become Brazil Brazil, which was a churrascaria. 

Andrew Masigan, of XO fame, had Struan and Tang's, a yum cha spot that eventually closed to become one of Manila’s best tapas bars, long before Las Flores and Barcino. Rastro was Patty del Rosario’s entry to Spanish grazing cuisine, with the late Ed Quimson as her chef. I even celebrated my 40th birthday there close to 20 years ago. Beaver Lopez had Teak, with its own humidor, when smoking was still allowed. I found it a bit odd that a Seattle’s Best found its way to the strip, but it’s where Bacchus now sits. 

When the drinkers needed coffee, there was Seattle's Best.

“We would go from table to table, carrying our bottles and drinks and see waiters run after us with the bills because we may have had a bit too much,” recalls Monette Mapa of that early 2000s scene. 

As the crowds grew, events came with it. A band playing streetside invited residents to walk down from the West Block, to have a drink, and maybe even sit on the grassy knoll.

The Strip parties wound down as more people occupied the West Block, when the noise levels in the wee hours became an issue to the Board of Trustees of the newly formed Condominium Corporation. The Chairman of the Trustees was the late Senator Vicente Paterno who, with a decibel meter from his Rizal apartment, would gauge the evening’s level of noise. 

For Rajo Laurel, the strip was a great place to hang out. It was convenient to just walk back home after the parties. Rajo is also one of Rockwell’s OG residents. Having a place in Rockwell gave him a sense of accomplishment. His shop and showroom are just somewhere in the neighborhood but he has a retail store at Power Plant. “Rockwell is all about being home. I know I spend more time at the beach, but I live here, and do my groceries, and meet up with friends,” he says. “As for the Strip, oh those were fun days Monchet, we were much younger. We hopped from apartment to apartment. I have never eaten so much foie gras in my life except for that dinner in your apartment.” 

For Malou, Monette, Rajo and I, Rockwell is a community, and it’s a far larger one now than when we all moved in 20 years ago. Now we have a Viber group for everything. From my favorite table at Rastro, cigar in hand, now I sit in a quiet spot at A Mano, slowly sipping my prosecco. Now they’re reviving the al fresco idea from 20 years ago, trying to bring back the habit of dining outdoors—with COVID in mind—to help the businesses survive. This time without the boisterous noise of inebriated bands. This time with a crowd that’s older, yes, but wiser, too. Times have changed but Rockwell remains one of the nicest places to go to in the city. It’s a safe space. They’re super OC. 

 

(Author’s note: This article was not commissioned by Rockwell Land, but requested by my editor. Living here for 20 years provides insight: it remains one of the best places to live in the city.)