#EatOutNow: JJ Yulo's Guide To An Anxiety-Free Restaurant Experience

So. How’s the year been so far for you? Kinda weird, I know. Like that classic movie “Groundhog Day” is how some people describe it—work, rituals, routines on a loop. Some days pass quickly, and while others feel like you’re trekking through molasses, your mind either weary and at a standstill, or on max overdrive. I’m sure you miss those closest to you: having your whole family around… Shooting the breeze with your crew. I dare say I even miss grunting and getting filthy on the floor of my gym. And I also miss one of life’s true pleasures: eating out. If there’s anything that I’ve done locked indoors, it’s daydream about faraway places, and breaking bread with those I care about. Dare we do it now, that there is a bit more movement? And the answer is more a yes than a maybe, but intelligently and cautiously. 

Hai Shin Lou along Pasay Road is not only a sleeper hit but also one of my pillars of dining in Manila. Some people have never heard of it, but for those who do patronize it, more often than not, they are rabid fans. For me, HSL has been a place to mark milestones. Countless birthday celebrations; dinners to welcome back balikbayans; baptisms; anniversaries; even commemorating those who’ve gone ahead… You name it, my fam has probably celebrated it there, amidst some of the best Cantonese food in town. Mr. Chong—a Hong Konger who’s lived here for years, since the early days of equally classic Jade Garden—ensures that guests get the freshest and tastiest food, cooked by his kababayan Chef Tommy, who leads the army in the kitchen. No one makes steamed suahe like they do, in my opinion. Their Peking duck is top-notch, as are the myriad of specials that the good chef Tommy comes up with. But in the midst of the pandemic, how are they dealing? Chinese restaurants aren’t exactly the bastions of service that, say, a fine dining restaurant should be—but that doesn’t mean they can’t play in that field. HSL has all its procedures set up even before you get to your table, as it should be. But look around, and you will also find nice touches like envelopes at every place setting for masks, a touchless alcohol dispenser, and even UV/air purifier machines scattered all around the room. All the better to tuck into your sweet and sour pork without worrying. 

From the entrance, contact tracing solutions and sanitation procedures are enforced.
Thoughtful gestures like these make it easy for customers to follow protocols.
Hai Shin Lou’s table seating and dividers promote social distancing measures inside the restaurant.

The Grid Food Market, over at Rockwell, is a place that I realize has become one of my go-to’s for times when I’m not sure what I want, but I know that I want something well done. Somewhere in between a food court (albeit a beautiful, less chaotic one) and a full-on restaurant, I think the reason I love this place is I was privy to how hard they worked on everything—from the way the space is set up, to the unobtrusive service (a combination of self-service, but with waitstaff ensuring all is well), to the food—I honestly don’t think I’ve had anything here that I didn’t like. Sure, there are some I like more than others, but generally, everything is delicious, and it’s a testament to the owner, his team, and to the ownership of the chefs who create and serve their signature dishes. You miss traveling? Travel to several countries here without having to cram yourself in coach: the pork krapao tastes like it would from a seat in a hot streetside Bangkok eatery…. You can hear the mariachi band playing with every taco from La ChinescaSpicebird brings you to Latin America, Babu to Malaysia, Gochu Gang to Korea… You can even hit up New England with Bun Appetit, and finish off with an espresso from EDSA Bev., and so much more. When I go there, there is something for everyone, and eating is like a party. Today, they follow the strictest of protocols, and everyone is distanced—because they’re lucky to have a lot of space. Their sharp staff sanitize every table, couch, and chair after someone gets up—which is great to know—but check this out: the bathrooms are sanitized even more… Every 10 minutes. Sounds crazy? But nowadays, I’ll take it. I think the best feature they have is that in front of the entrance is a “concierge” desk—a place to pick up orders you made online or through the phone. You can also order from here if going around inside the hall isn’t in the cards at the moment, or if you wish to coordinate orders, say, to send to someone else… Your wish is their command. No fuss, no muss. Trust me on this—at the Grid, you’ll feel secure. 

T: At the entrance, contact tracing. B: The “concierge” desk caters to pickup and delivery orders.
The Grid’s large dining space is a huge pro for customer safety, aside from their excellent sanitation procedures.
Signage spread all over the space explain The Grid’s protocols.

Wildflour has always left its mark on the eating public. From the day their doors opened at their very first shop in BGC, their hybrid brand of premium American bistro cuisine and bake shop treats were a hit. I love coming here because, after all these years, they’ve still managed to maintain a bit of that neighborhood vibe. It’s easy to feel at home here: you can come in your shorts and have a coffee after working out (and fine, maybe some cronuts and other devilish delights as well), you can bring a hot date on a Saturday night and romance her with cote de boeuf and some wine, or you can even bring your little troops for some Farmacy ice cream. Something for everyone again, and the bonus is that everything is exceptional. The people behind WF always seemed to be a little extra. That holds true even—or especially—in the way they are handling the times. They had the foresight to make food trays early, recognizing that people had a hard time finding ingredients because they couldn’t move—and they’d rather just buy platters of food for home and for their families. Tables have portable table guards to protect diners, the room is smoked with disinfectants, and even the air-conditioning system has these special filters installed to keep the air we breathe extra clean – and while, again, it sounds like it’s over-the-top, really what it is is quite a safe environment where you can finally just leave your worries at the door and treat yourself to a good time. And to survive under these conditions at this point—details like this are musts. 

Whether taking out or dining in, both employees and customers are well-protected.
Partitions are set up inside to socially distance customers, while seating outside provides ample air circulation.
Wildflour’s social distancing measures ensure the safety of their customers.

Clearly, we are not out of the woods—not for a while, I would think—but given the circumstances, there are places that you can go to without having to feel so anxious about your safety. Places you’ve trusted, places that mean a lot to you… And they need all the help they can get. Get to know how they are dealing with all this, ask questions if you must—but also, have faith and trust that they’re doing all they can for all of us and for themselves. 

At the end of the day, as I snap out of my daydreams, beyond all this I know deep down that we do need some sort of social interaction. Certainly not big bashes with a lot of people (we’ll reserve that for another time when the smoke clears), but real interactions that allow us to be human. It’s okay to crave it because that’s just how we are. Just don’t forget to think it through, and be mindful. Let’s all get the world moving a bit again.  

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