The Plaza at 50: Good food, good times, good memories
Ching M. Alano (The Philippine Star) - October 14, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Dec. 25, 1968, 7 a.m.: Throngs of screaming, jostling fans descend on Santuario de San Jose Church in Greenhills to witness the wedding of showbiz’s royal couple, Ronnie Poe and Susan Roces. Inarguably the wedding of the year, a grand reception follows at the Presidential Hall of The Plaza.

Nov. 10, 1971: Teen star Vilma Santos turns a graceful 18! Of course, her screen sweetheart, Edgar Mortiz, heads the long list of greeters. The debutante’s ball is held at the Presidential Hall of The Plaza, where scores of guests boogaloo and shing-a-ling the night away.

Guess who came to dinner?

The Plaza has played host to foreign heads of state such as Pope Paul VI, US Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Premier Li Hsien Yen of the People’s Republic of China, and Robert McNamara of the International Monetary Fund. It has served Philippine presidents since the time of Carlos P. Garcia.

Back then, it was the place to see and be seen. It saw beauty queens like Miss Universe Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran, Hollywood stars like Jack Palance, and business magnates like John D. Rockefeller being wined and dined there. It saw a lot of fashion events held by the Fashion Guild of the Philippines. Good clothes and great food do mix!

In 1965, The Plaza opened at Makati Commercial Center (now Ayala Center), one of a sprinkling of restaurants in the complex.  There were no big hotels back then. The Plaza was the first to feature a foreign chef and the first to introduce the smorgasbord, the Swedish word for a buffet meal consisting of a variety of dishes. Today, it’s popularly known as a buffet.

“We had Gosta Pettersson, a Swedish chef who resigned from Scandinavian Airlines and joined my father, Joe Reyes, who was then incidentally putting up The Plaza,” Millie Reyes fondly recalls. “Chef Gosta was introduced to my dad by Nora Daza and they clicked!”

Millie adds, “Gosta pioneered the smorgasbord in Manila. Back then, you started with the cold dishes and then the hot, etc. Ngayon, labo-labo na!”

We ask Millie: Why was it named The Plaza? “There was a plaza in front of the restaurant,” she replies. “We had several dining rooms — we had a Chinese resto and a steakhouse, The Branding Iron.”

Four generations of restaurateurs

The Plaza is a sweet success story with humble beginnings. It is the story of four generations of pioneering restaurateurs. There’s matriarch Engracia Cruz Reyes, fondly known as Aling Asiang, who founded the Aristocrat Restaurant in 1935. Her son, Jose Cruz Reyes, helped mom run what was then just a rolling store plying the stretch of Luneta Park.

“My lolo would tell me that as a kid, his duty every morning was to make mayonnaise from scratch,” relates Karla Reyes. “So, before going to school, he would beat the eggs and he’d go to school smelling like eggs! But he liked doing it because he liked spending time with his mom in the kitchen.”

Joe Reyes married the former Imelda Albano. “It was love at first sight,” Millie shares a tidbit about her parents’ love story. Sharing a passion for good food, Joe and Meldy ventured into catering in the ’60s.

Today, while The Plaza building is no longer there, the brand lives on in the hearts and minds — and stomachs — of its faithful patrons. Millie recounts, “One time, I bumped into an Ayala executive who said, ‘The Plaza still exists? Your food must be really good to exist this long!’”

Nothing half-baked here

There’s The Plaza’s signature premium baked ham, which was developed and perfected by Meldy Reyes together with Swedish master chef Gosta Pettersson. A cherished secret family recipe, The Plaza’s premium baked ham takes three weeks to cure and is lightly wood-smoked with choice herbs and spices, and served with a selection of sauces: Premium Glaze, Gutsy Garlic, Wasabe Mayo, Sweet Mustard, and Horsey Radish.

There are Plaza’s other popular gourmet dishes for instant parties: premium corned beef (fresh-boiled cured beef with steamed vegetables); smoked premium corned beef; smoked prime tanguingue (fresh whole tanguingue cured in secret spices and lightly smoked, served with dill mustard sauce); whole chicken relleno (boneless whole chicken with special stuffing, served with Cumberland sauce); smoked mahi-mahi that’s uniquely The Plaza’s; and di primo pastrami (cold-smoked beef coated with whole black peppercorns). The Plaza also had its crispy knuckles (crispy pata hamonado), German style (think Oktoberfest where guests chow down on big fat chunks of knuckles with tons of liters of beer). 

At 25, Millie Reyes, schooled at the prestigious Ecole Hoteliere de la Societe Suisse des Hoteliers of Lausanne, Switzerland, opened The Plaza at the Philippine International Convention Center, where Millie and her hardworking staff served gargantuan gatherings with as many as 10,000 guests.

“My parents taught me perseverance and the value of hard work,” stresses Millie. “There are good times and bad times, but it’s during the bad times that you’re able to see the real you; you grow stronger. My parents were strengthened by their faith in the Lord.”

And now comes the fourth generation, great-granddaughter Karla Reyes. Karla carries on this great food legacy. Today, the innovative and indefatigable Karla manages The Plaza Premium Baked Ham kiosk, which opened its first branch at SM MOA and now has five branches.

“I told Mom, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll work for you for free,’” says Karla with a chuckle. “For me, it was like a school project at La Salle. Hopefully, we’re opening more branches.”

At this kiosk you can grab a ham-wich in a classic pan de sal or whole-wheat pan de sal with the most filling, melt-in-your-mouth ham (double the fun with a foot-long pan de sal). The Plaza bakes its own pan de sal at its humongous 1,500-sq.m. commissary in Makati.

This early, The Plaza is already getting orders for its premium baked ball ham (P2,250 per 1.5 kg.) and premium baked whole leg ham (P1,400 whole per net weight).

The Plaza continues to cater private occasions and corporate events. It is one of only five accredited caterers at the SMX Convention Center beside the SM Mall of Asia complex.

Looks like this delicious legacy will be around for many more generations to come.

 

 

* * *

Have a ball this Christmas. Call 729-0003 and 843-4267 (HAMS).

ACIRC COM FOOD HAM HTTP MILLIE PHILIPPINE PHILSTAR PLAZA QUOT REYES
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