Food and Leisure

Mario’s way

Julie Cabatit-Alegre - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - It almost seems like it’s been there forever. For those who frequent the busy restaurant row along Tomas Morato in Quezon City, Mario’s has become so familiar it could easily be taken for granted.

Long before all the newer restaurants and fast-food chains put up their signs along the crowded avenue, vying for hungry customers’ attention, there was Mario’s, together with just a couple of other fine-dining restaurants, and that was it. Other restaurants have since come and gone, but Mario’s has remained constant through the years, occupying the exact same spot on the street that used to be called Sampaloc Avenue.

Mario’s on Tomas Morato was established in 1981. “I had just finished college and my dad tasked me to build Mario’s on Tomas Morato,” Teofilo “Fil” Benitez recalls.

His dad, Mario Benitez, opened the original Mario’s in 1971, on Session Road in Baguio City, together with his wife, Consuelo “Nenuca” Benitez, who introduced the Spanish recipes she grew up with. The restaurant became really popular, with a steady clientele of both locals as well as vacationers who came during summer and the Christmas holidays, when Baguio was the place to go, long before Boracay and all the other vacation spots people go to these days. “So Mario’s was well known to all Manilans,” Fil says.

In 1973, they found a space along Makati Avenue, and Mario’s branched out “from the small town to the big city.” It was at Mario’s in Makati that its iconic Caesar salad was first introduced. “It was suggested by a maitre d’ who used to work at Prince Albert,” Fil says. “We developed our own flavor.” The wooden bowls they use for making the salad dressing are from Baguio. “We never use stainless steel,” he continues. “The secret is in the hand movement. The olive oil and the egg yolk separate if your movement is not right.”

The iconic Mango Jubilee dessert, which is prepared tableside with much flair and drama, was also first introduced at the Makati branch. To this day, the tradition continues at Mario’s on Tomas Morato, where a meal for many of its loyal patrons would not be complete without its iconic Caesar salad and Mango Jubilee.

Mario’s is also well known for its steaks, Salpicado and A la Pobre, as well as their all-time Spanish favorites such as callos and lengua, gambas and oysters Rockefeller. Their Chilean sea bass in miso-Mirin sauce is a bestseller, Fil says. Breakfast at Mario’s features Filipino fare such as Paksiw na Ulo ng Salmon, Twice Cooked Quezon Adobo, Tapang Usa, and Vigan and Lucban Longganisa.

They have a takeout and pickup menu that includes most of their bestsellers, and for the holidays, their order menu includes favorites such as Paella Valenciana, Cochinillo, Roast Turkey, Pastel de Lengua, Callos Madrileña and Chicken Galantina.

Their Sunday buffet lunch is a big hit, with live music on the piano by Rico Aquino, who has taken over from the late Levi Celerio who, for many years in the past, provided entertainment, playing music with a leaf as well as his violin. Mario’s has also been doing private catering since 1975.

Mario’s on Tomas Morato used to be a modest, two-story house with a garden, which was transformed into the fine-dining restaurant on the first floor, and function rooms in what used to be the bedrooms upstairs. “The function rooms are in great demand for meetings among politicians, journalists and entertainment personalities who like the privacy,” Fil says.

They have kept a small garden up front and sometimes, driving by, you might miss the restaurant with all the lush foliage screening its façade. “We are the greenest along Tomas Morato,” Fil says. “We never put ‘restaurant’ on our sign.” Their logo features a pine tree, which suggests their Baguio roots. Fil would like to make some modifications on the logo and signage to reflect his environmental advocacy. His tagline: Save the trees and plant. “It’s not enough to just say, ‘Save the trees,’” he says. “You must also plant.”

While his brother Anton is in charge of operations, Fil takes care of business development. “My vision for Mario’s growth is to make it more accessible to a larger market,” he says. His direction is to go minimalist. “No more tablecloth. The next Mario’s will not be as large. The secret is small kitchens. You don’t need big storage rooms anymore.” He is thinking of having his commissary in Quezon City.

“Menus will be a fusion of Spanish and Asian, without being too radical. We’d like to maintain Mario’s as a place, not only for reasonable prices but also for comfort food — nothing fancy. We like to say, ‘We treat you like a king, but you pay only like a prince.’ I am trying to make fine dining inexpensive. We call it ‘casual fine dining.’ It’s dining the Mario’s way, which means impeccable service, nice ambiance and reasonable prices.”

He would like to open branches in other places such as Rockwell, Alabang and the Fort. He’s even thinking of bottling their Caesar salad dressing and canning their lengua and callos. “I want to tie up with a conglomerate for a distribution network,” he says. He’s open to exporting to the Middle East, “but I need financiers and investors. I’m not interested in owning 100-percent anymore. I’d be happy with less than 50 percent.”

Fil has experienced his own reversal of fortune. “When I got successful, it got to my head,” he says. “I burned out and suffered business setbacks. But then I became more spiritual.” He now defines success as “needing less instead of having more.”

A flower child of the Woodstock generation, he confesses to having experimented with so-called “magic mushrooms.” It took him eight years to finish college, from 1971 to 1978. He was going to Sagada and Bontoc in the early 1970s “when no one knew it existed. I traded rock salt and Guitara matches for ancient limestone anitos and bulols. The fascination later turned into a passion for art.”

On the wall of his restaurant hangs a painting by Manny Baldemor. Works by painter and portraitist Michael Velasco were also on display for a month and he hopes to feature other artists such as his good friend Ben Cabrera. “It must be in the genes,” Fil says. Helena Benitez and Jolly Benitez are among his illustrious relatives. Also, “art and food are both driven by passion. I’m very idealistic and also narcissistic. I love art, food, and politics all mixed together.”





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For reservations and inquiries about Mario’s, contact, 0917-3232404.













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