Larry Cruz: The Unwilling Icon
- Vanni de Sequera () - June 9, 2002 - 12:00am
Larry J. Cruz is in a debunking mood and, no, he’s not being ornery. The restaurateur envied for his urbanity could never be mean-spirited inside any of his many dining establishments. It’s just that Cruz, although generally credited with having created Malate nightlife, seeks to demystify the legend of his business empire when all sorts of tales abound. For him, one will suffice–it was all an accident. Really. Of course, hardly anyone believes him.

Cruz’s parents are from Pampanga, and everyone knows Pampangos learn to cook even before they learn to dress in designer labels, which is shortly after they take their first steps. Not so, says the Manila-born Cruz. He is adamant that Kapampangan men don’t have any natural affinity for cooking–what they love to do is eat. The cooking they leave to the province’s true culinary artists, its gifted women. "It just so happens that my roots are Pampango and I have many restaurants," he says in his trademark, barely audible voice, "but there are many fine gourmets and restaurateurs who are not from Pampanga." Fair enough.

Then there is the notion that Cruz inequitably profited from dipping into the choicest gene pool. His father was a noted connoisseur of fine food and drink; surely, the only son inherited the patriarch’s heightened palate. But you call Cruz a gourmet at your own peril–even after spitting out the label, it leaves an offensive aftertaste in his mouth. "I fancy myself not as a gourmet–my father and I hated that word being applied to us–but a serious eater. I know what I like and I know what tastes good. I don’t cook like a chef but I know when the food is cooked right or not."

A gourmand, then? Not if you mean the gluttonous kind–a heart bypass made sure of that. There are, however, fuzzy chronicles of non-gastronomic appetites satiated over the years. After all, Cruz was (and probably still is) the King of Malate, suave and cool. It was presumed that to royalty was catered the loveliest entrées and the tastiest desserts, sometimes during the same meal, depending on His Highness’s hunger. "Don’t take that tag seriously," he warns.

The most common theory explaining his success is that Larry Cruz was simply the first to set up shop in the area. The theory is not only crude but also wrong. "Ermita, not Malate, was the place for fine dining in the ‘60s and ‘70s," Cruz writes in Malate, A Matter of Taste. Perhaps the true pioneer was Ishmael Bernal, who established the café When It’s A Grey November In Your Soul along A. Mabini Street. While influential, it was still your conventional drink-your-tepid-San Miguel-while-ignoring-the-sadass-folk singer kind of spot. Besides, the precious and long-winded name made planning to meet there a logistical nightmare. Did one convene a drinking session at When, Grey November, or In Your Soul Café?

In 1980, Cruz opened Café Adriatico on Remedios Circle. Writes Alfred Yuson in the same book, "I would place the establishment of Café Adriatico by the Remedios Circle, way back in 1979, as a red-letter day in our cultural calendar of the country. Larry Cruz, with painter-architect Agustin Goy, gave the first Good Housekeeping seal for a business establishment’s use of old wood, antique motifs, santos, quaint lamps, stained glass, which we now see embellishing most homes of Filipinos taking pride in ancestry and unique identity."

The enduring collaboration with Goy imbued Cruz’s establishments with an easy dignity. Describing their relationship, Cruz has called Goy his mentor. In turn, Goy calls Cruz his tormentor.

Who would have guessed that Café Adriatico, model of old rich civility, would become the building block of a Malate that is still the last oasis of bohemia, however strained, in a monochrome metropolis? The link may seem obscure, but because of Larry Cruz’s gamble 23 years ago Malate is as we know it today–a district where you can entrust your car to the mini-celebrity midget along A. Mabini or the territorial, tough-as-nails lesbian in J. Nakpil, then stroll around until you find the establishment of your preference, be it a ritzy restaurant equipped with air ionizers or a beanbag—furnished bar hazy with herb stalk smoke.

Because of Café Adriatico’s watershed status, few realize that the life of Cruz, pre-restaurants, is equally absorbing. First, the pedigree. E. Aguilar Cruz, his father, was a Member of the National Historical Institute, ambassador plenipotentiary extraordinary to unesco, writer, newspaper-man, gourmet (sorry), painter, and art critic. He hailed from Magalang, a sleepy Pampanga town famous for being the cradle of the Hukbalahap Movement, carabao milk-based delicacies, Mt. Arayat, and, well, for being the birthplace of E. Aguilar Cruz.

"My mother (Felicidad de Jesus-Cruz), who is from Betis, Pampanga, was quite a well known short story writer. When she met my father pre-war, she sort of gave up her writing career. For a long long time, she was just in the house. She published a book called I Married a Newspaperman and that was the last that was heard of her as a writer. She loved to cook, but just simple food. She was quite religious. They were separated for many years but I supported both of them," says Cruz. (Cruz’s only sibling, Therese, works for the World Bank in the United States.)

In his wonderful, affectionate salute to his previous employer, Floy Quintos, a former editor of Metro Magazine, quotes Cruz in a pensive mood, "In fact, all my life, I’ve tried to be very different from (my father). I went into publishing and, for a while, even politics. And then, of course, the restaurants. But you know what my biggest regret is? All the while I was trying to be different from him, other people were enjoying his company and learning from him. And these are the people who are becoming today’s taste makers and thinkers, people like Ambeth Ocampo and Claude Tayag, Ricco and Reimon Ocampo, young people."

"I wish I were with my parents more often," he says now. "But that’s hindsight. You always think they will be there tomorrow until one day you find them gone."

Larry Cruz started as a news writer in radio, later on becoming producer of The Big News and Channel 5’s news director. Despite his conviction to beat a separate path, he wrote–as the elder Cruz did–and was editor of several publications including the Daily Mirror and Philippine Graphic Magazine. "Then I worked for a while in Singapore and Hong Kong for Asia Magazine, after which I came home to be its bureau manager," he says. "After that, I was invited to become Assistant Press Secretary during the second term of Marcos. I eventually handled the Bureau of National and Foreign Information, which oversaw the foreign news services. All the caches reported to my office and we ran the Philippine News Agency."

The quirk of fate does not escape him–Martial Law led to the closure of E. Aguilar Cruz’s newspaper. "Before Martial Law, he was a Sunday painter. After Martial Law, he became a Sunday writer." For Cruz, though, there was no inconsistency in working for Marcos’s stygian administration.

"We were able to moderate the stringent measures the military wanted to impose at that time. While we were serving under Martial Law, we were journalists as well. We also understood the other side. We felt we were doing our bit to soften the impact of Martial Law. Our department managed to work for the release of many journalists who suddenly found themselves apprehended by the military whenever they ventured out of Manila. We were the first to insist that press controls be relaxed. Anyway, all a journalist had to do was fly to Hong Kong and file his story there," he says.

Cruz is especially proud of moderating the first international press conference of Benigno Aquino, at the time jailed in Bicutan. Aquino had asked Cruz for the event’s ground rules and was assured there were none. The voluble dissident, who was always happiest regaling an admiring audience, was grateful. "It was no holds barred and he had a wonderful time with the international press," says Cruz. "He relished that. He wrote the President thanking him for the opportunity and mentioning me for not interfering."

After 12 years on the job, Cruz decided to move on. As he succinctly puts it in Malate, A Matter of Taste, "Widely hailed when it was imposed in September 1972, martial law was beginning to bore." He initially contemplated returning to newspapering but, paradoxically, was aware that the Philippine press was hardly free.

His first post-Information Czar venture was Koleksyon, a gift shop crammed with aged Filipino furniture, knick-knacks, ethnic fabrics, wooden santos and old prints the recreational antique collector had purchased for himself. Koleksyon was located at the corner of Remedios and M. Adriatico Streets, in what used to be a ramshackle carinderia patronized mostly by taxi drivers. That was in 1978, and his rent was P800 a month.

One day, a man whose father owned a restaurant in Ermita insisted that the gift shop’s location would be perfect for a restaurant. "Although I never met him before, I allowed David Sharuff to talk me into a partnership in a restaurant. The idea of having my own watering hole in a fashionable district strongly appealed to me," Cruz recalls. As Café Adriatico (the name was coined by Cruz’s father) was nearing completion, Sharuff announced that there must be more to life than material possessions, and that he was departing in search of his serenity. Cruz had already committed the then sizeable sum of P15,000 and was now forced to buy out Sharuff’s share.

"I didn’t know I was really going to become a restaurateur after that. When it opened, I did nothing else after that but that was not what I intended. Everybody went there, curious about what it was. My friends in media, denizens of this area like couturiers and models came because it was the only one of its kind at the time. It just grew. It didn’t faze me in terms of being nervous. I just grew with it," says Cruz.

Three years later, Cruz opened the upscale Solana on M. Adriatico Street. By Café Adriatico’s standards, it was a disappointment. The setback taught him a useful lesson: "Never allow yourself to be perceived as expensive if you are not." Unfazed, Cruz rolled out a procession of restaurants and bars, including the venerable Bistro Remedios, as well as restaurants in Makati, Tagaytay, Cebu and even in California, Washington and Hong Kong.

In 1987, to inaugurate his three-storey M. Adriatico complex housing Limelight Theater, Paper Moon disco, and the Italian restaurant Prego, Cruz became the first to stage what would become the defining lure of Malate–The Street Party. Writes Cruz, "While preparing for the evening’s big bash, a power overload shortcircuited the electrical system, causing mini explosions and sparks all over the place. Although firetrucks and Meralco engineers came racing in, power was cut for the rest of the evening." Although there’s no quibbling over Cruz’s role as street party pioneer, even the most rabid party animals are thankful for The Street Party’s reincarnation as a good old flesh-and-booze festival, where the pyrotechnics are of the more conventional kind.

Somehow squeezing it in, Cruz published Metro Magazine in 1989. He sold it five years later to the Lopez group to concentrate on his restaurants. While Cruz believes it is the stately and dearly departed Bistro Burgos in Makati’s now sordid P. Burgos Street that cemented his reputation, the four-year-old Café Havana proved he hadn’t lost his touch. The bar, especially when Cuban-trained percussionist and bandleader Bo Razon is holding court, swings as wildly as Fidel Castro’s beard during a stiff breeze. It’s a hard drinking, hard dancing crowd–the waiters deserve special mention for delivering drinks through a gauntlet of mambo-crazy patrons. On some nights, the staff at nearby establishments occupy themselves with polishing already twice-polished glassware, all because Havana has cornered the market for revelers.

Life for Larry Cruz these days is not nearly as frenetic and he admits to being semi-retired. "I just, you might say, hang around my restaurants. The one who really does the dirty work is my eldest daughter and general manager, Lorna (Cruz-Ambas), assisted by a team of professional managers. I’m still the chairman and I make sure that each food that comes out of my restaurant has been pre-tested by me and a few in my food tasting group. It’s a rather nice job," he smiles.

He sporadically checks out the competition, causing a stir wherever he dines, and is fawned over in a manner usually reserved for the most petulant food critics. On weekends, he sets off for his Magalang farm near the foot of Mt. Arayat accompanied by Merle, his "life partner" (he is separated but good friends with his wife), and their two sons. Over at the weekend sanctuary, his most pressing decision is which of his ten dogs he will take for a walk. He loves dogs too much, he says, to share in his provincemates’ taste for canine meat (although he is not averse to the occasional cricket).

Another indication that Cruz is nearly ready to give it all away is his steady march toward supergeek seclusion. The Nokia 9210i with its web browser feature is always at hand. So is his iPod mp3 player with its 2,000-song capacity (he’s downloaded over a thousand songs already). Then there are the family videos he is editing and transferring to DVDs on his new 800MHz G4 processor-equipped iMac.

Perhaps the most telltale sign is that Larry J. Cruz has started jotting down notes for his memoirs. "I don’t think it will ever come out. Because for memoirs, you have to be honest," he says with a wink. "I guess it’s too private. Anyway, people are only interested in the memoirs of a great person or an important figure, not of an ordinary restaurateur."

Shame. It would have been a great read.

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