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This Café With A Speakeasy Vibe Is Tucked Inside One Of Manila’s Most Iconic Buildings

Architect Gaston Lorenzo Pastrano designed the 34 square meter affair as a throwback to the 1950s


If you’ve ever wanted another reason to visit the Ramon Magsaysay Center other than to marvel at its iconic structure, the newly opened Library Café by Gourmet Farms is a hidden morsel of goodness that is worthy of a bite. Tucked in a corner facing Manila Bay on the ground floor of the handsome brutalist building built by Alfredo J. Luz back in 1967, The Library Café is a welcome outpost to savor the beauty of the architecture.


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The Ramon Magsaysay Building by Architect Alfredo J. Luz | Jar Concengco
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Taking up only 34 square meters inside the Ramon Magsaysay Laureate Library, The Library Cafe snugly accommodates only 10 people inside and more in their al fresco area. The cafe is run by Gourmet Farms, a pioneer in organic farming in the Philippines. 


Franchise Operations Director of Gourmet Farms JP Quimson says many of the menu items utilize the organic produce and coffee they grow, “We kept it rustic, very straightforward, very price competitive with the surrounding area. We’re just really glad to be back in Manila in this very iconic building.  It’s nice because it’s creating a new vibe for Malate. We’re hopeful that this area will be alive again just like the early 80s and 90s.”


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A view of the library café's counter within the context of the library's second floor where the book collection continues. | Jar Concengco


You can order a panini with plump chicken and sweet and tart blueberry, or a pour over coffee served in a wine glass and enjoy it outdoors amidst the towering columns and travertine clad walls of the building or stay indoors in a much more cozy atmosphere. Architect Gaston Lorenzo Pastrano worked with Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation President Susan Afan and Quimson in designing the cafe’s interiors. 


“Susan Afan said she wanted a cafe that would take people back in time to the time of Ramon Magsaysay. She basically pictured a place where the friends and family and colleagues of Magsaysay could have coffee,” Pastrano shares. “At the same time we didn’t want to go too far away from the existing design of the building as well. We wanted to be seen but at the same time blend in the existing design of the structure. Mainly if you look at the materials of the space itself it blends perfectly with the wood and the interior finishes of the library. Nothing is out of place.”


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Upon entering the cafe, black, white and grey encaustic tiles with a geometric pattern usher you in and lead you to three booths. The booths are upholstered in emerald green and are clad in wood tones that don’t disrupt the existing wood of the library. Each booth has a pendant light which serves as its sole light source. “Mainly what we were thinking of was it would be nice if it looked like a speakeasy bar wherein it was not too bright, and it had nice low lighting,” Pastrano explains.


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Architect Gaston Lorenzo Pastrano in one of the booths at the Library Café | Jar Concengco


As one would expect when constructing within a building that has existed for decades, there were many challenges involved. “Of course, since we’re dealing with a 60 year old building, we’re not as free to break down anything that we want. As much as possible we want to retain basically all the travertine walls. We also had to be careful with whatever wood was nearby inside the library,” recalls Pastrano. 


Since the cafe is built inside a library, a major concern was that the books were protected from all operational hazards. A key to this was making sure that the place had a good exhaust that brought all the steam and smoke outside. “Since the space was not intended for a cafe, we had to find ingenious ways to have water supply and how to duct for exhaust.”


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It’s important to note that the library itself is private but has access to the cafe. Pastrano designed the Library Cafe in such a way that it can service both without having the library open to the unauthorized. “One challenge was how do we keep it open to the library and also have access to the public. That’s why we came up with the island setup. That way people who are library users are free to order from the island and at the same time outside users are free to order as well. It acts as a natural divider.”


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When asked whether he designed the cafe to be “instagrammable”, Pastrano says, “I just wanted it to be true to the concept and true to the whole. It’s a very small goal if I just wanted it to be 'Instagrammable.' We wanted it to be beautiful to look at but I’d rather have somebody go inside and say ‘I enjoyed my coffee and my pastry in the cafe’ rather than go inside and take a picture and just leave.”


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Alfredo Luz's brutalist columnar structure from the 60's act as a canopy for the outdoor seating of the Library Café which receives a good share of the seaside breeze from Manila Bay. | Jar Concengco


Visit The Library Café by Gourmet Farms at the Ground Floor, Ramon Magsaysay Building, Roxas Blvd., Malate, Manila.  Call 0917 539 8414.


Photographs by Jar Concengco