Food is the essence of life. Apart from the much-needed nutrients and sustenance, it also brings wealth, culture, and heritage. This is why we often hear people say that a dish is a family heirloom — passed down from one generation to another. For some fortunate families, they get to inherit not just recipes, but also an entire restaurant. Such is the case of To Ho Panciteria Antigua, the oldest restaurant in the country.
It’s no surprise that you can find the oldest restaurant in the Philippines in the world’s oldest Chinatown, Binondo. In a maze-like street of Tomas Pinpin, you’d find the food center frequented, so they say, by some of our national heroes like Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal, when he was still studying in Intramuros. This one you have to take with a grain of salt since no one from the 1800s is still alive to prove this claim. A quick Google search would tell you that Rizal studied at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila in the early 1870s, and To Ho Panciteria Antigua opened for business in 1888. So, that’s that.
1888 is such a long, long time ago — covering two world wars. After its restoration in the 1960s after a fire, and the renovations that followed, nothing about To Ho Antigua’s interior screams old. In hindsight, one would not be able to tell that it’s the oldest restaurant in the country, except for the obvious banner that says so, soon after you enter the establishment. The cold cuts and roasted chicken hanging inside a food glass display, right at the entrance, serve their purpose well of enticing people to come in and dine.
As soon as you get a table, that’s when To Ho’s storied past will hit you. Despite looking fairly modern, the aroma of an old and authentic Chinese restaurant will convince you that you’ve come to the right place and made the right decision.
To Ho Antigua and its secret to longevity
Considered a culinary landmark in the old Manila, To Ho Antigua serves all sorts of food from roasted chicken, asado, cold cuts, and various kinds of noodles like miki bihon and pancit canton, their bestsellers, to name a few. But the dishes that truly took the home run for us are their signature Yang Chow fried rice and Lumpiang Shanghai. What’s so outstanding about their Lumpia? Maybe nothing much, but it’s also nothing like the unang kagat, balat lahat kind of Lumpiang Shanghai. You could barely feel and taste the thin wrapper because it’s filled with seasoned meat that tastes exactly how Lumpiang Shanghai should taste like.
What’s fascinating about the place is not just its rich past. But also the fact that it stayed true to serving all social classes with sheer dedication to making customers satisfied. Restaurant staff treat every customer like VIPs in the way they’d genuinely ask if the food was served the way they expected it to be served. Unfortunately, despite the number of restaurant selections we have these days, many fall flat when it comes to warmth and making customers feel that serving good food is more important than filling their tables.
Perhaps, this is the secret to the longevity of To Ho Antigua. An heirloom handed down through generations that no matter how good the food you offer, if it’s not served with warmth and genuineness, people will not come back to try it again. Like the simplicity of their food, perhaps To Ho Panciteria Antigua only follows a simple rule. When you are in the business of serving food, as the essence of life, service must always be accompanied with quality.