Dining

Here's How to Keep a Restaurant Successful for 20 Years

Thriving for two decades in manila’s fickle dining scene is a perfect reason to celebrate. Chef Colin MacKay reflects on Sala’s 20th anniversary.
IMAGE COURTESY OF COLIN MACKAY
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In today’s continuously evolving food scene, where chefs and restaurateurs are dedicated to innovation and keeping up with their international peers, it is easy to forget the game-changing restaurants that set the stage. While many have already served their last meals, there is a shortlist of those that have endured and continue to flourish; Sala by Colin Mackay is one of them. Never transformed by trend, nor curbed in taste or technique by culinary dogma, Sala has remained true to its vision of serving accessible modern European cuisine and has become to its patrons that “special occasion” restaurant where they are comfortable dining at even when it’s not.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and having recently undergone a complete renovation, Sala has always been a reflection of Colin’s cultivated taste and refined style. “We set out to create something similar to what I was doing in Hong Kong before I moved here,” he says. “The vision was stylish but not stuffy, conservative but not traditional. I started with a small menu and made everything in-house—fresh bread, pastas, you name it. I made sure to offer ingredients that were not readily available here, and for a time, I was hand-carrying things from overseas because the few distributors that existed didn’t want to know me. Soon, people started coming and it got very busy.”


Colin first arrived in Manila as a tourist in 1992, but made the decision to move here a few years later. A restaurateur and catering chef in Hong Kong, he quickly found himself at home in the emerging mega city that he describes as “a fun place that wasn’t overdeveloped and overly concerned with money” and all its trappings. “Manila was filled with eccentric characters that carried a very blasé, ‘anything goes’ attitude that I was attracted to,” he reminisces.

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The vision was stylish but not stuffy, conservative but not traditional.

Sala’s success was undoubtedly seminal to Malate’s commercial revival in the late 1990s and poised the neighborhood for a slew of new openings, from hip bars to stylish boutiques and other forward-thinking dining establishments. Amidst a budding re-gentrification, the area drew upon its colorful and creative past, and became the city’s new center of cool. A year after Sala opened, Colin launched his first nightclub, Joy, an upmarket bar “where people were not concerned with homophobia,” he shares with a grin. “We had mini drag shows and local fashion designers made the clothes. It was fun, it was raw, and it pulled in all sorts of people.”


Colin with fellow chef Margarita Fores; Colin with Feli and Kim Atienza

Colin’s impact on the dining scene extended beyond the corners of Nakpil and Orosa Streets. In the mid-90s, and with few exceptions, Manila’s fine dining choices were limited and relegated to the confines of the glitzy hotels located in the Makati business district, where Western chefs served well-executed but expected classics. The dining rooms they occupied were often well-appointed but devoid of the conceptual character and atmosphere that has now become essential to a restaurant’s survival. His intimate, low-lit restaurant that housed pale green walls adorned with gilt mirrors, comfortable banquettes, white-starched linens, and a casually dressed waitstaff broke the mold of the expected, and other chefs soon followed suit in and around the city.

Food shouldn’t be complicated or challenging, it should be delicious. After years of trying everything new, I find myself returning to my standards, and I hope that is what Sala is for its diners—a place that they keep coming back to.

In 2000, taking advantage of the rise in popularity of the neighborhood, Colin opened a contemporary Thai restaurant called People’s Palace a few doors down from Sala, which also quickly gained a loyal set of customers. “To this day, I still have people tell me that they used to come over to Malate just to dine at People’s Palace because there was nothing like it in the city,” he says.

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The choice of Thai cuisine had as much to do with the restaurant’s success as did its calculated execution. “I ran through my regional choices: Japanese was already overdone, there were quite a few Korean eateries in the area, and no Chinese person was going to come to a Chinese restaurant run by a white boy from Scotland, so Thai it was.” Serving food that was true to traditional flavors but accommodating non-Thai palates in a room that was subtly accented by Thai culture proved to be the type of Asian dining experience that Manila was ready for.

By the mid-2000s, however, Malate began to lose its edge. Although Colin’s restaurants had become destination dining spots, geography began to take its toll, and business slowed. He made the astute decision to relocate People’s Palace to the then-new Greenbelt shopping center in Makati, and when it opened, he knew he had made the right choice. From an average of 30 covers a night in Malate, the number escalated to 350 covers an evening in Makati.


Inside the original Sala 

A decision needed to be made about Sala. “Sala was my first man in and the last man standing,” Colin continues. “Business was not good. We knew the concept worked but I did not see Sala in a mall setting like People’s Palace.” While he was deliberating his next move, a group of friends who had opened a restaurant in the Locsin building in Makati were getting ready to close down. “They were not restaurateurs and asked if I was interested in pitching my concept to the building’s administration. I did so immediately—it was me or a 7-Eleven, and I won.” Sala in Makati opened in 2007, 10 years after its Malate opening, to rave reviews and became the go-to fine dining establishment in the central business district. Within months, Colin leased a space adjacent to People’s Palace in Greenbelt and opened Sala Bistro, a diffusion line to Sala that expanded not only his menu but his brand.

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Sala’s original location in Malate

In the years that followed, new opportunities presented themselves. Some were put on the back burner while one project took front and center. In 2014, Colin opened Blackbird in the former Nielson Tower, a historic landmark building that originally served as the control tower of the country’s first international commercial airport. A standalone structure equipped with a private driveway and an expansive garden, its unique space and sense of history attracted Colin to the property.

Since then it has become one of the city’s most important dining rooms. Since its opening a decade ago, Sala’s Makati branch has enjoyed uninterrupted success. This year, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, and a personal milestone in Colin’s life, he decided to quietly close the room down for a major facelift. The room has been revamped into a “jewel-box” and fitted with a decidedly feminine aesthetic that includes more color and exudes more sophistication. In the middle of the room is a new service station that references nostalgic tableside gueridon service, and the former outdoor space has been extended and is now cohesively tied in with the interiors. At the table, fine bone china and glassware have been updated.

The menu and wine list have also undergone a full makeover. The menu will continue to be short and sweet, and a tasting menu will still be offered. Gone, however, are the favorites: twice-baked prawn and dill soufflé, rhubarb crème brulee, and the mango and passion fruit pavlova. “Don’t fret,” Colin reassures. “Rhubarb will be on the new menu in at least one dish and also a pavlova. There will still be a soufflé, sometimes twice-baked, sometimes classic, and sometimes in dessert style.” Out with old only makes room for delicious dishes to be discovered. A few of the new standouts include the roast guinea fowl breast with tartufata, boudin blanc, savoy cabbage, and soubise; seared scallops with spice roast cauliflower, golden raisins and chili pangritata; and a raspberry and pistachio financier with peach sorbet and white chocolate parfait.

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“Although the concept has been refined, the integrity is still there. Sala will always remain a classic where the emphasis isn’t a trend or something that we think is good at the moment. Food shouldn’t be complicated or challenging, it should be delicious. After years of trying everything new, I find myself returning to my standards, and I hope that is what Sala is for its diners—a place that they keep coming back to.” Podium Level, LV Locsin Building, 6752 Ayala corner Makati Avenue, Makati; 750.1555.

*This story was originally published in the December-January 2017 issue of Town&Country.

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Alicia Colby Sy
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