For those who dine out frequently, it’s difficult to imagine that there is any list that could possibly add to the number of fans that Antonio’s now has. Opened in 2002, it is already a dining institution that ranks at the very top of many food enthusiasts’ own lists, this author included, and is the kind of magical place where many special moments are celebrated. “We once had a wedding with 80 people who all flew in from Singapore,” owner Tony boy Escalante continues. “The couple read about us, called, and booked their wedding. All of their guests were foreigners who had never been here before.”
Tony boy’s charm undoubtedly comes from his provincial pedigree. Despite his sophisticated cuisine with its global references and international acclaim, he maintains that he is still the same “probinsyano” who grew up on his father’s farm in Bacolod with his seven siblings. “I gave my father a hard time and he really favored my sisters,” he shares with a laugh. “But that’s okay, I have great memories growing up.” He recalls that he was always entrepreneurial and sold everything from guavas to fighting cocks to make an extra buck.
As a young adult, he spent 10 exciting years flying with Philippine Airlines as a flight steward—a career he fell into after he decided to quit medical school when he was in his third year proper, but one he always knew was a temporary pit stop on his personal journey. “It was so much fun, so much fun. We flew everywhere. Five days in Rome and then we would go to Paris if we wanted to eat French food. In those days there were no direct flights and we could be away up to 28 days. Really so much fun.”
When it was time to move on, he eventually returned to his bucolic roots and together with his wife Agnes set up a farm in Tagaytay before heading to Australia to take a short certificate course in culinary arts. “When I left, I thought I was already a good cook, but when I got there, I realized I had a lot to learn,” he says. Upon his return, he sought an apprenticeship at the now defunct Tivoli restaurant in the former Mandarin Oriental where he stayed for three years. But it was the constant lurking for a quieter existence that led him to open his own restaurant in Tagaytay. “At the time, there were not as many fine dining restaurants in Manila and it was only in Asia that people needed to eat in hotels for a certain level of experience. I wanted to create a place that was very different from that. I saw the lifestyle of Sonya of Sonya’s Garden in Tagaytay and I told my wife that I wanted her lifestyle. I wanted to cook and be relaxed without the pressure.”
While his past life has been undoubtedly influential, Tony boy is very much a creature of who he is today. “I wake up at 4 a.m., do my e-mail, then walk around the grounds in my pajamas. I exercise and then I go to [work]. I also make sure to spend time a lot of time with my sons. It’s really about family these days.” His latest venture is Balay Dako, a three-story restaurant that overlooks the Taal Lake and Volcano. Located on a large piece of property on the ridge, it offers Filipino food and drinks in an elegant setting, done the Antonio’s way but with more accessible price points. “We have a cocktail lounge called Terraza on the top floor, Comedor the dining room on the middle floor, and Silong, an events space, on the ground level. And you know what? The very first person who will get married there is my waiter!”