The two secrets that have kept Manila’s oldest restaurant alive for 126 years
The oldest restaurant in Manila was established in 1888, back when the Philippines was still a colony of Spain. Found along Tomas Pinpin St. in Binondo, New Toho Food Center is now 126 years old.
Which made us wonder: How did this humble Chinese restaurant manage to stay in business?
A brief history: Five Chinese immigrant friends established Toho Antigua Panciteria in 1888. Wong Tai Tang, one of the founders of Toho, took care of managing the restaurant when his friends returned to Guangdong. Since then, the panciteria has been passed down through four generations of the Wong family.
Frankly, New Toho won’t impress customers who are snooty about ambiance and architectural details. Facing an open street, the ground floor of the restaurant can easily pass for a retro movie set: faded walls, high ceiling, dim lighting, sticky floors. Peking ducks are displayed in front of the shop, next to the cashier’s counter. The clientele that day was a mix of blue-collar workers, families, and middle-aged couples.
Occasionally, an odd character—a beggar or the town crazy—would waltz into the place, as it doesn’t have doors, nor a security guard.
Picky eaters might think twice about eating at Toho, but it’s safe to say that hipsters, also known as fans of anything that had been popular before their time, would love this restaurant.
In fact, nostalgia is one factor that keeps Toho alive, according to Kathleen Wong, fourth-generation owner and manager.
The restaurant, formerly made of wood, was razed by a fire in 1984. Reopening the restaurant led to the addition of the word “new” to its name, but you won’t be able to tell from the way it looks. It stayed on the same spot, served the same food, and welcomed the same customers, 126 years straight.
“People eat at our restaurant because we haven’t changed,” said Kathleen, who co-manages the restaurant with an older brother. “They go here and see what people before them have seen, and experience what they had experienced.”
December and January are Toho’s peak months, but interestingly, August is also when they receive the most number of takeouts, since that is when the Chinese celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. Wong noted that in August, customers mostly order the restaurant’s steamed fish dishes, to offer to errant ghosts.
New Toho’s social media presence is paltry compared to Wai Ying, another Binondo-based restaurant chain. But with more branches set to open, Toho’s visibility and social media following might grow (They have a total of 85 fans on Facebook). In addition to their Parañaque branches, they will be launching a new store in Robinsons Las Piñas.
As Toho has demonstrated, popularity doesn’t have anything to do with lasting power. Kathleen said another reason why Toho is still here today, all boils down to basics—delicious, top-quality food.
“Customers keep coming back for our authentic Chinese food,” she said. “All our dishes are cooked in the traditional way. We cook food here like they do in Guangdong.”
Wong named some of New Toho’s best-selling dishes: pancit canton, pork asado, lumpiang shanghai, and ampalaya beef.
A few blogs mention that Jose Rizal himself used to eat in Toho when he was still studying in UST. His favorites were the pancit canton and the lumpiang shanghai. That’s how old the restaurant is.
Wong said they will renovate Toho soon by installing LED lights and giving the place a fresh paint job. But they are determined to keep the two things that has kept Toho alive—its nostalgic vibe and good food.