Visitors of New York are often beguiled by its big-city charms—the lights, the sounds, even the smells. Its reputation often precedes itself and guests arrive ready to take on the multitude of attractions it has to offer, a multi-sensory experience that feeds you in every sense of the word. While the common person sees traversing the concrete jungle as an adventure, a career entrepreneur such as Marco Viray will often find opportunities.
This is exactly what happened when Viray decided to go on a much-needed summer break to one of his favourite cities back in 2021, immersing himself in Manhattan’s East Village where he once lived. Perhaps having his business partners from Manila—Lee Watson and Jason Soong— with him on the trip was not ideal for his planned sabbatical, however, making them experience New York all together was instrumental in nurturing the idea of taking a collective shot at the city’s famous nightlife scene.
After acquiring Filipino restaurant and bar Tsismis (the Filipino world for ‘gossip”) located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the trio was now faced with coming up with a concept that will not drown in the bottomless pit of New York restaurants. Among Soong’s inner circle in the city is Academy Award-winning actor Adrian Brody who offered up some sound advice: to attract native New Yorkers, the concept will have to be both fresh and yet familiar. He points out Japanese-Peruvian Nobu which is now a popular name anywhere in the world. “Why not Japanese-Filipino?” Brody says.
Partnering up with New York-based chef Aris Tuazon (of Ugly Kitchen, Cafe 81), Viray and company have rebranded Tsismis into the mysterious and sexy Gugu Room. Watson— the cerebral specialist behind inspired concepts such as The Spirits Library, Kampai and NoKal— discovered during his research that Philippine national hero Jose Rizal spent some time in Japan before getting stuck in a blizzard in New York in the 18th century. Legendary not only for his patriotism but also for his amorous exploits, Rizal had a brief dalliance with the Japanese O Sei San whom he truly loved as proven by his letters to the porcelain-skinned samurai’s daughter.