Cover Gugu Room in New York City

Some of Poblacion’s pioneering entrepreneurs led by Marco Viray offers jaded New Yorkers a unique and captivating food and beverage concept in Manhattan’s Lower East Side

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.

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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.

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Copies of these love letters can be found all over the Orchard Street space, along with photos of Jose Rizal and O Sei San displayed among the Filipino and Japanese paintings hanging on the dark walls. From the copper bar to the varnished wood flooring, to the touch of whimsy at their outdoor seating adorned with white blossoms and paper lanterns, the interiors of Gugu Room (the word “gugu” being a term of endearment) clearly drew inspiration from the short-lived affair.

A Japanese-Filipino izakaya is a trendy concept that can thrive in any big city. However, what makes Gugu Room a snug fit for New York? Chef Markee Manaloto works closely with Tuazon and imparts his Japanese food knowledge having worked at Kissaki on Bowery ensuring the successful paring of the two cuisines. Manaloto believes that New York diners are the type who will readily embrace something exciting and new. “New York has a very diverse set of people who are willing to taste different cultures through food and beverage,” he observes. “Combining the simplicity in Japanese cooking and Filipino cuisine’s explosive flavors result in a unique and profound taste, different from the traditional sense in each cuisine.” He adds: “We believe that New Yorkers are the best market for something new and creative. We’re at the perfect place for something such as the Gugu Room.”

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According to Viray, they are thrilled by the warm reception Gugu Room received during its opening week. Customers are responding well to the familiarity of the robata/bbq on sticks menu, while their curiosity is piqued by the isaw (grilled chicken intestines) and longganisa (sausage). The chefs have bravely put balut on the menu and Viray observed that when properly explained to non-Filipinos how to best enjoy the delicacy, it ends up becoming a pleasant experience for them. Diners like to start with the kani salad and rock shrimp tempura, and then fill up with hearty entrees such as the short rib kare-kare and bulalo udon.

With the operations of Gugu Room falling squarely on his and Tuazon’s shoulders, Viray admits he is happy to have an excuse to be spending more time in New York. “It has always been a life plan of mine to make my way back to New York,” he discloses. On those times that he will be back in Manila overseeing his ventures mostly in Makati’s bustling Poblacion area, Viray has full trust in Tuazon whom he calls a “long time friend” and “an inspiration as I used to frequent his bars and restaurants back in the day.” However, the plan is for Viray, Watson, and Soong “to split our time evenly until the time comes the business can run on its own without us being there all the time.”

Just as any Filipino abroad that does well, we celebrate them as a nation to be our collective success. The Gugu Room is not only a restaurant serving Filipino food and drink, but it also offers a glimpse into our local culture that we are always more than happy to share with strangers. Viray and company bringing that Poblacion vibe to New York is not only a source of pride but signaling that we have, indeed, arrived.

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