How Toho, the Philippines' Oldest Restaurant, Plans to Conquer 100 More Years
Here’s the thing about age—the older you get, the less you remember. If you don’t record your story, chances are you’ll forget many milestones in your life. Such is the case of Toho Antigua, the country’s oldest restaurant, located in Binondo, Manila. Over a century old, Toho’s legacy has been passed on from generation to generation, but the passage of time has led to a few revisions along the way.
“Actually Toho’s just a name,” says owner Alvin Wong. “It has no meaning.” Wong is referring to a wrongly published definition of Toho, which said that the name means “just enough.” In Hokkien, it’s the word “
Toho's first restaurant in the south is located on President's Avenue in BF Homes.
It’s quite easy to make up stories about Toho, as its humble beginnings go so far back that nobody around today can verify their accuracy. Toho’s store sign says it’s been around “Since 1888.” However, food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, in her 2006 book The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521–1935, wrote that the restaurant “Antigua” had been founded by Manuel “Po Kong” Bautista two decades earlier, in 1866. If this is true, Toho has already reached its sesquicentennial, at 153 years old.
Wong, a third-generation owner, admits to not remembering the exact date the restaurant ended up with his family, either. “My grandfather used to work for this group of Chinese [who owned Toho], but I’m not very sure what year it was,” he says. “When [the group] decided to go back to China, they asked my grandfather if he wanted to buy them out.”
Toho has been in Binondo for over a century.
His grandfather agreed to buy what was then known as Toho Antigua Panciteria, and since then, it has been a major part of their family. Wong has been involved with Toho since he was a little boy, “around 10 or even younger,” as his father would bring him to the original Binondo space and put him to work. “I’d be cleaning the tables, serving the customers,” he says. “That was way back maybe [in the] '70s.”
“It’s just the Chinese way to help out in the business. 'Di
Seeing an opportunity, Wong decided to scout the south of Metro Manila for potential new locations. In January 2000, he opened Toho Restaurant Antigua on President’s Avenue in BF Homes, Parañaque. He says it was too far to go back and forth between Manila and Parañaque, so he decided to live in BF, in a
To adapt to the highly discriminating south market—Wong describes it as “close-open,” as restaurants in the area usually last for only around three to five years—Toho got a makeover, adding more design elements to its space compared to the simpler-looking Binondo branch. The result was a more stylized version of its predecessor, with light-colored walls turning a rich reddish brown, dark wood tables replacing the plain white ones, and a massive
Despite these changes, Toho’s menu remains mostly the same. Many of the dishes have been with the restaurant since the beginning, and the consistently jam-packed seats indicate that they taste just as good now as they did back then.
Cold cuts like
The signature stir-fried noodles of the Pancit Canton is smothered with a thick, savory sauce that gives it its addicting taste. Pork, veggies, and seafood are generously distributed on top, making for a complete meal.
Toho is generous with its Lumpia Shanghai, as well. Unlike other
But the owners didn’t leave the menu completely untouched. To keep up with the times, they added dishes here and there at the request of their customers. Spicy Squid was added to the menu in the '90s after Alvin tried it in another restaurant and found it delicious. “It was dry,” Wong recalls. “So I collaborated with my cook and we came up with this dish. [Now] it has become one of our top sellers.”
Toho’s leche flan is actually Wong’s wife Nikki’s
Nikki has been integral to Toho’s expansion in the south. She credits her experience as a flight attendant in Cebu Pacific in helping improve operations. “
Nikki and Alvin met in 2002 through her cousin, who was one of Toho’s loyal customers. They married in 2003, living for a year on the second floor of the restaurant until they moved out in 2004. But it was only in
Today, with four restaurants in the south, Nikki’s eye for organization and people management—she’s in charge of recruitment, training, and the crew—has definitely helped lighten the load for Alvin. While he used to be
“What we are trying to focus on is customer service,” Nikki says. “All [things] equal, we want Toho to be known not just for its good food, but also for its service.” Alvin, a self-described people person, has built strong relationships with his loyal customers. “First two years ko
The Wongs credit their customers for Toho’s longevity. Families who followed them all the way from Binondo and regulars in the south have remained loyal to Toho, helping the south branches grow and thrive for almost two decades now. Alvin’s kind and friendly demeanor have endeared him to many customers, and he has become quite the fixture in their lives. Nikki says they would get invites to weddings, baptisms, even funerals of customers and their families. “Everywhere we go, may
Toho’s fame also attracts the rich and famous, making the restaurant one of the select few that serves all social classes. “When I first met him,” Nikki narrates, “[I asked]
At the end of the day, Toho’s main goal is to make the customers happy. “To see that the customers are satisfied,” Alvin says. “I think that’s the most rewarding.” Spend time with the Wongs and they’ll enthusiastically tell you story after story about their various customers, from the family from Biñan that visits every week, to the concerned diners who worried about its six-month renovation in 2017, and that one applicant who shared her parents’ wedding was held at the Binondo branch.
The couple admits inheriting a legacy is challenging. They weren't around for much of Toho's storied past, which makes it hard for them to remember. But after decades in the business, they now have stories of their own to add to the books. Toho’s legacy is enriched by its customers, who came to satisfy their hunger and perhaps feed their nostalgia and stayed for the dedicated service and warm company. For the Wongs, as long as they have their customers, working with a century’s worth of heritage will never get old.