Katipunan’s neon-lit portal to Hong Kong returns better than ever before
Lan Kwai Speakeasy, the neon-lit staple of the Katipunan nightlife, unfortunately had to close its doors on October 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Iconic and of classic status, the acclaimed hole-in-the-wall was a night-time haven for university students, comforting the academically stressed and making waves with their crowd-favorite bites and fishbowls.
Its untimely departure left a massive hole in the district that could never be filled by anything that came after. With the growing demand for the next best thing ushered by a return to normalcy, Katipunan’s portal to Hong Kong was bound to return—and so it did in May this year. Lan Kwai Speakeasy now stands better than ever before as a reimagined classic, raring to open its doors to both new and returning patrons alike. And did we forget to mention, the new-and-improved Lan Kwai is now owned and managed by college students from the neighboring Ateneo de Manila University.
For managing partner Reiner Mendoza, the return of the iconic staple was the result of things falling right into place. During a six-month summer break, Mendoza sought to dip his toes into the nightlife F&B scene—working under Marco and Carlos Munárriz of Quay Concepts, the minds behind Poblacion staples Apotheka and Ugly Duck—and interestingly, the former owners of Lan Kwai. Mendoza, being a high-school student at the time of its closing, had only gotten to know the place through the tales of those that came before him, from the outside looking in. And what started as a harmless joke told by a college student who wanted its previous owner to bring back Lan Kwai, quickly turned into a mission passed down from a trusting mentor telling him to reopen it himself.
In an exclusive interview, Mendoza and fellow managing partners Kean Nerecina, Luca Liza, and Emerson Ong join us, sharing much-needed insight on what made Lan Kwai the beloved Katipunan staple it was, and what makes the reopened version better than its predecessor.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
From your point of view, what made Lan Kwai what it was and what did it mean to those in Katipunan?
Mendoza: “The simple answer is Lan Kwai felt like home for a lot of people. To give more context, it was the first resto bar that Marco and Carlos Munárriz built. It was very DIY ground-up—even the ornaments and the drink selection—it all came from scratch. I feel like that was felt by the customers. It was very natural, very authentic.”
Nerecina: “Katipunan isn’t a super big place. There are not a lot of establishments around that people go to, and through the years you see the same people whether they’re from Ateneo, Miriam, or UP—it’s a very meshed-together community. At the end of the day, Lan Kwai could always be a place where you can catch up with old friends or meet up with new ones.”
Why the fishbowl?
Mendoza: “There’s something about chugging a fishbowl in under 10 seconds and you’re all together and you don’t know how you’ll fit because you’re bumping into each other. It makes the experience so much more wholesome—it’s meaningful relationships and meaningful conversations under the red light. The fishbowl was just the hidden key that they found because they [the previous owners] wanted to try something different.”
Thinking about it, that’s also why Lan Kwai wouldn’t work in the pandemic setting, because you can’t share that—now that things are easing up, it’s somewhat acceptable to drink from the same bowl.
Mendoza: “Exactly. That was our biggest fear. We tried to come up with using a ladle or giving smaller fishbowls instead, but then, there’s a lot you cannot avoid when you’re drinking. So of course we follow all the necessary protocols and try to do as much as possible even when people are sharing glasses.”
Going to the process of rebuilding Lan Kwai: How was the process, especially being college students yourselves?
Mendoza: “The days leading up to the re-opening of Lan Kwai was a roller-coaster ride to say the least. It was our finals week so we literally had no sleep then. However, making everything possible was just things falling into place naturally—I was not forcing things. More importantly, it was due to certain people stepping up and doing more than what was expected of them: Kean [Nerecina] who started as an investor but became a managing partner full-time; and also Luca [Liza] who began as our intern.”
“And part of the rebuilding process was considering how we could elevate the old Lan Kwai, all while keeping what made it what it was. It was a matter of injecting our DNA but also making sure that we were not going overboard or switching things up too much.”
Nerecina: “I’m not gonna say that we’re heavy drinkers, but we go out a few times a week after classes to have a drink, whether it’s in BGC or Poblacion. This provided me with a wide range of experiences in the different types of bars and the nightlife outside Katipunan. I wanted to draw from those encounters, emulate them, and bring them to Lan Kwai.”
“Part of the rebuilding process was considering how we could elevate the old Lan Kwai, all while keeping what made it what it was. It was a matter of injecting our DNA but also making sure that we were not going overboard or switching things up too much.”
Speaking of elevating: Do you consider Lan Kwai, especially with it being located along Katipunan, a bar directed solely at the college crowd?
Mendoza: “We’re not just a bar for college students. One thing that we were also carefully thinking about was that Lan Kwai had such a strong following back in around 2017 and 2018. A chip on our shoulder before re-opening was reeling back in those past Lan Kwai customers who are now adults. Since they’re now working, of course, their drinking preferences have changed and so has their purchasing behavior—we tried to find a middle ground for that. That’s why our selections range from the typical Cuervo to the classier Clase Azul. We made sure that we moved with respect to the signs of the times. We want to cater to the current college student and the older Lan Kwai customer who is now working.”
What makes Lan Kwai 2.0 different from its previous iteration?
Mendoza: “On the surface level, I wouldn’t say the food’s exactly different. As for the drinks, they’re more refined especially since we had time to research and develop different cocktails—we’re also working with bartenders and advisers from the Poblacion F&B scene. But in terms of the intangibles for Lan Kwai, we didn’t really change anything—it’s still a place of comfort that just feels naturally authentic if anything.”
Regarding your selection of drinks, particularly the cocktails: Are there any specific drinks that you kept, and those that you added?
Mendoza: “For the fish bowls, it’s a classic. We didn’t want to change it. There’s something about the taste that’s very nostalgic but is good enough as it is. For cocktails, we have two selections now, the original cocktails of Lan Kwai that stand alongside other classics—we also have options for cocktails that we concocted ourselves.”
Nerecina: “We initially had a list of around seven cocktails and now we have an additional six. The six are the ones that our head bartender Roberto mostly created.”
“On a personal note, I’ve always liked to be able to taste the different ingredients of a cocktail—drinking is very sensory after all, aside from the music and the lights around. For example, our Wonka Wai, we torch cinnamon over it as we drizzle so it has a smoked cinnamon smell—you taste the vodka, you taste the nougat, but it’s nothing too strong.”
“While yes, it’s great to be able to taste the alcohol, we also had to balance it. As Reiner [Mendoza] mentioned, we’re not just a college bar, however a lot of our crowd and even ourselves are still in college. One of the most important things was to be able to create a drink that was elevated in all senses, while also being accessible to those that are just starting to drink.”
“We’re not just a college bar, however, a lot of our crowd and even us ourselves are still in college. One of the most important things was to be able to create a drink that was elevated in all senses, while also being accessible to those that are just starting to drink.”
What about the interiors?
Mendoza: “The neon signs, non-negotiable, had to be there. Our bar area, specifically the shelves, is reminiscent of the layout of the old Lan Kwai. But, despite how much bigger the new space is compared to the one before, we still wanted to keep it very homey. So we kept it very DIY with regard to the selection of furniture that we chose. We wanted to elevate it but then we also didn’t want it to feel like it was out of place, so we also kept it spacious because we didn’t want it to be as tight as the old Lan Kwai.”
As for some of the pieces here: Are there any items here that were taken from the old space?
Mendoza: “Well, people have asked if those are the original signs from the old Lan Kwai. The honest answer is no, because it broke down since it wasn’t used for around three years. However, we placed it to look exactly like the old one—we got it from the same supplier, with the same font, and even the shine of it. Unfortunately, there’s no exact memorabilia from the old Lan Kwai.”
“If anything, we still have the same address, 42 Esteban.”
What was the most memorable moment for you throughout the entire rebuilding process?
Mendoza: “One moment I’ll forever remember would be when Marco and Carlos Munárriz first went here. They were just smiling and looking at us. I’m very grateful because without them, there wouldn’t be any Lan Kwai, and I wouldn’t be a part of it. It was reassurance that maybe we were doing okay for a bunch of new bar operators.”
Nerecina: “It was the night before or two nights before we opened. I remember we had a really long day just rushing to purchase and clean everything up—I was just so overloaded with everything. We ended up talking about ‘why Lan Kwai’ for each of us. Everyone was there, and we all shared why we chose to invest in Lan Kwai and what it meant to us, not just as a business, but why were we there for weeks on end.”
Liza: “It would be the first time I saw the neon lights turn on. That’s one of the most iconic things from the old Lan Kwai and to see the lights again in person—there were just so many thoughts going through my head.”
It wasn’t an easy road to get here but what made everything worth it?
Nerecina: “The great memories you make day in and day out are what make Lan Kwai worth it for me. People ask me sometimes if it ever gets boring being here Monday to Saturday, from lunch until four or five in the morning. My answer is always ‘no’ because it’s a new experience every day.”
Liza: “I’d never imagined that I’d be part of something like this. It’s fairly uncommon that you hear that college students are opening a bar while still studying. Lan Kwai has been a very good opportunity for me to learn and grow because there’s so much here that I wouldn’t have experienced elsewhere.”
Ong: “I think what makes Lan Kwai worth it is the idea of choosing this over something else. Up to now choosing Lan Kwai has been worth it because I’m happy. The people I meet, the experiences I get to enjoy with my friends, and just the idea of choosing this place makes it all worth it. No regrets.”
Mendoza: “People think we’re crazy, I think we are crazy, but when people tell me I inspired them to start something—that means the world to me. We’re pushing boundaries. Some people have dreams that they just let die down. Lan Kwai is a symbol. It closed down and a lot of unfortunate events happened, but it became something of a beacon of hope that things might go back to normal.”
“Lastly, it’s the people. You never know who you can meet, and there are a lot of stories of people meeting their girlfriend or their best friend here. It’s the element of chance, that one night here can change your entire life. It happened for me and it surely will happen for others.”
“Lan Kwai is a symbol. It closed down and a lot of unfortunate events happened, but it became something of a beacon of hope that things might go back to normal.”