Kampai’s success rests on riding tumultuous waves to reach greater heights | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Kampai is a bar that’s on everyone’s Poblacion rotation. But the road to go-to status wasn’t easy

“Where to next?” is a dangerous question to ask at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night (or Sunday morning) on the streets of Poblacion. You can barely rely on your feet or the shoulders of your friends as you lean your weight onto them, but you can rely on the fact that at least one person will respond to the question with, “Kampai!”

Even if you switch out your circle of friends or change the time and day, Kampai will always come up in the conversation. Since its reopening in 2020, the bar and gastropub fought its way to go-to status, soldiering its way through the pandemic and reaching the level of reliability it has today. 

Kampai’s bar area on the second floor

If you want to party? Go to Kampai. If you want a drink without much fuss? Go to Kampai. If you’re craving miso soup at 2:57 on a Friday night out? Go to Kampai. 

The establishment is a resident on everyone’s Poblacion rotation. It’s an icon in its own right at this point. But getting there wasn’t easy. 

Kampai: Act I

Kampai’s first home in Poblacion was on the second floor of Tambai Alley. Back in Poblacion’s earlier days, Tambai Alley was the place to be. It was technically the first Poblacion bar of partners Marco Viray, Jason Soong, and Lee Watson. Cera Santos, another partner who handled marketing, was also with the team since the start.

In the original Kampai’s tenure in Tambai Alley, the parties were loud, crazy, and filled with people singing and dancing their hearts out. Not much of a difference to today’s Kampai, but the neighbors back then didn’t appreciate the wild enthusiasm.


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A post shared by Kampai (@kampaiph)

Its first iteration met an untimely end around 2018 due to “neighborhood reasons” (read: being too loud). And that was that—until an opportunity for one more go at it came around. 

Speedy Lyttle, another Kampai partner, was looking for a place in Poblacion. Viray was just helping him out when they found a promising location to open a new concept. When it came time to close on the location, Lyttle said that he’d only do Poblacion if Viray was  part of it. 

“Well if I’m going to open something, it’s only going to be Kampai because it was short-lived. That’s how it all happened,” recalls Viray. 

A hard-fought second chance

In 2020, Kampai reopened to the public. The team applied everything they learned from the first go to the new space. The walls on the second floor are soundproofed and double insulated and the structure was reinforced because they knew there would be lots of dancing and jumping around. 

But they also knew that they had to retain the concept’s spirit. 

“The original culture; the vibe, the scene was still there. [But] at a much better place, with a much better kitchen, with a much better menu,” Viray notes. 

A spread of Kampai’s offerings. From left: hamburger curry omurice, unagidon, kani salad, katsudon, miso soup, steak rice, and kushiyaki

The exhilaration of a successful reopening didn’t last, though. A week after officially opening their doors to customers, the lockdown happened. Many business owners would cut their losses at this stage, but the Kampai team decided to forge ahead. 

“We hung on to it because we had to give this business a chance,” Viray explains. It was their second shot at the concept and they had enough reserves to keep the business afloat until things changed for the better.

During this time, the establishment’s ground floor underwent several transformations—including turning into an Ikinari-style steak room to keep their doors open, says executive chef and managing partner Mikel Zaguirre

But once restrictions started easing up, the team also made sure to follow suit. The challenges didn’t end, though, since Kampai was ground zero from one of the most prolific cases during the pandemic. 

“But it is what it is. [We followed] proper protocol, we have proof of it. It’s unfortunate, but it happened.”
– Marco Viray

Despite following proper protocol and making sure everything was as safe as possible for the guests, someone decided to break quarantine and pay them a visit. “Poblacion Girl,” as the internet dubbed her, ended up infecting a large number of patrons and staff. She even drew the attention of the internet’s ire and major news outlets. 

Viray’s phone was ringing off the hook with the media asking for comments while he himself was infected with the virus. 

Three of Kampai’s managing partners: Marketing and events head Sky Dominique, Marco Viray, and executive chef Mikel Zaguirre

“But it is what it is. [We followed] proper protocol, we have proof of it. It’s unfortunate, but it happened.”

The challenges they faced during those days only served to make the team stronger. Which is evidenced by the level of success the establishment is enjoying these days. 

The land where partying meets fantastic food

Kampai may have retained its status as a go-to party location, but more people should know that they also serve amazing food. The bar chow will always be good, but their mains can definitely compete on a restaurant level. 

Clockwise from left: unagidon, steak rice, and katsudon

The old Kampai didn’t serve food and patrons usually ordered from Tambai or Ebi10 when they wanted a few bites with their drinks. Tasked with coming up with a menu that matches the vibe, Zaguirre had to take trips back to Japan to refresh his palate and discover new flavors.  

“It was a double-edged sword for me because everyone knows good Japanese food. And it was really hard to uplift/elevate real flavors to a very rustic party-place setting,” Zaguirre admits. 

Kampai’s bar chow ranges from classic Japanese rolls and edamame, to more gastropub-type dishes like burgers

“Ultimately, [Viray] wanted something really simple: really good food. Something that they can share, easy to eat, and heavy hitters for the mains,” he adds. 

These heavy hitters include the crowd favorite nori fries, the Kampai burger, steak rice, katsudon, and the wide selection of rolls. 

Listening to patrons is a big part of Kampai’s approach to the business. Although initially reluctant, the team decided to add rolls to satisfy their customers. They currently offer a wide variety that showcases their creativity

Zaguirre says they were initially hesitant to add rolls to the menu, seeing as every other restaurant had them. But they decided to add it in since it was what the patrons were always looking for. 

“[The menu] is constantly moving, it’s constantly evolving, it’s constantly changing based on the subcultures and markets we [cater to].”

The party never stops

When it comes to lasting power, Kampai is one of the few who hasn’t just stayed in the game—they’re actively crushing it. Seeing lines out the door is a frequent sight on weekends and a sweaty, dancing crowd is simply the norm. 

Something unique about the bar is their approach to partying, says marketing and events head and managing partner Sky Dominique. A DJ by trade, Dominique knows the ins and outs of the party scene. To him, the establishment uses its two levels to its advantage.


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A post shared by Kampai (@kampaiph)

“It’s like going to two bars in one establishment,” he explains. 

Kampai took a ground up approach to its nightlife programming. During the pandemic, they can only cater to a small number of guests. They started by inviting their friends and family to these intimate gatherings. 

When the pandemic took a turn for the better, these friends started inviting their friends, and those friends started bringing the communities they were part of around. 

“The way I see it, those communities turn into subcultures where they have their own interests. Then we [cultivated] it [into] different nights that cater to those communities. From that, we’re able to get a high retention rate,” he adds. 

Clockwise from left: cucumber wasabi, margarashu, and Kampai highball

Something that adds to Kampai’s lasting factor is also how readily they embrace the newer, younger partygoers. Which is done with some help from their peers and the assistance of the more seasoned masters. 

“Everyone knows everyone in Poblacion,” Dominique starts. 

“The way I see it is that there are waves of [the] younger generation that come and go. So either you understand it; you ride the swell or you go against the current. To stay connected to that, I need guidance from the veterans in the nightlife scene and the youth who know the newcomers.”

The secret to keeping things funky fresh

When asked about the secret behind their longevity, Viray, Aguirre, and Dominique cite the fact that they all still care about the business and the patrons feel it too. 

“We still try, we still care. And it’s also about being flexible and dynamic,” Aguirre says.

For Dominique, nightly operations running well is credited to following “the drama of the night”—something he learned from fellow partner Jason Soong. As the night goes on, the lights dim, the music changes, and the place transforms. There’s always something new happening even if it’s the same place on the same night. 

Mikel Zaguirre, Sky Dominique, and Marco Viray

Viray also says that it’s important to pass the reins down to the younger generations. 

“The place doesn’t evolve, but the people who run it and the ones who are part of it do. And they evolve based on what the market dictates.”

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