QUICK SUMMARY- EXPAT FOOD GUIDE TO MANILA EATS
Overview: Where to eat in Manila as an expat?
The quickest way to burn through your retirement budget is to go to restaurants and clubs and spend on pricey imported alcohol and international foods.
I always tell new expats in the Philippines that
Expat life can be incredibly cheap, but imported life will be mind-blowingly expensive
Imported liquor and international food are disproportionately expensive in Manila. If you crave dry-aged Angus T-bone steaks regularly, be prepared to spend way more than you would pay back home.
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QUICK TIPS- PHILIPPINES
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Get help with your visa. The Philippines visa process can get complicated. The rules and regulations change frequently. Avoid the hassle of dealing with the immigration bureaucracy by speaking with a Philippines Visa Specialist.
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But if you substitute chicken thigh for USDA beef and crispy pata for imported smoked bacon, you can cut your food budget in Manila by half.
But being smart with your food budget doesn’t mean not enjoying Manila’s Iconic restaurants.
Let’s look at how you can enjoy delicious food and healthy meals without breaking the bank.
Part 3 of the Ultimate Retirement Guide to Manila looks at the best places to eat in Manila and provides real-life examples of High-End dining, Budget eats, and where to shop for the best food in Manila.
INSIDER TIP: Filipino Fusion– I like to tell people that Filipino food was the first fusion cuisine. Due to sea traders and the fact we were a Spanish and US colony for nearly 500 years, Filipino food is a mash-up of Chinese, American, and Spanish cuisine.
Shopping For Food In Manila
Purchasing fresh local veggies and cooking for yourself in Manila can sometimes be more expensive than eating out. The key is knowing where to shop for staple foods and only heading to expensive fancy markets for key hard-to-get ingredients.
Wet/Farmers Markets: Food Shopping Like A Local
I mentioned the hip but well-organized and pricier weekend markets- Salcedo Saturday Market and Legazpi Sunday Market in Part 1. These weekend markets focus on organic fruit and vegetable shopping while having tasty street food ready to eat.
Both these markets are like hipster Farmers Markets in the US, and I have no problem recommending them for veggies or prepared meals. These markets will save you some money over the supermarkets, but to really shop like a local, you’ll need to brave some of the wet and dry markets in the area.
Be warned, these are open-air markets, not scrubbed and sanitized Western supermarkets. These markets feed thousands of local families, so I generally considered them safe, though their dirty appearance and smell can seem otherwise.
Visiting the markets is an experience in itself, but not for someone overly concerned with sterilization and appearance.
Also, you are unlikely to be offered the best price if you are an expat. Your best bet is to send your driver or maid with a shopping list and have them pick the best fruits and vegetables and bargain with the vendors.
S & R: The Philippines Costco Alternative
S & R is the Filipino version of Costco, complete with 100% all-beef hot dogs and a drink on sale for ~$2. It’s my favorite place to stock up on imported things I miss from the US: your favorite snack chips, imported whiskey, Australian ribeye steaks, etc. It’s a warehouse club with discounted goods bought in bulk.
Grocery Stores: SM Hypermart Supermarkets
A Western-style supermarket that would not seem out of place in any town in the US. The pricing will be cheaper than the US for essential goods (soaps, local produce, toothbrushes, bread, etc.), but expect to pay for anything gourmet or imported.
If you want the best imported extra sharp cheddar cheese for your Taco Tuesday night, it will cost you more than what you pay in MCOL city in the US. Out of pure convenience, this will likely be where you do the bulk of your grocery shopping.
High-End Grocery Stores: Rustans For The Best Quality Food in Manila
If SM Hypermart is similar to the standard supermarket in the US, then Rustans is the Filipino Whole Foods. Definitively catering to the upmarket and discerning clientele, Rustans stocks the best products in the country and from abroad.
Expats consider this the best supermarket in Manila, with the best quality meats and an extensive imported section if you’re looking for some imported ingredients or exotic spices. Rustans is where you go if you are looking for truffle-infused oils from Italy for your risotto or a pinch of saffron for your paella.
Especially if your last shopping experience was one of the wet markets I mentioned in the section above, walking into Rustans is like taking a stroll in my old Hipster Neighborhood Whole Foods in the US.
The interiors are spacious, brightly lit, well organized, and scrubbed to a reflective and clean polish. Light jazz plays in the background while I cruise the aisles of imported wines. The scent of fresh-baked bread and rotisserie chicken wafts through the air and fills my nose while I marvel at the selection of imported cheeses.
If shopping for delicious food makes you hungry, Rustans has a reasonably priced food court and deli so that you can grab a bite after shopping.
Get the attention of one of their in-house sushi chefs. Ask for a freshly made tray of salmon maki, crab stick California rolls, or tuna maguro rolls. A variety tray can be requested fresh for about $4.
Food Budget Options- Best Cheap Manila Eats
Where to get local cheap eats that won’t make your stomach hate you.
Our street food scene is not for the inexperienced. Manila is not a famous street food mecca like Bangkok or Penang. Yes, cheap Filipino food and snacks are available on the street. There are chicken barbecue grills and steam siomai carts in every neighborhood.
However, unlike street food in Vietnam or Thailand, the taste, quality, consistency, and sanitation are not at levels I could feel comfortable recommending. I can get a delicious plate of Pad Thai on the streets of Chang Mai for $2. What you get on the streets of Manila for $2 will be suspect.
The exception to this is the previously mentioned Salcedo and Legazpi weekend markets. Those are freaking delicious.
Local Eats: Mang Inasal- The Best Bacolod Chicken Barbecue
This local chain is one of my favorite places to eat in Manila. Inasal (meaning chargrilled or roasted meat) is chicken marinated with a local lime (calamansi) and a mixture of spices, then grilled over smoky coals while being continuously basted with the marinade to keep the meat juicy and outside saturated with flavor.
Mang Inasal serves its chicken with the ever-present Filipino white rice and a dipping sauce of soy sauce, oil, calamansi, and hot pepper-infused vinegar. I’m drooling at the smoky, spicy, tart, tasty memories of eating this chicken.
A Filipino success story, this chain was founded in 2003 by a 26-year-old local, Edgar Sia, who sold it off seven years later for $68.8 million. Regardless of my business admiration for this guy, his chicken is delicious and cheeeeaaaap! A two-piece (drumstick and thigh or breast and leg) with all-you-can-eat rice is roughly $2.
The best value in Manila. Clean, cheap, tasty, and filling. You can feast for under $3.
Casual Restaurants: El Chupacabra- Best Casual Restaurant In Metro Manila
I immigrated to the US at age seven and spent much of my adult life on the West Coast. I’ve been around crispy carnitas, street-style tacos, and homemade pico since before puberty. Consuming late-night burritos “as big as my head” was a rite of passage at my university.
As I traveled the world, I realized that hoping to find good Mexican food anywhere outside of North America is just asking for disappointment.
My first bite at El Chupacabra was on a Tinder date. Remembering how the authentic flavors of carnitas pork mixed with handmade grilled corn tortilla bits hit my tongue is a more pronounced memory than the date I had that night. I considered finding a decent Mexican restaurant outside North America, scoring twice that night. This place is the real thing.
El Chupacabra is a proper hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the heart of the Makati Red Light district called Poblacion. While the area is slowly shedding its seediness for a bit of hipster charm, expect some interesting people watching if you choose the outdoor tables vs. the more insulated interior seats. White-collar local Pinoys and Expats sip cheap cold beers in equal numbers here.
The street tacos are the star of the show. El Chupacabra serves this classic in its most authentic form. Basic in its simplicity but complex in its flavor: Griddled corn tortilla, marinated and chargrilled protein, pico de gallo salsa, generous amounts of torn cilantro, chopped onions, and half a lime.
The lime is the sole deviation, where the street tacos veer from their authenticity and use local Filipino key limes (calamansi) vs. their more tart green lime cousins.
The meats are charcoal grilled to order and formidably spiced; the cilantro is fresh and abundant, so each bite has a burst of flavor. Different homemade flavored and spiced salsas are available to add even more oomph to each bite.
Each mouth-watering-grease-dripping-on-my-hands-making-me-lick-my-fingers-its-sooooo-good taco is a wallet happy ~$2, with more promotions and happy hours available daily.
Mid-Level Casual– This is where the Manila dining scene shines.
Our cheap street foods don’t compare to Thailand, Penang, or Vietnam. Our high-end dining costs as much as fine dining options in the US or Western Europe. However, our mid-tier restaurants have affordable value and surprisingly tasty selections. It is the intersection where price and quality meet to eat in Manila.
Ziggurats- Where to go for international cuisine?
One of the OG restaurants in Makati. Even before Poblacion became a hipster haven, Ziggurats was dishing out exotic fare from their corner spot- by exotic, I mean they serve a selection of delicious eats ranging from India, Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.
Kebab, souvlaki, and lamb- I can smell the cumin and grilled flavor from here.
Admittedly, the menu is a bit overwhelming, and when I see a restaurant with a novel for a menu, it means they don’t do anything particularly well: the whole “Jack of All Trades, but a Master of None.” Ziggurats bucks that mantra and does several different cuisines equally well. With rice dishes starting at $2, curries at $5, and most entrees less than $7, you can experiment and grab a selection of savory Indian curries, robustly spiced African stews, or taste the cumin and cilantro grilled Middle Eastern kebabs.
Mendokoro Ramenba– Can’t-Miss Food Destination
Regulars have normalized the 1-hour wait to get into this 21-seat ramen bar, so you know the taste must be worth the wait. If the Ziggurats review above overwhelms you with choices, Mendokoro will help steady your spinning head. Mendokoro has a super simple, some would say minimalist, menu of 12 items, 10 of which are ramen.
Mendokoro’s pork broth with grilled pork belly is a Manila must-try if you love noodle soups.
This specialization in ramen is a puff-your-chest-out display of focus and dedication. The chef and staff working in the open-air kitchen are on full display in front of you. Their culinary skills were laid bare in the exhibition, a blatant show of their confidence and ability in making a small select number of dishes, very very very well.
For first-timers, I recommend the Shoyu ($8)with extra Chashu ($3). The extra hunks of thick, slow-cooked pork are smoky and succulent, compliments the creamy savoriness of the tonkotsu (pork bone) broth. The blend of textures from the rich, thick broth, soft and tender pork, and the firm and chewy noodles are the perfect interplay consistency and flavor.
INSIDER TIP: Off Menu Secret Item: Super Chashu Ramen- The broth, a fusion of soy sauce and creamy pork bone with a kick of garlic and some sneaky heat from chopped red chili. While the milky white broth is delicious in fatty richness, the giant slab of chashu pork is the star. Medokoro marinates and slowly cooks the slab for even longer than it takes to make the broth.
The result is a perfectly grilled masterpiece, reminiscent of a steak that, despite its thickness, retains its fall-off-the-fork tenderness.
This secret menu item is a must-try for ramen enthusiasts.
Barcino- Best Restaurant In Manila For A Dinner Date
When selecting the ideal restaurant for a first date in Manila, my go-to choice is always Barcino. I still vividly recall my first visit to this gem a few years ago when I moved to Manila. It was one of my first dates after getting out of a serious relationship.
I think my server could sense my nervousness because she kept the glasses of wine flowing.
Barcino is perfect for a first date. The ambiance is casual enough to keep things light-hearted, while the exceptional service makes a great first impression on a date.
After a generous glass of paradise sangria (red wine mixed with lychee, green apple, and rosemary) to start the night off, Barcino delivers as the best tapas restaurant in Manila.
Notable highlights include the Nico Jamónes Jamon Serrano Bodega starter, offering thin slices of salty, slightly chewy, dry-cured ham paired perfectly with Pan Con Tomate.
For a main dish, try one of the many paellas on the menu, including the Paella De Rabo De Toro, a slow-braised ox tail stew topping a crunch bed of rice mixed with grilled asparagus and beef slices.
INSIDER TIP: Off Menu Request- Ask for any of the paellas to get topped with crushed roasted almonds for an added smoked flavor and delightfully crunchy texture.
Sundays Cafe and Restaurant- Best Brunch Place To Eat In Manila
Sundays Cafe and Restaurant in Marikina is my go-to spot for the best Sunday brunch in Manila. The cafe has two seating areas. One side is the cozy cafe with a bohemian-chic minimalist vibe and a larger restaurant area perfect for larger Sunday gatherings or intimate celebrations.
Sundays Cafe specializes in what can best be described as the American South meets Filipino comfort food.
For example, the best-selling Homemade Bacon Slab on Kimchi Rice with a perfectly seasoned bacon slab paired with spicy kimchi rice.
Then the Southern classic Cereal Fried Chicken and Waffles is a must-try, whether it’s brunch, afternoon snacks, or dinner. The unbelievably tender and juicy fried chicken is coated in a cereal batter that adds a delightful crunch. Paired with sweet waffles, it’s a symphony of flavors and textures.
The Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes are a fluffy delight for those with a sweet tooth.
Sundays never disappoint. This Instagram-worthy cafe has become my social circle’s favorite spot for post-church get-togethers.
Michelin star meals at wallet-friendly prices
Din Tai Fun- Not Your Ordinary Chinese Cuisine
This Michelin star dumpling house is a global phenomenon. “Voted by the New York Times as one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the World.” It causes 2-hour-long waits any time it opens a new location. I understand the hoopla. I was one of the people waiting in the 2-hour line when its first location opened in the Philippines back in 2015. I must admit the hype is well justified.
I arrived early to watch the masked white-aproned men working the dumpling assembly line in their glass fishbowl in front of the restaurant. It was mesmerizing watching the staff methodically fill each dumpling with meat and roll them with precisely 18 pleats before gently setting them into a bamboo steamer to cook to juicy perfection. Stomach growling, watching tray after tray of these morsels prepared, made each minute of the 2+ hour-long wait excruciating.
Once seated, our server lifted the lid to our first bamboo tray, presenting us with five plump white jewels (~$3), with broth waiting to burst at first bite. After devouring the entire plate, I had to ask myself,
Self: How does watery soup get stuffed into the dumpling wrapper?
Self: It doesn’t. It’s formed in the wrapper from solid ingredients. When heated to the precise temperature, collagen renders from the pork filling and mixes with the liquefied fat and juices to form the broth. This works by strictly adhering to the Din Tai Fung exacting process: each wrapper is precisely 5g, inside each wrapper is exactly 16g of pork filling, and each dumpling is formed with 18 pleats.
Dumpling makers are trained for 6 months and take 2 years to master getting these soupy treasures just right.
INSIDER TIP: How to Eat Soup Dumplings- Don’t do what I did: shove a whole steaming dumpling into my mouth with a spoon. When you bite into a whole hot dumpling, the meat juice and liquid fats scald the entire inside of your mouth in lava hot broth.
The proper way to enjoy one of these juicy dumplings is broken down by one of Din Tai Fung’s master chefs in this video.
Tsuta Ramen- Award-Winning Japanese Noodle Soup
Tsuta is another multiple Michelin star award-winning restaurant with a branch in BGC. The first ramen restaurant in the world awarded with the coveted star has sought to redefine the ramen experience. Substituting any artificial components and MSG with premium ingredients like porcini mushrooms and pureed black truffles. The chef blends three separate broths: chicken stock, asari clams stock, and a mixed fish stock combining Japanese katakuchi, mackerel, and anchovy into proprietary ratios into an umami-bomb of a broth. Even the soy sauce (shoyu) is a custom-made blend with specific aging instructions and ingredients.
The signature Char Siu Ajitama Shoyu Soba ($12) with 4 slices of Char Siu, Ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg), Hosaki menma (the soft head of a bamboo shoot), leeks, and truffle pureed in truffle oil was my go-to dish. Primarily because I have an ever-present love affair with all things truffle, this warm bowl of goodness did not disappoint.
Earthy truffles, complex broth, and salty shoyu added layers upon layers of ass-kicking flavor. The thinly sliced pork was not at the level of the thick charsu steaks of Medokoro’s (see above review), but that is compared against near meat perfection. The broth here is much more subtle in flavor than the robust, creamy pork bone broth of other ramen joints.
Take your time here. Sit back in your stool and slowly sip the broth. Truffle is a nuance back note in the flavor profile, not something that smacks you upside the head. Find the earthy flavor and roll it on your tongue. Enjoy the distinction of each of the three types of broth and savor the unique saltiness of the bespoke shoyu. The beauty of Tsuta is to revel in the delicate flavors.
Pureed truffles and a 3-part seafood broth add nuance and delicate flavor to chewy ramen noodles.
Fine Dining Restaurants- Here is where to go and spoil yourself.
Manila has loads of high-end dining, but admittedly, this is not my sweet spot. I found the best sweet spot of flavor and price in the mid-range restaurants. I didn’t see the point of living in a LCOL country like the Philippines and spending as much or more than I would pay in the US for food.
Manila Peninsula Hotel- Best Buffet Place To Eat In Manila
($42 for lunch/$50 for dinner) is my exception to the above rule. The All-You-Can-Eat hotel buffet is my cheat day go-to because the Filipino desserts here are off the charts good, and I get as many of them as my fat boy mouth can fit.
In addition, there is enough protein options that I can binge eat meats to quickly get my price per kilo of meat down to reasonable prices.
For those unfamiliar, the Peninsula Hotel has been a Five Star stalwart in Manila for decades. The ginormous lobby is straight out of The Great Gatsby, framed by two sweeping staircases and opulent accents. The Bougie elite of Manila uses the lobby for Instagramable snaps for weddings, birthdays, and other special occasions.
In line with the hotel’s Five-star luxury reputation, the buffet boasts several open kitchen stations, where food is custom-prepared for you. This buffet truly allows you a trip around the world, from freshly baked bread, a live sushi chef, a variety of carved meats, a Filipino area with local dishes, and the previously mentioned desserts. It is an elaborate global buffet.
Get your fill of Western cheesecakes and tiramisus, plus classic Filipino desserts: halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert), ube, cassava cakes, and kutsinta.
I’m not gonna lie; I’m almost a stereotype of a mainland Chinese tourist when I hit this buffet. I skip past all the filling but cheap salads, hors d’oeuvres, and appetizers and head straight for the meaty entrees. I stack the prime rib and seared tuna steaks to teetering heights to maximize my money’s worth.
The signature dishes change daily, so you won’t get bored if you come here two days in a row. You’re paying $42 for a buffet, so you can imagine that this is not your average school cafeteria fare.
Each gourmet farm-to-table dish uses the freshest ingredients and is prepared regularly, so each spoonful you put on your plate has been recently crafted—no dried-out tough meats or caked and curdled sauces here.
Save room for desserts. I know I do. I usually make at least 3 trips for plates full of Filipino classics like macapuno, caramelized sugar leche flan, and international staples like cheesecake, tiramisu, and ice cream. Desserts here are amazing, and I could probably eat $42 worth of sweets alone.
INSIDER TIP: Go bug the sushi chef for freshly prepared salmon sake. Seriously, get at least 3 servings of the sashimi. Ignore the filling rolls of rice and concentrate on the “so soft it’s like salmon flavored butter” slices of sashimi.
Toyo Eatery- Top Restaurant In Manila For A Splurge
People often ask me which unique Filipino restaurants in Manila I bet would get a Michelin Star by 2025, and Toyo Eatery would always be at the top of my list.
I’ve eaten at several of the Top 50 restaurants, including the #1 ranked restaurant in the world, Central, in Lima, Peru, and the 8-course $85 USD / 4,900 PHP Chef’s Tasting Menu at Toyo was as enjoyable as any of other restaurants.
While Toyo is a mainstay in the Top 50 restaurants in Asia, I feel this culinary not cracking the world’s best is a crime. I can confidently say that Toyo Eatery is more than just a restaurant – it’s an experience that redefines Filipino cuisine.
Helmed by the visionary Chef Jordy Navarra, Toyo is an avant-garde Filipino restaurant that embraces sustainability and Filipino pride. From the moment you step into Toyo, you’re transported to a world of culinary excellence. The atmosphere is cozy and intimate, with a communal chef’s table offering a front-row view of the kitchen’s live action.
With Chef Navarra’s extensive culinary background, including training at the Fat Duck in the UK and Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that Toyo Eatery is one of the top fine dining establishments in Manila. It was named the Best Restaurant in the Philippines in 2023 and sits 42 on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Reservations are a must, and the place is consistently packed, a testament to its popularity.
If you want to splurge on an unforgettable dining experience in Manila, book a table at Toyo Eatery. You won’t just enjoy a meal; you’ll embark on a culinary journey celebrating Filipino culture and innovation.
As the capital city, Manila offers a culinary adventure like no where else in the Philippines. From the bustling streets of Quezon City to the hole-in-wall eateries near Manila Bay, this city is a haven for food lovers.
Exploring Philippine cuisine is a must, with its rich flavors and unique fusion of Spanish and Asian cuisine. Don’t miss indulging in a classic Filipino meal, complemented by ice-cold beer, a quintessential local pairing.
Eat Local or Eat Like an Expat?
Do you find any of these places tempting? I feel like Manila provides a decent value for the quality of food; what are your thoughts? Are the prices more or less than your home country? Please discuss this with me in the comments below.
FAQs- Food In Manila, Philippines
The cost of eating out in Manila can vary depending on where you eat. I can get charcoal grilled pork barbecue sticks for $2 at most street markets. Local Jollibees fast-food serves up $2.50 fried chicken sandwiches. On the higher side, a 3-course mid-scale restaurant would cost $30 per person.
Note that Manila offers a wide range of dining options catering to various budgets. So, whether you’re looking for an affordable local meal or a luxurious dining experience, you can find it in the capital city of the Philippines. These prices are based on data for September 2023.
Manila doesn’t have the food destination reputation of Bangkok or Tokyo. But like any large Asian capital city, Manila has loads of quality choices. From Michelin Star branches to two fine dining restaurants, Toyo (Filipino Cuisine) and Metiz (French-Fusion), ranked in Asia’s Top 50 Best.
With 61 locations in Manila and Quezon City, Mang Inasal is an iconic restaurant chain known for its Bacolod chicken barbecue. Considered the Philippines “Best Tasting Chicken Inasal,” this dish showcases succulent grilled chicken BBQ with traditional soy sauce and citrus marinades and sauces.
Anthony Bourdain explored Manila’s culinary scene in two episodes of his shows. In “No Reservations,” he visited the Carvajal Street food market, trying chicken balls, taho with brown sugar syrup, and pancit palabok with chicken liver.
He also ventured to the Dampa Seaside Market for pinakbet with bitter gourd and ginataang alimango.
In “Parts Unknown,” he tasted Jollibee’s Jolli Spaghetti and fried chicken, followed by halo-halo. Super Six Bar + Grill served him sisig with a fried egg. He had another round of adobo at Handlebar Makati, this time with pork hock.
At Sarsa Kitchen + Bar, Boudain tasted Chef JP Anglo’s grilled isaw and liempo.