We spent the last week of our 6-week marathon trip around the Philippines in El Nido Town watching the World Cup, food tripping and finding that elusive spot we could convert into a backpackers’ lodge someday. Charles is obsessed with rock climbing and the limestone cliffs and the awesome view here make this place his version of paradise. I, on the other hand, adore its numerous pristine white-sand beaches and its amazing underwater species, so we couldn’t agree more when we made El Nido the last destination in our itinerary before leaving the country for the coming months.
Despite doing only 1 island-hopping tour during our 7 day stay, we actually enjoyed simply mixing with the locals and sampling all the restaurants – both the old timers and the new ones that had recently sprouted in the area. El Nido is still off the radar of the mainstream tourist, mainly because of the effort it takes to get here. Yet you can find some great restaurants here – they may not always look impressive from the outside but they might surprise you in many ways.
HABIBI SHISHA CAFE AND RESTAURANT
This place is one of the new restaurants in the area (not yet in the guide books) and is located along the main drag towards Art Café. We were almost fooled by the worn out façade of this two-storey house turned into a café, and ignored it several times until, out of curiosity, we went up to its second floor and discovered a fantastic modern and trendy bar, which became our default evening hang-out for the rest of our stay.
Habibi is the only Shisha Bar in Palawan that offers all imported and nicotine-free Shisha in different fruit flavors. I didn’t even know what a Shisha was until they let me try the “love me” flavor which smelled so sweet I thought it was edible. Despite being a non-smoker, I found the Shisha experience to be not at all unpleasant – quite relaxing in fact.
It’s not just a bar though – the owners, Ronnie and Charo take pride in their food service, especially the fresh seafood, and the great quality and presentation of the food. They source their food from the local fishermen and local market and hand-picked them personally. We sampled the garlic buttered shrimp, crab steak with sweet sauce, sweet and sour fish and the shanghai rice, all of which were absolutely delicious and beautifully presented. Habibi Cafe has a very well stocked bar and the make some great cocktails, as well as offering the usual range of beers. Their coffee is also excellent, and worth stopping by for.
We spent many late nights here just hanging around enjoying the World Cup finals on a wide-screen projector television with other soccer fanatics, as well as surfing the net. The place is very cozy and sophisticated, and yet the vibe is friendly. The bar has been decorated really well, with great attention to detail. You will pay a little more for its food and drinks compared to some of the other restaurants in the area but you are assured of fresh, tasty and great quality of dishes, and a trendy bar atmosphere unique in El Nido. The shisha is an experience itself, and if you enjoy it, Habibi is a must visit. Overall, this place was my favorite chill out place at night.
Location: Serena St. Barangay Buena Suerte
Contact Person: Charolyn F. Casino
Contact Number: +639054841764
Having been operating for 8 years, Squidos is one of the oldest and most well-known of the El Nido restaurants. It is owned and run by Jean-Marc Lafarge, a French expat, and his Filipina wife Narcel. Squidos is a small, unassuming native-style hut conveniently located on Hama Street (which runs along the beach) at the intersection with Abdulla Street. The interior of Squidos is cozy, albeit a little dark, simply furnished with wooden furniture. There is a large TV in the corner which is often used for showing the latest sports from around the world.
The restaurant serves fresh French cuisine with Filipino twist, and Narcel served us up a tasty and plentiful lunch. There was a unique mixed seafood curry with crab, shrimp, mussels and squid (P350, good for two). The stuffed squid (P170) was tasty, albeit a common Filipino favorite dish that is available quite widely. The highlight for me, however, was the fantastic citrus fried rice with roasted vegetables (P250), or maybe that’s just because I’m so vegetable crazy. Squidos also serves a good selection of fruit, chocolate and coffee shakes, perfect for a hot day.
Squidos tends to be a cozy dinner destination, and is fairly quiet in the mornings and at lunch time. The food is quite reasonable, but some have found that the service could perhaps be more attentive. That said the owners Jean-Marc and Narcel are very accommodating and helpful, and if you take the time to get to know them you’ll feel like one of the family in no time.
Location:Hama St, Brgy Masagana
Contact Person: Narcel
Contact Number: +6391 9227 5537
PUKKA BAR AND RESTAURANT
Pukka bar is a bar/restaurant located directly on the beach in El Nido town. Here you can truly enjoy the beach atmosphere, dining right on the beach with the sand between your toes. The owners Ryan and Judy are very professional and run the place well. The place is decorated nicely with a bit of a ramshackle-yet-comfortable beach bar style.
The menu is quite varied – we tried the pork steak, Thai chicken curry (P175) and a chocolate and banana crepe for desert (P75). All the dishes were very tasty for their price. The cookies and cream frappe (P90) was excellent, and the pineapple shake (P65) very refreshing. Those looking for a good cappuccino (P60) should also give this place a go, it served one of the better cups of coffee I found in El Nido. After dinner you can chill out with Bob Marley on the cushions and smoke a shisha.
Unlike some of the other beach bars, Pukka does not have a live band at night, so it is well suited to those looking for a quiet dining experience, without loud music spoiling the mood. While there are places with fancier food available, Pukka has a very chilled and romantic ambiance and makes a nice place to just hang out, watch the sun set and then while the night away.
Contact Persons: Ryan Villalon and Judy Manco
Contact Numbers: +63 908 488 8832 / +63 908 561 9810
BALIKAW BAR AND RESTAURANT
Balikaw is a newcomer to the El Nido restaurant scene and is located one street back from the beach on Real St. The restaurant has been recently renovated and is comfortably furnished and has a cozy, homely feel. The owner, Rejane, is very welcoming and her father, who runs the kitchen, has excellent credentials having previously cooked at some of the 5 star resorts in the area.
One of the specialties of Balikaw is its steaks. They are fully imported and certified Angus steaks, and Balikaw is one of the few places where you can find them in El Nido. They also have a good selection of seafood dishes as well as the usual pizza, pasta and Filipino dishes for reasonable prices. There is also a good value set meal consisting of soup, salad, main course and desert.
The Angus steak we were served when we visited for lunch was sublime, tender and juicy, although to nit-pick I would have preferred mine slightly more on the rare side. As good as it was, however, the steak was surpassed by a delectable lobster thermidor (available by special order). This dish was truly special, and prepared and presented exquisitely. Both dishes were served with vegetables and fries on the side.
Despite the fact that it is relatively new and not located directly on the beach, Balikaw Bar and Restaurant impressed us with its quality food. It’s definitely worth the effort of wandering further into the town to find this place, especially if you’re hankering after a big juicy steak.
Locaton: Real St
Contact Person: Rejane Meridor
Contact Number: 0921 311 2940
BACUIT GRILL BAR and RESTAURANT
What you see is definitely not what you get with this little bar and restaurant situated at the far north end of El Nido beach. This place really surprised us in terms of food presentation and quality for the price that it is offering. It is a simple, laid-back, open-air Nipa beach bar located right on the beach past El Nido Beach Hotel. It’s quite small and doesn’t really look like much as you pass by, but in this case appearances are deceiving. The Bacuit Grill is a good place to have an afternoon drink while waiting for the sunset. The combination of the friendly staff, Bob Marley tunes in the background and the quiet location give this place a really warm and friendly vibe.
I was most impressed however by the presentation of their food which is very elegant and professional for an unassuming and regular-looking bar. The kinilaw na tanuige was delicious with just the right sourness and spice creatively served in a wine glass while the shrimps cooked in coconut milk and beef medallions with mushroom sauce were simply mouth-watering. It turned out the owner and chief cook, Kuya Reynate also worked at the exclusive 5-star resort in El Nido, which is probably where he learned such excellent skills in food preparation/presentation and customer service.
He also showed us his skills in mixing different cocktail drinks. There is the usual cocktails such as Golden Margarita and Bluerita made of tequila, triple sec and sunquick lemon, as well as his own unique cocktails such as the Bacuit Sunset and Bacuit Breeze. All are delicious and beautifully presented, and are highly recommended.
They also serve breakfast, salads, meat dishes and fresh grilled seafood. The food is of great value for its price. In all, the Bacuit Grill is a real surprise – top quality food and cocktails served beach-side in a really chilled and unassuming environment. Well worth a visit.
Contact Person: Reynante
Contact Number: 09202385160, 09395824564
BALAY TUBAY SEAFOOD GRILL
It was off-peak season when we visited El Nido town so Balay Tubay wasn’t as crowded as it usually is. There wasn’t the usual display of fish and seafood where you can choose what you want to be cooked, so we mainly ate here for breakfast.
The place is the first restaurant you see when you arrive at the town. It could get crowded during tourist season especially for dinner so you might want to make a reservation. The food preparation took some time for us, perhaps because there was only one person manning the place while we were there. We were usually the first and the only customers in the morning so the waiting wasn’t a problem. I enjoyed its generous serving of fruit that accompanied the Filipino Breakfast served with 2 eggs, corned beef and rice. Charles liked the coffee mug-size upgrade without extra charge.
There is also another branch called Balay Tubay Asta Galeri on the west side of the town which offers good live music in an artsy setting. This branch has a bit of a character and displays art and handicrafts made by local artists. Unfortunately they didn’t have any bands on while we were there, due to it being low season I guess. They also serve wide variety of dishes like seafood, pizza and pasta.
We had breakfasts twice at Café Tayo during our stay in El Nido town, which was quite near to where we were staying. We would have chosen to walk to Habibi Café for its wide choice of coffee, which is Charles’ morning ritual, but we ended up eating most of our breakfasts at Cafe Taiyo and at Balay Tubay, just because they were the closest to our lodge. The servings, however, are generous and the food is tasty as well. It’s a good place to get your coffee fix and satisfy your big breakfast cravings before embarking on all the island-hopping and adventures El Nido has to offer.
THE ALTERNATIVE RESTAURANT and BAR
We discovered the Alternative’s restaurant when we came to check out its available rooms. It turned out that aside from accommodation, it also offers holistic and detoxification treatments, a spacious dining area and a unique bar with “tub-like” perches that overhang on the beach from its second floor. The tub looks like a cool place to hang out for a drink or chat with your friends with a bird’s eye view of the action on the beach.
The place offers a wide variety of excellent natural vegetarian dishes and fresh seafood with a beautiful view of the beach to match the dining experience. You have to be a bit patient though when dining here because it could take a while for the food to be served, as they seem to prepare everything from scratch, however the food is worth the wait. The Alternative is a good option for the health conscious or for those who want to have a break from seafood overload and meat dishes, although they also do meat dishes upon request.
Contact Person: Ms. Rebecca Cea
Contact Number: +63 09178963408
THE ART CAFE
The Art Café is an El Nido institution, and one of the most popular restaurants and tour operators in the area; so popular that we tried to avoid it for the first 5 days of our stay in El Nido until the need for a free wi-fi brought us there.
The Art Café offers an extensive breakfast menu and evening main courses, as well as a variety of snacks and pizzas. On our first visit, we tried the continental breakfast, more expensive and not as hefty compared to Balay Tubay and Café Taiyo, but just as good. They also make homemade bread and yoghurt and brew their own coffee. The homemade pancake though is nothing extra-ordinary but comes in big serving.
Their pizzas are quite good for its price- range (Php190-200 for regular size) especially the signature Art Café pizza, the tomato pesto pasta was just ok though. Their tasty fruit juices and milk shakes are probably some of the best ones I tasted in El Nido town. I like its organic salad best (harvested from their own farm) even though it was just simple, made with fresh lettuce rucola, some slices of tomatoes and a dash of vinaigrette.
Their prices are slightly more expensive than most of the restaurants in the town but you can expect consistency of quality in its dishes, and the place is also a mine of information for all your tours and logistics needs.
Artcafé Restaurant & Bar open from 6.30 am – 11 pm
Artcafé’s Travel Center open from 7 am- 7 pm
Serena Street, Buena Suerte
+63 92 0902 6317 / +63 91 6628 6665
Marbers restaurant and bar is located right on El Nido beach. It’s a little smaller than and not as noisy as some of the neighbouring restaurants, and perhaps gets a little overlooked as a result. It is run by a German expat, Bernie, and his Filipino wife, who are very accommodating. One of the specialties of the house is schnitzel, so if you’re a fan of this dish look no further. They also serve seafood, pizzas and curries. We tried a schnitzel and the pizza – the food was very tasty, although not perhaps in the top tier of what El Nido has to offer.
Marber’s location on the beach is great, however the place could use a bit of a facelift to give it more character. Despite this it’s a nice place to chill out and enjoy the beautiful El Nido beach.
SEA SLUGS BAR and RESTAURANT
Sea Slugs is one of the busiest restaurants along the beach especially at dinner time. It offers al fresco dining right on the beach complete with torch light and live music from its own house musicians. The service is remarkable, they would accommodate your request even if some dishes aren’t on the menu. We had dinner here on a busy night so it took a while for our order to be served – we just ordered any fresh catch of the day that was good for two.
I realized then why it took longer to prepare the food when a huge grilled fish with vegetable side dish good for 4 people arrived on our table. They also serve breakfast, sandwiches, steaks, pizzas and the main course is a choice between meat and seafood cooked to your own liking. Typical Filipino favorites like grilled squid, garlic shrimp and different grilled seafood are available.
But if food tripping on as much fresh seafood as you can eat in one sitting is your thing, then their seafood buffet (offered thrice a week) is a must do, and is the only buffet in town. You pay a bit extra for its prime beachfront location and live entertainment, but the food and service is good at Sea Slugs.
RIC SON’S RESTAURANT
Ric Son’s is another popular dining place along the beach near Sea Slugs, also with torch-lit alfresco dining. It has its own band that plays a mix of reggae and more contemporary music than its closest neighbor. It has a wide selection of meat, seafood and vegetable dishes which can be cooked to your liking. Patience is what you need especially if dining here on its busiest days.
For dinner we tried their spicy squid (P200) and the set meal chicken barbecue (250) that took ages to prepare. The food here is ok but the servings are quite small. I wouldn’t mind eating here again just because it has live music right on the beach and a romantic feel but you can get the same quality of food in bigger servings from other restaurants nearby and for a cheaper price.
BLUE AZUL RESTAURANT
I was more impressed with the interiors of this place more than the food on display on its menu. It’s located one street back from the main street and is furnished with native bamboo and sawali and hardwood furnishings. Blue Azul offers an eclectic selection of dishes from Phad Thai noodles, pancit bihon, vegetable tempura, schnitzel, shawarma, falafel, hummus, burger, salad, pastas and even Nido Soup from bird’s nest. It also offers cheap combo meals.
The food is not extra-ordinary but will satisfy various cravings for a cheaper price. The owner slash cook is also very friendly and lives up well to the restaurant’s motto “Name it, Libby will cook it”. Blue Azul has free Wi-Fi access for its diners.
The owner and chief cook of Blue Azul – Kuya Libby
Location: Real St. Buena Suerte
Contact Numbers: 09104411286/ 09194748151