I love coming of age films. They validate my feelings, thoughts, and experiences in one way or another and tap into the teenage sensitivities poignantly. When Christine in Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig) jumped out of a moving car mid-argument with her mom, I felt that—as much as I felt Minnie in The Diary of A Young Girl (dir. Marielle Heller) when she said, “Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can’t believe what I see,” in front of her reflection, naked, insecure of her appearance.
This is why when I heard the story of a coffee shop in Escolta—that it has come of age (yes, a cafe has found itself)—from its new owners Gabriel Villegas and Derek Tumala, it made me feel wistful. It’s weird. I never knew I could relate to an establishment (well, technically, it’s not just the literal coffee shop, of course) when Villegas says, “It knows itself better.”
For the last two years, The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture was a space for those who seek respite in local specialty coffee, for art projects and exhibitions, and for people to just come together. “When we’re starting out, we have this idealized vision of what a coffee shop should be, how it should look like, and we tried that for the first two years,” says Villegas. The Den is tucked inside HUB: Make Lab, an incubator for creative startups in First United Building.
But now, with a brighter finish on concrete but same industrial interiors balanced with warm wood accents, it’s also presenting “experimental programming that explores a wide spectrum, not just art,” says Tumala. These are presentations of contemporary culture in the form of exhibits, workshops, talks and discussions, and events that focus on arts, design, music, food, lifestyle, and community engagement. The Den has found the key to professional living a.k.a. adulting.
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“For the renewed version of The Den, it understands that it has to be active in the community it’s part of, to contribute, to highlight and showcase people who create and do the actual work in building communities,” says Villegas.
The Den celebrated its new direction with its inaugural exhibition on May 4 entitled Doon sa Maynila featuring street artist Auggie Fontanilla, “a visual artist who comments on and mirrors Manila’s social, physical, and political landscapes through street art, silkscreen prints, and tattoo-inspired art,” according to the press release.
The exhibit is about the changing appearance of the City of Manila—how it morphs throughout the years with a particular slant on looking at the influx of Chinese in the community. “It’s not just an exhibition because it’s nice and cute. It’s an exhibition because we want to engage with and provoke the audience,” says Villegas.
Together with the inaugural exhibition is The Den’s launch of the new menu, which now consists of pork adobo rice bowl, lemon mushroom pasta, craft sodas, and tea among others.
The lemon mushroom pasta is a zesty and savory dish made with sour cream and mushroom stock topped with parmesan cheese. It’s served with half a lemon and crispy and buttery croissant loaf which goes well with the firmness of the handmade noodles. The pork adobo, on the other hand, is their attempt to offer a Filipino dish in a neighborhood with no Filipino restaurant. The recipe is Villegas’ which he prepares for his friends—the meat melts in your mouth and the flavor is sourer than sweet.
New drinks include Cascara Teajito, a herby and a bit tamarind-y iced tea made with coffee husk collected in Atok, Benguet, which is then treated and processed by Kalsada Coffee. The Manila Sunset, which is offered in a limited time only, is the special drink for the Doon sa Maynila programming concocted with espresso, orange, soda water, and caramel.
Villegas and Tumala have been artists and cultural workers, particularly in Escolta, for years now. Villegas started 98B in 2012, an initiative and space where creatives of different disciplines collaborate and create—HUB: Make Lab and Escolta Block Party are just some of its brainchildren. Tumala, on the other hand, founded clothing brands General Merchandise and Slaves of Liberty, as well as Mvltiverse, a digital art studio that creates moving images through live performance, new media, and installations.
This new milestone for The Den is also a coming of age tale for a facet of Villegas and Tumala’s artistic endeavors. The two has been organizing all sorts of things that would bring people to the neighborhood of Escolta, a once glamorous commercial and business district in Binondo, and opening their eyes to the possibilities that can be done in the historical structures in the area.
“With The Den, we try to be empathetic and mindful,” says Tumala. And if those aren’t vital qualities of a mature adult, I don’t know what is.
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