1125 Dos Castillas St. Sampaloc, Manila is a part of the metro I wouldn’t typically frequent. I hardly remember the last time I visited the area of the University of Sto. Tomas, but there I was experiencing the daily grind of the UST Growling Tigers as it happened before me. I felt like a stranger in an unknown landscape, but once I stepped into iChill Theater Café – a second home for artists – I was suddenly right where I belonged and thankful I had ended up there.
Kuya Manzano built iChill with the vision of a venue where each and every individual is free to express – no matter who you are, whichever your craft is, and whatever you believe in. The interior was inspired by underground theater locations in Europe, given his exposure and experience as a performer with Spanish roots. His everyday passion for self-expression is so contagious that even the patrons find themselves hitting the highest of notes at iChill’s accommodating stage. To keep up the cycle of artistic encouragement, guests who sing a track or two get a meal on the house, equivalent to a yummy pat on the back! I also had my fair share of channeling Amy Winehouse, in rotation with my colleague Charly who – I have a strong feeling – already curated his set list for the nightly open mic session even before we got to the cafe.
“This is my fifth song,” my colleague eventually announced to the room, along with a heartfelt dedication to the audience who didn’t even know who he was but was pretty happy to have him there anyway (not that they had a choice). The students were all very accepting of the two of us low-key wrestling each other for who got to sing next.
The longer I was at iChill, the more I felt at ease with the crowd. They were so much a part of the café that it hardly seemed like they were dining in; it felt more as though they were simply there to visit a long-time friend. The students had their respective spots and knew exactly what to order, and it showed just how comfortable they were to simply be there at all (so comfortable that they can even receive massages upon request). It had me thinking about how much more colorful my college life would have been if I had a nearby refuge similar to iChill, where I could regularly enjoy great food in an environment of unbridled creativity. The lucky students of UST have definitely been blessed with such a place.
Kuya served us a big bowl of nachos with specially seasoned cheese sauce, exclaiming that it is a must for every get together at the café. Nachos are easily the top choice when you’re looking for something to share with your mates, I recall him saying. We also had the creamy caramel Prince Charming, one of iChill’s many coffee and milk-based frappes – all coined after pop culture references such as Cookie Monster, Janis Joplin, Paris Love, Dracula, The Swamp Thing, Chipmunk, Central Perk, Fat Albert and James Bond. They named their hot drinks and smoothies the same way, and I love how it all faithfully links back to the café’s theme of storytelling.
We got to try their Carbonara – the crowd favorite at iChill given its rich taste, heavy serving, and undeniable affordability. I can’t imagine any student (or anyone at all) ever turning down this massive heap of creamy pasta for only Php60. I picture this go-to dish to be the loyal companion of every single UST student in iChill at this very moment, most likely rushing to lock in that overdue thesis statement. (Stay strong, guys!)
Finally, we had their house hamburger and fries accompanied by this cute setting of donuts topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup – another staple dish that was just as delicious as the first. They like to be spontaneous and experimental with their recipes at iChill; a great reflection of the café’s vision altogether. I remember looking at the dessert for a good amount of time and carefully asking if it was supposed to be a face, to which Kuya responded: “It’s anything you want it to be.”
The next time you feel like entering an entirely different world, head over to this restaurant and spend as many hours as you can. It feels good to be there, even liberating. You can also experience iChill Theater Cafe at this moment and right where you are.