Ever since it set up shop in Makati’s rejuvenated Poblacion district in April earlier this year, Japanese-Peruvian restaurant Japonesa has been a hit with the area’s nightlife crowd.
As with most places in Poblacion, Japonesa has quickly formed a reputation for being the place to be, especially with the so-called cool kids. That’s because of its winning combination of delicious Japanese-Peruvian fare, free-flowing cocktails to knock back, and music to feel high on. It’s Poblacion, after all, and there’s got to be a party going on somewhere.
According to Japonesa owner and Notorious Concepts CEO James Thomas, this is exactly the game he identified when he decided to move into the neighborhood at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
“As far as the nightlife component, it’s a given that any spot in Poblacion would need to have a strong drinking and music culture,” he says. “Most spots there are nightlife-centric, so having very interesting food to go along with the alcohol is a must if you want to stand out.”
“As far as the nightlife component, it’s a given that any spot in Poblacion would need to have a strong drinking and music culture,” Notorious Concepts CEO James Thomas says. “Most spots there are nightlife-centric, so having very interesting food to go along with the alcohol is a must if you want to stand out.”
As a result of its strong identity and offerings, Japonesa has been able to attract a diverse crowd of diners. Thomas identifies people from a wide variety of age groups, cities, and other demographics who have come to check out what the restaurant is all about. It’s safe to say that it’s managed to connect with people, a factor that everyone knows defines the most successful endeavors.
After a few months of living solely by night, Thomas decided to expand Japonesa’s operations to lunchtime. The restaurant now opens at 11 a.m. to serve office workers in the area looking to have exciting and energizing food for lunch.
“We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from guests who wished we were open for lunch so they could order takeout,” says Thomas. “We also found that some of our older patrons who regularly held their family gatherings on Saturdays or Sundays were looking for a new lunch spot to throw into their mix.”
And why wouldn’t they? Especially when versatile flavors from Japan and Peru are on full display. While customers expect fusion fare (which can admittedly feel overdone and tired), Japonesa seems to execute this formula to great effect.
The Sake Tiraditos is a good introduction to the restaurant with bite-sized Norwegian salmon showered in cucumber and a green garlic sauce. It’s light but mighty in flavors to get the palate going for more high-octane options like the crowd favorite La Japonesa—whose crispy rice and spicy tuna layers are insanely addicting with the green chili—and the Lengua Katsu (beef tongue katsu and creamy potatoes) that’s cooked to virtually melt in your mouth with the potatoes and eliminate feelings of midday stress.
Elsewhere, the Peruano (miso-marinated salmon, crispy shallots, avocado, cucumber, potato threads) and the Coliflor Frito (cauliflower, edamame puree, red bell pepper sauce) demonstrate Japonesa’s willingness to make its food a big part of its identity despite having the usual trappings of a bustling Poblacion spot.
Thomas prides their food on Japanese head chef Luis Higa, who had lived in Peru for half his life and ran a successful Instagram food business called Little Peru.
“Japonesa’s intended identity is that spot that takes their culinary just as seriously as their beverage program. We are of course in a nightlife-centric part of the city and drink sales make up the majority of the market share, which is why I feel that some businesses here do not focus as much on the food,” Thomas says.
“In places like Poblacion where it makes more sense to create food menus that go along with drinking, Japonesa doesn’t aim to create food items that pair well with drinks. Japonesa aims to create good food, period.”
The restaurant’s growth isn’t stopping, especially with the success it’s seen and enjoyed after only nearly six months. Thomas and his team are constantly developing and tinkering with its menu, whittling it down to the gems. He’s also looking to expand the restaurant and opening up its second floor, introducing outdoor seating and a new and extensive menu featuring Peruvian grilled meats. Of course, long-term goals include setting up Japonesa branches outside of Poblacion—notably in other islands and tourist areas in the country.
In the first few months of operations, things tend to go wrong no matter how much you try to prepare. Engaging with your guests early and often gives you the ability to understand what is going on, where there are cracks in the system, and whether there’s anything that needs to be fixed immediately,” says James Thomas.
And if there’s anything Thomas has learned from Japonesa’s early life so far, it’s that listening always leads to success. That interest in the restaurant expanding to other places is because they were so good at dealing with any concerns and issues that pop up.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that engaging with your guests may not guarantee success, but not engaging with your guests will guarantee your demise,” he says.
“This is especially true in the early goings of any new business. In the first few months of operations, things tend to go wrong no matter how much you try to prepare. Engaging with your guests early and often gives you the ability to understand what is going on, where there are cracks in the system, and whether there’s anything that needs to be fixed immediately.”
While some might find it hard to take in criticism, Thomas absorbed it—and learned from it, too. “I’ve discovered numerous missteps in our first few weeks by simply meeting and talking to the guests who came out. Thankfully, they were gracious enough to give me their honest feedback and I was able to nip those problems in the bud,” he says. “If I hadn’t been there to speak to these guests, who knows how long the problems would have persisted.”