Serving Cocktails and Culture in LA’s Historic Filipinotown

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By Paola Mardo .

Filipino cuisine is making waves in mainstream culture, especially in Los Angeles where restaurants like LASA, RiceBar, and The Park’s Finest serve up Filipino dishes and flavors beyond the standard lumpia and adobo fare. But while the so-called Filipino food movement heats up, issues of gentrification are reaching a boiling point in LA’s Historic Filipinotown neighborhood.

The Lost Angel cocktail includes ampalaya or bitter melon, a vegetable found in Filipino dishes, along with St. George Botanivore gin, singani 63, aperol, winter melon bitters, and a lemon twist. Photo by Paola Mardo. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

New developments and a  proposed design district are threatening to displace the area’s low-income and immigrant residents. The area has been called names like Rampart Village, North Westlake, and South Echo as developers attempt to rebrand or whitewash the neighborhood . But for years it has been known to locals and to LA’s Filipino community as Historic Filipinotown—or HiFi for short.

In a new plot twist, three ambitious small business owners with deep roots in the local Filipino community are trying to change the neighborhood narrative with Genever, a newly opened cocktail bar serving Filipino-inspired gin cocktails in the heart of Historic Filipinotown.

At the bar’s soft opening, community advocate and HiFi resident Michael Nailat said, “Genever to me is really important because this bar is run by three women, three Filipino women, who want to invest in their community. But then, like, if you ask somebody else, Does this neighborhood need a bar?’ I don’t know.”

Filipino residents began settling in what is now known as Historic Filipinotown in the 1950s and 1960s, moving from their original enclaves in the downtown area (in what is now Little Tokyo) and Bunker Hill. The site was officially designated as Historic Filipinotown in 2002 in a resolution proposed by then-Councilmember Eric Garcetti, now Mayor of Los Angeles.

Once a bustling Filipino community, remnants of Historic Filipinotown’s cultural originsare fading fast. The rise of expensive apartment buildings and Hollywood production offices are changing the neighborhood landscape. While there are still plenty of Filipino residents, and Filipinos are one of the largest Asian groups in LA county, HiFi is now predominantly Latino.

Michael Nailat and his wife Elaine Dolalas are Filipino-Americans who have lived in Historic Filipinotown for over a decade. They supported the Kickstarter campaign that helped launch the bar. Nailat believes that Genever is “truly a demonstration of what people investing in a community can look like.”

Genever is aiming to set itself apart from other HiFi establishments. Its plush seats and art deco touches make it a modern speakeasy worthy of a Great Gatsby soiree, but with a twist: It specializes in gin cocktails inspired by its surrounding Filipino community.

Drinks are infused with Filipino flavors like citrus calamansi , gelatinous sago pearls, and ampalaya or bitter melon. The decor includes a painting of a brown-skinned Filipina flapper prominently displayed on a wall. Names of Kickstarter supporters—many from the local community—are scrawled on secret spots around the room. Every detail is carefully crafted by the owners:three Filipina women with deep roots here.

“We wanted to be close to downtown but not in downtown,” says Roselma Samala of their choice of location for Genever. Samala is the CFO of Red Capiz Partners which operates Genever. “As we were looking, Historic Filipinotown was building a business development zone and had opportunities for small businesses to come in. And so we thought it would be a good opportunity for us as three Filipinas to come back to the community.”

Samala was born in Long Beach, raised in Orange County, and lived much of her adult life in LA. Her partners, CEO Patricia “Tricia” Perez and COO Christine “Tinette” Sumiller, were both born in the Philippines and raised in LA. Sumiller says they’re very familiar with the area and “a lot of the people who came through, especially during the soft opening days, are local.”

Samala, Perez, and Sumiller met as college students at UCLA, where they were involved in local Filipino organizations. Sumiller and Perez have been part of folk dance collective Kayamanan ng Lahi for over 20 years. Samala has been a member too. In college, she interned at Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), a non-profit just two blocks from the bar where Kayamanan ng Lahi used to hold rehearsals.

“We’re not here trying to gentrify in the negative sense, but bring business in and highlight the history of this area and our connection to the community,” Samala says.

The best friends dreamed up Genever over drinks on New Year’s Day 2013. They spent months on research and financial models. When they finally found a space in Historic Filipinotown, the real hard work began.

“So for you to get a permit to change the use of a space in the city of LA, you have to go through a hearing,” Sumiller explains. “And for you to go through a hearing, you got to make sure that the people around you are in agreement, so to speak, with the type of business that you’re going to bring into their community.”

Genever is a modern speakeasy with a twist — it specializes in gin cocktails inspired by its surrounding Filipino community. Photo by Wonho Frank Lee. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Sumiller and her partners went door-to-door around the neighborhood to introduce themselves, explain what kind of business they were starting, and ask for letters of support. This isn’t a requirement but Sumiller says support from the local community helps with the permit process.

At first, some residents didn’t understand what they were doing. Some were worried about noise or parking. Many of the residents were older Filipinos who had lived there since the 1950s, and Sumiller says the idea of a cocktail lounge didn’t really resonate with them. The women held a get-together at SIPA to help answer questions.

“We had an open forum and invited everybody to come there so they could ask all the questions that they needed to. And so that they could understand what we were going through, what we wanted to do here, and that, you know, this is a cocktail bar that they could walk into and it would be their neighborhood place,” Sumiller says.

Their transparency helped quell neighbors’ fears, and they eventually got the permit they needed. “We’ve come a long way and we’ve gone through a lot of things,” Sumiller says. “We go through a lot of things together and I think that’s why this works.”

The Diamond and Pearls cocktail, served here alongside Filipino bar snack cornik, or salted corn nuts, is made with green tea infused gin and matcha powder mixed with Filipino ingredients like coconut, pandan, calamansi, and sago. Photo by Noted Media. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Sumiller says their deep roots in the community helped their case and got the three friends and business partners through tough challenges. When they started construction last year, Perez experienced a devastating loss.

“I was six-months pregnant. It was March 17 on a Friday of last year. It was St. Patrick’s Day,” Perez recalls. “I went for an ultrasound with my husband. And the tech, she said, Whoa, when was the last time you felt your baby?’ And my heart dropped. We were just stunned.”

Tricia’s child had died in utero. Three days later, they induced labor. It was considered a stillbirth. “I became a mother. It’s transformed me forever,” says Perez.

Perez celebrated her child’s birth anniversary while opening the bar. On top of being Genever’s CEO, she runs two other restaurants and has a full-time job. Working with friends provides a different kind of support. Community programs like the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program (APISBP) have helped too.

APISBP is a collective of API community groups that assist small and micro business in LA. Through APISBP, Genever worked with the Chinatown Service Center for their planning and zoning hearings. Moving forward, they’re working with SIPA and their small business counselor Fidji Nicar Victoriano to help grow their business.

“A lot of the business owners that I work with, if it’s a brick and mortar shop, if it’s something that you can go to and visit, they really have this, like, very inclusive vibe,” says Victoriano, who works with Filipino small business owners like pastry chef Isa Fabro and the coffee and custard cafe FrankieLucy Bakeshop. Her goal is to bring Filipino businesses back into Historic Filipinotown, to become part of the narrative unfolding in the neighborhood.

The key to success? Build community.

“It’s not a grab-and-go kind of place. It’s always building the community and making sure that they’re a local shop in the neighborhood and, you know, they’re approachable and they do good business,” says Victoriano.

The Genever owners are very much interested in becoming a part of their community. At a neighborhood open house, they welcome friends, residents, business owners, and community members who’ve supported them along the way, like Joel Jacinto, an LA Board of Public Works Commissioner, former executive director of SIPA, co-founder of Kayamanan ng Lahi, and longtime friend.

“Things are flowing in Historic Filipinotown. Things are happening,” says Jacinto. “I’m absolutely thrilled to help amplify what’s going on here in Genever, the most beautiful gin bar in LA.”

Ron Fong, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program, says that Genever’s community focus really helped them succeed.

“There are a lot of bars and restaurants that go into neighborhoods that really have no sense of where they’re going into or what the history is of this community,” says Fong. “But these three women know about the history here. They know about the strong Filipino community here.”

Mike Yi, one of the owners of recently opened Tactile Coffee down the street, says he’s excited about all the new businesses coming to the neighborhood.

“Genever bar’s opening up. And next door a restaurant called VaKA Burger is going to open up and they’re going to bring another different kind of clientele,” Yi says. “I’m personally excited.”

“Those are Angelenos investing in Los Angeles in an area that has actually seen investment pass it by,” says O’Farrell, Councilmember of the 13th District, which includes Historic Filipinotown. He presented the Genever owners with a City Certificate of Recognition at the open house. “And I would say this would be very strongly supported by locals who live in this community. So the story here is not one of displacement or gentrification. It’s one of investment and helping to build a stronger local economy.”

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell presents the City Certificate of Recognition to Genever owners Christine “Tinette” Sumiller, Patricia “Tricia” Perez, and Roselma Samala. Photo by Paola Mardo. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The thing is, there have been a number of businesses that have invested in Historic Filipinotown over the years. Genever’s neighbors include a diverse array of small businesses, like Shibucho, a traditional sushi restaurant that’s been in the neighborhood since 1976. Nearby, the Filipino restaurant Bagnet serves silogs on banana leaf-lined plates. And a few blocks down, past an art gallery, Chinese donut shop, and Mexican Mercado, is the original Tommy’s Hamburgers.

Historic Filipinotown is a microcosm of Los Angeles and Samala, Sumiller, and Perez knew they wanted to be part of this evolving neighborhood when they first drew up their business plan in 2013. While they can’t stop the changes taking place in Historic Filipinotown, they can be a part of its narrative. For Perez, that means a lot of things.

“That we’re here in this neighborhood. That we’re here part of the Los Angeles city. That we are here to help change things for the better,” Perez says.

For these friends and entrepreneurs, positive changes are all part of the plan. And they’re just getting started.