By Jaslee Carayol
When Renee’s Kitchenette & Grill in Woodside, Queens opened in 1992, it was the only Filipino restaurant on the stretch of Roosevelt Avenue known as “Little Manila.” Today, there are five – soon to be six – other Filipino restaurants in the area. Though no item on the menu exceeds $10, customers have come and gone because food is cheaper and quicker elsewhere. Renee’s once employed 22 people, but now employs eight during the week and 15 on weekends. The restaurant is quieter these days, but Renee’s hasn’t succumbed to the fast food trend to attract more customers. Their food, the owners say, is all cooked fresh on premises.
Renee and Ernesto Dizon first opened a restaurant with six tables and such a small kitchen that they had to do a lot of the cooking on their grill at home. By 1995, the family moved the business to the current location, a larger space only blocks away. The Dizons’ only daughter, Emma, was in high school when the restaurant opened. She now plays a large role in running the place including cooking, doing payroll and interviews, and managing employees.
“If you keep your food as good as it can be, you’re always going to have customers,” Emma Dizon said.
Signature dishes at Renee’s Kitchenette include barbequed meats, dinuguan (pork blood stew cooked with garlic and chili), kare-kare (oxtail with string beans, eggplant and peanut sauce), and chicken adobo (a national dish prepared with soy, garlic and vinegar). Renee’s serves cuisine from the Philippine province of Pampanga, which Emma Dizon said many Filipinos consider to have the best cooking. Influenced by Cantonese and Spanish cooking, food from that region is typically sweet or savory and includes lots of meat and produce.
“We come here every time we go to Queens,” said Anna Real, a young woman eating dinner with a friend. A resident of Port Washington, Long Island, Real said, “I’ve been coming here for years. I don’t remember how long.”
Aleli Sweeney, a Whitestone resident, has also been a longtime customer at Renee’s. Sweeney, who ordered for herself and her companion without looking at the menu, emigrated from the Philippines 30 years ago. She said she has been coming to Renee’s since around the time it opened.
“The food’s very good,” Sweeney said. “There are not many Filipino restaurants. It’s either come here or go to New Jersey.”
Sweeney said she likes Renee’s because the food is “more homemade, like family.” She and her companion, Michael Charles, eat at the restaurant once a week, usually on Sundays. Charles added that the food is “fresh and inexpensive.”
Sweeney said she prefers Renee’s to other Filipino places because of its family atmosphere. “Other places are too crowded and loud, especially with people coming in and out at the baker[ies].”
Renee’s Kitchenette & Grill is an intentionally homey restaurant. The walls are painted a warm shade of yellow, plants hang above the counter and there are knickknacks and decorative signs.
Concordia Soriano and her husband, Bill Buell, live in Lower Manhattan, but eat at Renee’s a several times a month because there aren’t many Filipino restaurants in Manhattan.
“It’s her favorite, she’s Filipino,” Buell said of his wife. “I come here just to bring takeout to [her]. It’s the best.”
Buell and Soriano added that they buy so much food at Renee’s, they need reusable shopping bags to carry the takeout home.
“I like the taste – unique, always fresh,” Soriano said.
Other area Filipino restaurants serve a slightly different cuisine than Renee’s. Several storefronts away, Krystal’s Café sells food that is less regionally specific.
“It’s more mixed,” Dennis Mendoza said of the cooking. Mendoza has worked at Krystal’s for 12 of the 15 years it’s been open. “Most customers are from different parts of the Philippines. Filipinos have different foods they like.”
Krystal’s Café is markedly busier than Renee’s during the same hours. Many tables are filled and Mendoza said that there are many regular customers.
“They eat breakfast before work and dinner after,” Mendoza said. “They feel at home.”
Though there are no advertisements and Mendoza said “people just know” about the weekend karaoke nights, he said the restaurant got more business, particularly from non-Filipino customers, after reviews in the New York Post and the New York Times.
Over at Renee’s, Emma Dizon said they don’t advertise either. “We’re a simple restaurant without pretension,” Dizon said. “And we can’t really afford it. It’s nice to advertise, but it’s not us.”
Emma Dizon recently added to the restaurant’s menu options. Last year, Renee’s began serving beer and wine, and added a combination lunch special to its menu.
“We’re always coming up with something,” Emma Dizon said of trying to attract customers. “We’re not going to stop.”