Baguio City

Out of the woods: How Baguio City’s Forest House was reborn

Steph Arnaldo

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Out of the woods: How Baguio City’s Forest House was reborn
The city's famous Forest House closed down in 2020 after 19 years of business, but never disappeared. Here's how the Verzosa family kept the beloved name alive.

MANILA, Philippines – My earliest memories at Forest House are a bit hazy but fond – I remember dining with my relatives on a long wooden table, snuggled up in our sweaters, seated beside a fireplace. Surrounded by families, I remember its ambiance to be cozy, homey, and warm, moreso as I nursed Forest House’s signature bread bowl soup, with a sweet paper quote pinned on a toothpick.

An institutional Baguio City dining spot located along Loakan Road, Camp John Hay, Forest House (FH) offered a piece of home and comfort to patrons and tourists since its inception in April 2001. Families and friends flocked to the nostalgic, cabin-themed establishment for comfort food dishes reminiscent of family recipes, hands-on service, and its welcoming, home-like vibe that was distinctly its own.

NEW ENTRANCE. The new Forest House is built around greenery and nature in Suello Village. John Roxas/Rappler

That’s why many were up in arms when the beloved Baguio City name announced its sudden closure during the pandemic, after 19 years of business. Bidding its “last farewell” on June 30, 2020, Forest House made sure to thank its loyal diners for their support, whether it be just to drop by for a cup of coffee or enjoy a feast with the family.

Thankfully, that was not the last patrons would see of Forest House – the restaurant still remained open as a home cloud kitchen for deliveries, and to “provide employment for Forest House staff who all have families and have been with FH for almost two decades,” owner Ari Verzosa told Rappler.

A year later, Forest House rebranded to Raquel’s Cuisine, named after co-owner and Ari’s wife Raquel. They managed to open a small dining area at the back of their house in Suello Village to accomodate 15 guests for dine-in upon reservation. Eventually, they also began accepting reservations for baptisms, parties, and outdoor banquets at the Venus Garden location right across.

NEW LOCATION. Raquel’s Cuisine by Forest House finds its new home. John Roxas/Rappler

These pivots kept the Forest House name alive during the F&B industry’s most challenging period yet, and it was all thanks to the tenacity, perserverance, and commitment of Ari, Raquel, and their loyal staff to see Forest House’s exciting rebirth through.

Slow but steady rise

Four years later, Forest House found its new home as Raquel’s Cuisine, located in a brand-new, multi-story location in Gulf Road, Suello Village, tucked away in a high-altitude spot that overlooks Benguet’s sunsets and greenery below.

It’s a lovely, spacious, and breezy home with a pretty garden for al fresco dining and romantic dates, a first floor with an open kitchen and balcony dining, and a second floor for B&B guests.

GARDEN DINING. In front of the restaurant is a spacious garden for al fresco diners and romantic dates, under warmly-lit trees. John Roxas/Rappler

Forest House’s rustic charm is not lost here; it feels like you’re time traveling back to its original location, just smaller and more compact (and minus the fireplaces). Family portraits and nostalgic decor adorn the wooden walls, handwoven textile placemats are used on the narra tables, and quirky lamps and faux vines hang from the ceilings.

FOREST HOUSE’S CHARM. Cozy, warm, homey, and rustic. John Roxas/Rappler

They managed to keep things mostly the same (the recipes remain solid and most of the their staff have stayed on), but also slightly different in terms of the space – a strategy important in recovering from the pandemic.

“The owners of the property we’re currently using were actually regular guests at FH before. When they found out about the closure of FH, they offered us a part of their house to convert into a restaurant, and also a bed & breakfast,” Ari said.

BALCONY DATES. The new location overlooks mountains, clouds, and the sunset. John Roxas/Rappler

Despite the new space, it was important for the Verzosas to retain the Forest House’s atmosphere that has been loved for decades. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

“FH isn’t just a name, it’s a brand. When people hear the name Forest House, they picture a huge high-ceiling restaurant, wooden pine panels, yellow brick walls, colored stained glass, and a homey and warm ambiance,” Ari said.

WELCOME HOME. Raquel’s Cuisine by Forest House is an extension of the Verzosa family’s warmth and passion for service. John Roxas/Rappler

Since they couldn’t replicate the high ceilings, the name “Forest House” had to be tweaked to “Raquel’s Cuisine by Forest House,” with a menu that is mostly Filipino comfort dishes in shareable servings, made more affordable to cater to more people.

FH food was relatively expensive. What remained the same was the service, which we call “service above par” – warm, inviting, and homey.

Just like home
SOUPS IN A BREAD BOWL. My quote of the day said: ‘Never get so busy that you are forgetting to get a life.’ John Roxas/Rappler

Forest House’s signature favorites are still around, like the soup bread bowls of my childhood! The Potato Cheese Chowder (P195) was creamy, slightly thick, savory, and comforting, while the Wild Mushroom (P215) was soupier in consistency, with little chewy bits of mushrooms per spoonful.

BABY BACK RIBS. Simple, straightforward, and satisfying. John Roxas/Rappler

The Baby Back Ribs (P365) brought me back as well; this was one dish I also remember having as a teen. A fork-tender, meaty slab of ribs is doused in a sweet Pinoy BBQ sauce that tastes like it was made at home, not the American-style hickory kind of BBQ sauce.

CRISPY BAGNET. Deep-fried crispy pork belly is served with ensalada and atchara. John Roxas/Rappler

Raquel’s Crispy Bagnet (P320) is also a crowd favorite (so are the other best-selling bagnet-based dishes, like the kare-kare, sinigang, pinakbet, Bicol express, and bopis). Perfectly crunchy, soft, and slightly sinful, the deep-fried bagnet is seasoned lightly, so it doesn’t taste too overwhelming and oily. Top each bagnet slice with the tomato and onion salad and atchara served on the side, and you’ll get a welcome, tangy pop of freshness to the porky base.

SINIGANG NA SALMON. Although not as sour as I would have preferred, the broth is still comforting enough to enjoy with a hot cup of rice. John Roxas/Rappler

Dining in Baguio weather always needs a warm soup on the side, so I had to have Sinigang na Salmon (P435) – veggies, a generous slab of a fresh salmon fillet, and a light broth that’s not so heavy on the sinigang asim (sourness).

BROWNIE ALA MODE. It’s a brownie that’s more on the dense, hard side than the soft and chewy kind. John Roxas/Rappler

Don’t forget the coffee, tea, fruit smoothies, and dessert – Raquel’s Cuisine’s Choco Fudge Ala Mode (P155) is perfect for kids hankering for a fudgy and dense brownie chunk, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

PISANG GORENG. This Southeast Asian dessert puts the highlight on bananas. John Roxas/Rappler

The more adventurous adults may also enjoy the Indonesian Pisang Goreng (P150) like I did – delicately light and crispy wonton wrappers are layered in between banana fritters, soft sweet banana, chocolate, caramel sauce, nuts, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

Dining here feels just like you’re a guest at the Verzosa’s family home – warmly welcomed by their kind staff to your seat at the table, served only the family’s favorite dishes made with intention and heart.

A family affair

Considering FH’s success, it’s surprising that Ari and Raquel didn’t actually grow up in the F&B industry. They were both former Philippine Airlines flight attendants. And so, being trained to work in business class and first class exposed them to the “personalized, excellent service” that they try to emulate when they train their staff.

“Raquel flew for 10 years and I flew for 12. Why did we resign from flying? Our family was growing, we had four kids by the time I resigned and moved to Baguio,” Ari said.

“Personally, we found it difficult to raise children when we spent most of our time out of the country. We now have five children and when we moved up here to Baguio in 1998, we had much more time to spend with them,” Ari added.

The couple ran a coffee shop before opening FH – an idea born from the lack of mom-and-pop restaurants in Baguio City back then, aside from the usual fast-food chains.

UNIQUE EXPERIENCE. Not like your typical modern restaurant, Raquel’s Cuisine takes pride in its decades-old identity and charm. John Roxas/Rappler

“We had many friends who would visit Baguio who were looking for a restaurant that was uniquely Baguio, hence the look and feel of Forest House, a place for friends and other people to enjoy a Baguio restaurant experience,” Ari said.

The restaurant sources most of its ingredients locally. Why wouldn’t they, considering the freshness of Baguio’s highland vegetables? Prices are more reasonable and they get to support the local growers.

Ari said that they also source from San Fernando, La Union; Dagupan, Pangasinan; and other provinces south of Baguio for seafood, which are trucked to Baguio daily in the early mornings. Most of the meats are imported, so they source them from importers in Manila where they have to purchase in bulk.

Ari also shared that it was during the pandemic when Raquel decided to refine the brand’s menu.

“My wife loves cooking and our family loves eating. During the pandemic, she experimented with dozens of dishes until it was perfect for my kids and I,” he said. “Like we did at FH, every quarter, we review the fast and slow moving items and make corresponding adjustments by removing slow moving items and coming up with new ones.”

“I’m a third-generation, hotel and restaurateur. Touring the world as flights attendants, my wife and I developed a taste for different types of food. My children can be picky eaters, so we critique all the new food items that Raquel and our kitchen staff produce,” he said, and that seems to be working very well for them!

Lessons learned, future plans

Since Baguio is dependent on tourists for a huge chunk of its income, Ari said that it’s important to prepare for the “lean season,” which is when the rainy season starts (from around June to October) and fewer tourists visit Baguio.

“Cost cutting is necessary. For FH, 75% of our clients were tourists and that was a significant drop in our income. RC now has a bigger local market so we hope that we won’t struggle as much during the lean season,” he shared.

PATRONS, OLD AND NEW. Raquel’s Cuisine caters to both old and new diners who want the taste of FH but at more affordable prices. John Roxas/Rappler

Ari keeps it real, admitting that the restaurant business is a “difficult business.” It may seem “glamorous to own one, but it takes a lot of hard work and long hours to make it work, especially in the beginning where you should be hands on and know every aspect of the business,” he said.

“One of the major reasons while restaurants fail is lack of capital. Make sure you have more than enough and when you have, use your resources wisely. Have more than one supplier for the items that you procure. Monitor the in and out of your income and expenses.”

For a restaurant to take off, Ari believes in the power of a good social media manager, serving good food (“there is no excuse for a restaurant to serve mediocre tasting food”), consistency, and great service where basic greetings matter.

Raquel’s Cuisine is currently rehabilitating the huge garden, “as it was taken for granted for about a year.”

“During its peak, we had several garden weddings and outdoor dinners. We hope to bring the garden back to its old grandeur and open it to the public once more,” Ari said. In the pipeline are garden weddings, where RC will be able to offer its space and set-up at a more affordable price, compared to costly venues.

As for the future of Raquel’s Cuisine, Ari has high hopes: This will still be the place for people to create great memories.

“I believe we’ve achieved that as many people would leave the place with a smile on their face and would come back often. FH was a place where many young couples would date, get engaged in, get married, and years later would come back and bring their kids along,” he said.

“We hope that Raquel’s Cuisine will be the same.” –

For more information, you can check out Raquel’s Cuisine by Forest House on Facebook and Instagram. They are located at Gulf View Loop Gulf View Horizon, Suello Village, Baguio.

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.