By: Margaux Salcedo
I remember dining at Sonya’s Garden when it had just opened in the late 1990s. You would drive to the far end of Tagaytay to dine in what looked like a greenhouse.
The half of the room near the entrance was for the tables for dining—just around four tables—while the other half was the garden, with herbs and special greens.
The menu was limited to salad and pasta that you would put together yourself. But people came because, aside from the excellent greens, it was a lovely experience, albeit the limited menu.
Most of the time, Sonya herself was present to personally welcome guests. Then you would get a tour of the garden before or after your meal, as she shared tips on healthy eating and living, as well as on herbs and gardening.
The garden restaurant became very popular by word of mouth. If anyone ever went to Tagaytay, especially with balikbayans, a trip would not be complete without visiting Sonya’s Garden.
Business was good and soon she expanded to have a little souvenir shop. I remember the displays of dream catchers by Pam Reyes, hats, soaps and other wellness products.
In full bloom
Almost 20 years later, the bud that was Sonya’s Garden is in full bloom. I was quite overwhelmed on my last visit with how much the place has grown and expanded that I thought I might need a map.
There are now two main restaurants, The Conservatory and Morning Glory. Morning Glory is a huge space that can accommodate 400 guests so make sure to call in advance as the restaurants might be closed for a wedding or other event.
Now if you want an intimate dinner for two, Sonya’s has you covered as well. She has created The Proposal Garden—after all, she did open her garden to the public after a proposal took place in it.
This area is sectioned off so it really feels like you are dining in your own private garden. There is only one table for two. This garden has led to many “I Dos!”
Sonya’s secret recipes
The menu for all outlets has remained the same (If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?), i.e., a set menu of garden salad greens, bread and dips, pasta and dessert. Additionally, you may now also order steak, Chilean sea bass, chipirones en su tinta in olive oil, callos, herbed roast chicken or braised chicken with potatoes.
The set menu is satisfying enough because the strength of Sonya’s garden restaurant is in her salads, dips and sauces. We already know that Tagaytay greens are exceptional, especially when fresh from the garden. Add to that Sonya’s secret dressing and you’ve got a winner salad starter.
The secret dressings and sauces are not-so-secret anymore as the recipes have been made public in a book titled “Sonya’s Secret Garden,” published by Tuwina and Poohpie Publishing (named after Sonya’s dogs, aside from the garden’s current resident charmer Ooggo.) The book reveals that the French dressing for the salad simply contains olive oil, white wine vinegar, French mustard and a pinch of sugar.
Sonya also makes her own parsley and lemon dressing, hazelnut dressing, horseradish dressing, oriental dressing, coriander dressing, peanut dressing and yogurt dressing. (You’ll have to get a copy of the book!)
Meanwhile, bread is served with a smorgasbord of sides and sauces: basil pesto, white cheese, anchovies, bruschetta tomato toppings, mushroom pate, black olive tapenade, and fresh green peppercorn in olive oil.
If you still have room, try the chipirones en su tinta in olive oil. It is the adobong pusit of high society and thoroughly enjoyable with steaming white rice. It is real comfort food.
Bed and breakfast
The attraction now, though, more than the restaurant, is the bed and breakfast.
When we went to Tagaytay, I confess that I booked a room at Sonya’s Bed and Breakfast because I was traveling, as I always do, with my dog. There are no hotels in Tagaytay that welcome dogs (pfft!) and the Airbnb accommodations are surprisingly quite pricey.
At Sonya’s, the rate is a reasonable P3,000 per head, plus P800 for your furry companion. But the rooms are huge and you get not only excellent service that is obviously unavailable with an Airbnb, but also the whole Sonya’s experience!
You might ask, what is that, the “Sonya’s experience”?
First, the warm welcome by her staff. You can tell they are one big family in that compound. It’s like being welcomed by your distant relative in the province to their home. And those precious Filipino smiles are incomparable.
They carry your luggage from your car to your room, which is a bit of a walk from the parking lot (you hardly get this kind of warm hospitality even in reputable hotels abroad where you have to do all the carrying and lugging yourself).
After offering a welcome drink, they give you a tour of the room. Then all throughout your stay, they make sure you are okay.
The rooms—an experience in themselves—are gorgeous. Part of a cottage, they are far more spacious than a room you would get at a hotel. Our room had three queen-sized beds with an anteroom with its own queen-sized bed. There were two toilets with showers. In terms of design, the four-poster beds, art deco dressing table, lace curtains, capiz shell and stained glass windows, plus the ceiling fan take you back in time to experience living like a
The modern-day amenities are complete—the toilet has a bidet (always a plus) and the shower has a heater, although there is no air conditioning (as in Baguio, because of the cool Tagaytay weather) and free WiFi is accessible only in the dining area.
What got my attention, though, is that to make you feel at home, Sonya leaves her books just lying around the room. I found one on Kennedy, Shirley MacLaine and one on living with dogs—all great reads.
The room also comes with complimentary breakfast and lunch or dinner. To be honest, I had no intention of eating here at all during our stay, as I was eager to explore all the new restos of Tagaytay. But I was lucky we got lazy and ended up not leaving the B&B because these meals are all part of the Sonya’s experience.
The experience is this: before you eat, your waiter may hand over a sprig of lavender to make you relax. “Smell it,” he gently urges you. To swat flies, the waiter swooshes a branch of real curry leaves.
“These are easy to grow,” Sonya explained over breakfast (she makes it a point to greet all guests), “like women, they thrive in neglect!” (She is as hilarious as she is charming!)
The salads have edible flowers. You may be invited to taste fruits that are in season; we had passion fruit. Then to help you digest all the food, you are given tarragon tea to end your meal.
If you have time, ask to be taken on a tour of Sonya’s Secret Farm where you will see how she grows her arugulas, lettuce, cucumbers, eggplants, papayas … and maybe even experience harvesting some of these yourself.
Or, for a more relaxing affair, get a massage at the spa. Sonya is very proud that her masahistas are all licensed. They even offer a spine-alignment massage treatment (which I did not try because I did not want to leave Stardust alone in the room).
Before heading home, make sure to drop by Sonya’s Panaderia to bring home some of the homemade bread. They bake their own Pinoy breads daily. Or head over to The Country Store to buy some souvenirs like hats and bottled wellness items such as virgin coconut oil. There is also the Apothecary, where you can buy soaps and scents; Favorite Finds, where you can buy furniture by village craftsmen; and just on your way out, there is also a stand with potted herbs.
Finally, make sure to get a copy of Sonya’s book where she shares, aside from the recipes, tips on how to achieve “the art of doing nothing.” She’s been doing “nothing” for almost 20 years (perhaps more?) and look how she has thrived! It works!