A drink at Ito Space is an unforgettable experience

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Up close with Niko Tiutan and Alex Atienza of Ito Space, an intimate seven-seater beverage space in Legaspi Village. Photos by JL JAVIER

For some people, the best seat at the bar might be the one that affords them the most privacy. Others might prefer the seat that gives them the view of the entire room. For Ito Space owners and couple Niko Tiutan and Alex Atienza, the best seat is the one by the bar.

It’s the middle of December, weeks before Ito’s official opening to the public. Tiutan and Atienza have just begun moving into the newly constructed space. So new, that it smells of dust, sealant, and paint.

“For obvious reasons, it’s a seat for learning new things,” Tiutan says while brewing a cup of coffee. It has the best view of all the tools, syrups, and produce in a bartender or barista’s arsenal. But he insists it’s more than that. “It’s also the seat where you get some really good conversations,” he says animatedly. It’s a space to literally and figuratively close the gap between the person making the drinks and the person they’re making it for.

And at Ito, everyone gets the best seat — or at least seven people will. The small but impressive 34-sq.m space was designed by renowned architect Keiji Ashizawa of Blue Bottle and Ishinomaki Lab fame, and it only has seven bar seats. Barring any cancellations, at full capacity, Ito might only ever serve 35 guests on a single day. Three seatings in the afternoon and two in the evening. All strictly by reservation.

The newly-opened Ito Space has seven bar seats. At full capacity, the beverage space might only ever serve 35 guests on a single day. Photos by JL JAVIER

Couple Niko Tiutan and Alex Atienza opened Ito Space in January 2023. Photos by JL JAVIER

The space is neither a coffee shop nor a bar. “It was too small to be either,” Alex explains as we move on to tea. Which is why Ito is called a beverage space, a term that reflects their intentions and affords them room to innovate.

Ito has dedicated programs for their three drinks: coffee, tea, and cocktails. Afternoons are devoted to coffee and tea, with beans sourced from roasters in Japan and Copenhagen and specialty sencha, houjicha, gyokuro, and matcha from several tea estates across Japan. The evenings are for craft cocktails and low ABV flights. Each seating comes with select snacks and bites from Toyo Eatery and their connected panaderya, where Tiutan worked as a bartender for a year. Prices range from ₱400 to ₱2,500 per head.

From the Filipino word “itó,” Ito is a space for being in the moment. “Here, this moment in time,” Tiutan explains. “We're not strictly Filipino, Japanese or Nordic. Right now, [Ito’s menu] is really based on our interests. We love these types of tea, we love this roasting style, but it will eventually change. But the heart of the concept will still stick.”

More than just the revolving menu, another important aspect of Ito is that they hope it can be a space for connections. “We really wanted it to be a slow bar where we get to see everything and converse with our guests. It was something we decided in the beginning,” Alex says.

But how do you intend to make this profitable? I ask. Food and beverage is a harsh industry, sometimes impossible with the rising cost of goods and large overhead expenses. “In F&B, there’s this idea that in order to earn you need fast customer turnover, which is not what this space intends to be,” I ask Tiutan. “How do you contend with that?”

“I guess it’s a shift in mindset,” Tiutan replies. “We are focusing more on quality over quantity. We’re not aiming for volume… but more of that every person who gets to be in the space gets to experience the quality we want to impart and share. And hopefully that translates to them and they’d want to try more.”

“That's how we did it with 35cl,” Tiutan continues. “If we're happy, I think we'll be able to find a sustainable path.“

Ito might only ever serve 35 guests on a single day. Three seatings in the afternoon and two in the evening. All strictly by reservation. Photos by JL JAVIER

The interiors of Ito Space were designed by Keiji Ashizawa, whose work includes flagship Blue Bottle Coffee shops and Ishinomaki Laboratory in Japan. Photos by JL JAVIER

Before Ito, Atienza and Tiutan had 35cl Cocktail Co., a small beverage label for their limited releases of bottled designer cocktails.

“It started as a passion project,” Tiutan explains. A brand born out of the couple’s joint love for hospitality and hosting people at home for drinks. “But eventually, so many people started coming over we thought we might as well just bottle the drinks to save time.” Like any sensible person looking to recoup costs, they entertained the idea of selling the drinks they were already bottling.

They launched their first collection in 2019 with Atienza as head of branding and marketing while Tiutan was beverage director. Their flavors were often complex and unconventional like turon, corn, canelé, and mushroom. Their collections came out biannually to much interest, often selling out on the day of their release. There were rarely ever any reruns.

While 35cl collections were experimental, they were anything but free-wheeling. Each bottle included a meticulous set of notes prepared by Tiutan that detailed the drink’s ABV content, ingredients, allergens, aroma, tasting notes, and serving suggestions. “I was always very particular about how things needed to be done,” Tiutan recalls. “When I left Toyo, I left a whole handbook about how to prepare drinks. I read it recently and even I was overwhelmed,” he says with a laugh.

While Tiutan was in charge of the drinks, the design and marketing of 35cl was under the purview of Atienza , whose particular attention to detail could outmatch Tiutan’s thoroughness. “We really put a lot of thought into how we could present 35cl,” she recalls. She thought of the brand’s identity, how it was communicated and presented. She designed the labels, packaging, and the logo, which was the number 35 written out in braille, inspired by the way Japanese brewers used braille to aid visually impaired shoppers from accidentally buying beer.

“We wanted to be very direct with our ideas,” Alex explains. “I guess I don't really have much formal training. It's more of like me doing my own research. And having a lot of iterations, and going back to old ones, stuff like that. I have to be sure that it makes sense to me. And it also has to make sense to other people.”

They officially stopped production in 2022 with their final cocktail called “rice” which was made of genmaicha lambanog, tapuey, and toasted rice syrup. “We knew we had to have a deadline (for 35cl),” Niko says. “We knew that we always wanted a space, which is why we had to stop no matter what.”

“35cl was great, but there were limitations,” Alex says. While bottled cocktails gave them a wider distribution, there was little room for play. Bottles meant that they couldn’t use ingredients that spoiled quickly like egg or citrus. Selling online became a necessity for most things in 2020, but nothing could ever replace that sense of community and connection from in-person encounters. Three years and 22 cocktails later, they knew they were done.

“Which is why I feel we’re at a culminating point with Ito,” Niko says. To them, having their own bar was the most natural response to last three years of developing cocktails and building a brand from the ground up. A place to freely experiment with fresh produce and a chance to invite others into their once more solitary process.

“It really feels like our own space. We have no rules and we can finally express everything we want to express,” Alex says.

Designer Keiji Ashizawa describes his concept for Ito as natural and contemporary. Photos by JL JAVIER

In 2000, while working for a studio, a young Keiji Ashizawa was given his first job: a small bar in Tokyo. He considered it a dream project, even joking to his boss that he wouldn’t mind waiving the design fee as long as he was given free reign over the design. The brief was simple, but Ashizawa had energy and ambition. He wanted something that could create a little more space in the already cramped bar. For him, the solution was in the seating.

He drew up plans which had custom bar stools that were fixed to the floor. He reasoned that guests who were getting out of their seats often pushed their chairs out thereby blocking the limited walkway. The fixed stools served both a functional and aesthetic purpose: no stray stools to block the walkway and the symmetry of the bar design was kept intact.

“This stool we’re sitting on is almost the exact design as that first project,” Ashizawa says while tapping the leather seats we’re sitting on. “Which is nice that I’m doing it again for Ito.”

Two decades later, Ashizawa is a renowned designer and a giant in his field. He started Keiji Ashizawa Design in 2008, a holistic design studio which specializes in architecture, interiors, product design, and branding. Under Ashizawa’s philosophy of “honest design,” they try to bring out out the best in natural materials while striking the balance between functionality and aesthetics. Some of their works include award-winning residential properties, flagship Blue Bottle Coffee shops, and Ishinomaki Laboratory, a public workshop that started as a response to aid the communities devastated by the 2011 tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake. This model has since been replicated in various parts of the world, including the Philippines through Lamana.

Save for his agent, Ashizawa came to Manila alone. Pen and notebook in hand, Ashizawa inspected each part of the space, listing down and literally drawing what adjustments that still needed to be made to the space. “This project is refreshing for me. I don’t always get to do things like these anymore” he says gesturing to his notes. “We have 17 people at the studio now, which is why I’m usually delegating or overseeing.”

He describes his concept for Ito as natural and contemporary. Native acacia wood shelves are held up by thin steel bars that align perfectly to the grout of the wall’s brick tiles. Ito’s bar is a gorgeous slab of pure stone, held up by wood and steel. “Since people will stay (in Ito) for hours, you want them to feel comfortable,” Ashizawa tells me. “Which is why we use natural materials which are easy on the eyes.”

“But in commercial spaces, you want something that will excite and inspire. Which is why there are things you need that will make people curious,” he says. For him, it is the use of copper – the pure copper door handle, string lights, and a lamp that Ashizawa fabricated himself. “Did you know that the Philippines is one of the biggest exporters of copper in the world?” he adds.

“I wanted to honor Alex and Niko’s vision for their drinks by using natural materials from the Philippines,” Ashizawa says. “Ito is about being in the moment, so we wanted that felt in the space.”

In photo (left): Beets N/A - beet juice, sugarcane shrub, tamarillo, ginger, sesame leaf, and egg whites. (Right) Ginger Shiitake - sesame oil, fat washed scotch, ginger honey syrup, lemon juice, and shiitake butter beer. Photos by JL JAVIER

Ito Space serves a remarkable flight of cocktails with ingredients that range from ice cream bean syrup, pear juice, and later on a plum-flavored spirit from Copenhagen. In photo (right) Turon - banana lambanog, langka, arnibal, lactic acid, cinnamon, and egg whites. Photos by JL JAVIER

It’s the middle of January, and Tiutan and Atienza have just begun their evening dry runs. I’m invited back for another evening session “for the full Ito experience,” Tiutan says over chat. A month since our first meeting, the space smells like coffee beans, citrus, and room fragrance.

“Welcome to Ito at night,” Atienza greets, and I take what has become my usual seat over the weeks we started talking. “We’re trying something different tonight,” Tiutan says to our small party of four.

“We had our first few dry runs and we felt that we were… A little robotic,” Atienza says. “We both agreed that we needed to go back to our original vision which really was to have fun with drinks and flavors.”

“So we revised the entire menu just last night and so we’ll be experimenting with a couple of flavors today,” Tiutan says as he prepares his bottles of various syrups and spirits.

As we go through the evening, we’re served a remarkable flight of cocktails with ingredients that range from ice cream bean syrup, pear juice, and later on a plum-flavored spirit from Copenhagen. There’s a hibiscus soda and another tall cocktail made with beet juice. Cold brew infused with dark rum and pomelo juice, and a umpteen other ingredients I failed to list down as the night went on.

“How do you know what ingredients to combine?” I ask.

“You don’t,” Tiutan says with a laugh between pours. Coming up with a good cocktail is a spirited kind of improvisation, which is equal parts educated guesses and risk-taking. Working with the flavors that you know, those you don’t, and hope that it’ll come out fine, possibly even great. Coffee was my first love,” Tiutan told me some weeks ago. “But with cocktails, I learned to be creative. It felt so freeing.”

“This last drink is something we’ve been wanting to serve in person for a while,” Atienza says as she places the caramel-colored 35cl Turon cocktail in front of me. Banana sous vide lambanog, pili nut tincture, jackfruits syrup, and burnt sugar syrup. A sweet and warm elixir made light by the creamy foam on top of the drink. What could be better? The moody low light, a beautiful, elegant drink that was made just for me, and the community between friends who’ve come together to experience something new. A temporary pleasure to be sure, but a pleasure worth remembering.

“This time, we finally get to add the egg white,” Tiutan says with a triumphant smile, an ingredient that was merely a suggestion back when it first came out as a bottle.


Ito Space is currently on soft opening and is only accepting five pax per seating at the moment. From 12:00 to 4:00 p.m, they serve specialty coffee and tea in one-hour batches. Their cocktail flights last for 1.5 hours from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Strictly by reservation only through ito.oo/reservations. No walk-ins will be entertained.

ERRATUM: The article has been edited to reflect the updated price range per head.