Renee’s Kitchenette and Grill — located under the 7 train tracks at 69-14 Roosevelt Avenue, near 70th Street — has been a pillar for the Filipino community, offering the charms of a mom-and-pop with humble cooking in a cozy spot. A neighborhood mainstay for over 30 years, it has helped pave the way for what would officially become Little Manila in 2022.
At the heart of the operation is married couple, Renee and Ernesto Dizon; the story of Renee’s Kitchenette begins in 1992 in Woodside, a Filipino enclave long forged by immigrant nurses, who’d been recruited to work at Elmhurst Hospital. The college sweethearts had left Pampanga, on the northern shore of Manila Bay, with their three kids almost a decade earlier. Once their fourth child was born, they sought supplemental income. Dizon, son of the respected chef and restaurateur behind Pampangueña Kitchenette in the Philippines, flexed his cooking chops on weekends; and Renee secured a spot for his empanadas and siopao at Phil-Am Market, itself a community icon since 1976.
“We made $200, and that was helpful,” she says. They quickly built a following that urged them, a few months later, to take over a small, four-table joint on 69th Street, close to Roosevelt Avenue — where Max’s now stands — and named it after Renee. “It’s because he’s so in love with me,” she jokes, referring to her husband. He breaks into a smile. Two years later, with a growing customer base, she snapped up the lease on the busy strip of Roosevelt Avenue.
The first few years it was open, Ernesto helmed the kitchen, Renee ran front-of-house, and their kids helped them clean while a vibrant restaurant community developed around the family. Renee’s became part of the trifecta of go-to Filipino restaurants: Ihawan, which since it opened in 1994, is often compared to Renee’s; and Krystal’s, which operated from 1998 to 2019. (It’s only friendly competition with Ihawan; after all, it was started by Renee’s sister, who died in 2019. It’s why the restaurants close on different days, confirms Jackie Bacani, Ihawan’s co-owner and Renee’s niece.) In 2009, popular Philippines-based franchises, Jollibee opened and later, Red Ribbon, entered the scene, cementing Woodside’s status as a Filipino dining destination.
During the pandemic, Renee’s shut down for four months. Upon re-opening, Renee fretted. “Is anybody going to come?” Her husband reassured her, “They came before; they’ll come again.”
In 2022, after a successful community petition, Woodside was granted official designation as Little Manila. Deirdre Levy of NYC Filipinos once ran for City Council, and says the designation is instrumental for political representation — 64 percent of the 54,000 Filipinos in New York reside in Queens — particularly in light of anti-Asian attacks on Filipinos.
Renee’s now stands in the Little Manila it unwittingly helped establish. For Easter, Renee hung pastel-colored eggs on the wall. Signs hover over ten cherrywood four-tops. One says “Family Matters” against beehive-shaped lamps and Christmas lights.
It’s the go-to spot for Avery Chico and his Filipina girlfriend from London. “It just looks the most like home for us,” he says. “It’s very consistent — very similar to going there back in the ’90s, which is nice,” says Joey Golja. Renee credits her kitchen staff who’ve been with her since the start. “Some started as busboys, and we trained them to cook.”
Time-tested favorites include Ernesto’s kare kare — tender oxtails in a savory, peanut butter sauce — and soups like nilaga (beef and veggies) and sinigang (a choice of meat pepped up with tamarind). Ernesto even makes the longaniza, pork sausage, and bagoong, shrimp paste, there. His halo-halo has pinipig, toasted rice flakes, and coconut jelly. “It’s the real traditional way,” says May Capalla. “Some places put bananas. I don’t like that.”
“It was the one place that we all agreed on,” says Joey Golja, a former MTV event planner who’s been going there since he was six. In 2019, Renee’s became home base for breakfast meetings, where four to six members of his Queens Filipino crew laid the groundwork for Project Barkada, a nonprofit that coordinated donations to Filipino frontline workers and now organizes food pop-ups and parties throughout the city. Sure, the food was a draw — “their biko [sticky rice dessert] just hits different” — but “Renee would always give in to our weird requests.” Like extra condensed milk on the biko, another skewer, a scoop of beef to his tosilog (cured pork, egg, garlic fried rice). “It’s like eating at your tita’s [auntie’s] house.
“I’m so happy to see generations grow up,” says Renee. “It’s like ‘I just saw you in the basket.’”
Renee and Ernesto celebrated their golden anniversary last year. “Imagine that,” she says giddily. Together all the time — seriously, how have they lasted this long? “He doesn’t really talk too much, and I really don’t talk too much,” she says. “So whatever he says, it’s okay; whatever I say, it’s okay.”
In 2018, their daughter opened an offshoot in Virginia Beach in 2018, even further extending the Dizon home and their Filipino cooking.