Capetonians, like myself, have a reputation for being a little smug about the corner of Africa we choose to call home. And frankly, who could blame us. As if that gorgeous mountain slap-bang in the middle of the city wasn’t enough, there’s the ocean on three sides, scenic winelands a half-hour drive away, and a downtown so cosmopolitan it makes the proverbial melting pot look pedestrian.
And then, there’s the food. Ask a South African where to find the finest restaurants on the continent and anyone with a modicum of taste will say ‘Cape Town’. While the Michelin guide is yet to reach South African shores, it’s safe to say that the lion’s share of stars would be centred on the constellation of Cape Town.
That’s not to say the city is without its hipster hangouts and local favourites. My regular Italian joint turns out a pizza primavera that would make a Napoletano weep with tears for his mama’s home cooking, while on the fringes of the city centre you’ll find grungy dive bars and ramen counters, underground tapas joints and craft breweries. The food truck movement also rolled into town a year or two back, with the likes of The Grubbery (great burgers), Limoncello (Italian inspired take-aways) and Lotus (Asian street food) setting up in parking lots. If the sun’s out, chances are they’ll be somewhere with a sea view.
But it’s in the city’s fine dining establishments that Cape Town really nails its colours to the culinary mast. All but a handful of the country’s top restaurants are to be found within an hour’s drive of the city, scattered between the leafy suburbs, up-and-coming inner-city streets and the scenic winelands.
“Cape Town is the culinary capital of the country,” says Abigail Donnelly, editor of South Africa’s respected EatOut restaurant guide. “Diners here are prepared to take more chances, they’re more adventurous, and I think the chefs respond to that. Chefs here are following the international trend of tapping into and supporting small producers, and there’s an incredible amount of story-telling on a plate.”
Perhaps the finest example of that, and the first stop for any committed gourmand, should be The Test Kitchen in the gritty but gentrifying suburb of Woodstock. And despite bagging 48th spot in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, the British-born chef isn’t resting on his laurels.
Since the Awards “we’ve been spending time concentrating on all aspects of the restaurant,” says Dale-Roberts, who has added new dishes, introduced a Tea Pairing element to the menu, and revamped the décor and bespoke crockery to match his evolving style.
The drive to constantly improve, evolve and innovate is typical of the city’s vibrant food scene. Cape Town may have a reputation – with the poor fools that live up-country, at least – for being laid-back and slightly somnambulant, it’s all with good reason. There are far better ways to spend your days in Cape Town than in the office. If you need me, I’ll be out to lunch.
The Test Kitchen
You’ll need to book well in advance for a coveted table at what is far and away the top restaurant in South Africa. Chef and owner Luke Dale-Roberts’ inspired Gourmand Menu is an 11-course (although often more, with amuses bouche and petit fours) journey that showcases superb local produce and world-class technique. As the name suggests the menu here is about pushing boundaries, with adventurous dishes that combine an organic approach with minimalist plating.
The Lamb Smiley pays homage to a popular local township dish, while Foie Gras Four Trees is a remarkable combination of pears compressed in oak, roasted chestnut essence and foie gras grilled over pine needles. The wine list is superb, with plenty of unusual and boutique offerings, but your best bet is to simply opt for sommelier Wayve Kolevsohn’s wine or tea pairings with each course. If you’re dining solo, request a counter table to watch the impressive kitchen brigade at work. If you eat at only one restaurant in Cape Town, let it be here.
The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock
+27 (0) 21 447 2337
As one of just two Relais & Chateaux Grand Chefs in South Africa, Peter Tempelhoff is no stranger to the fine dining scene in Cape Town. Set in the genteel Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in leafy Constantia, this is a world away from the gritty streets of the city and, perhaps as a result, the food is that much more refined: expect delicate plating and dishes that show more restraint than adventure. Nonetheless, it’s a fine showcase of local produce, with unusual venison, fish and fowl on offer throughout the three menus. The seasonal tasting menus are the more traditional offering, while ‘African Origins’ is served as a selection of small plates ideal for adventurous palates. The desserts here are inspired, so be sure to leave space.
Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, 93 Brommersvlei Road, Constantia
+27 (0)21 794 2137
Rust en Vrede
This winelands restaurant first made a name for itself under acclaimed chef David Higgs, who’s now at The Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, but happily the restaurant on this 300-year-old estate has flourished under the knife of Head Chef John Shuttleworth. The four- and six-course tasting menus reflect Shuttleworth’s extensive experience in Michelin-starred restaurants in the United Kingdom, European styles melded with unique local produce from the winelands. If you have plenty of time and very deep pockets, the Estate Experience Menu is a remarkable offering: a four-hour gastronomic journey that changes daily according to the rare wines pulled from the cellar and the whims of the chef. Service and wine pairings here are amongst the finest in the Cape, and a visit from the groaning ‘cheese chariot’ makes for a fine end to the experience. This is not a meal to be rushed.
Rust en Vrede Estate, Annandale Road, Stellenbosch
+27 21 881 3757
The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français
Like The Greenhouse, there’s a distinctly feminine feel to this Franschhoek institution where chef Margot Janse continues to quietly turn out some of the best food in the country. And, despite nearly 20 years at the helm of this Relais & Chateaux kitchen, the menu is as inventive as ever. Perhaps referencing her roots in drama and photography, there’s an element of surprise and theatre here. The eight-course tasting menu changes daily, but may include any number of inimitable local flavours reinvented and re-imagined on the plate: waterblommetjie, mebos, buchu, baobab, venison… they’re all bit players on Janse’s formidable stage.
16 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek