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A gastronomic city break in Cape Town

A new generation of innovative chefs is shaking things up in Cape Town, bringing indigenous ingredients to the city’s plates and unusual wines to its glasses

A gastronomic city break in Cape Town
Tapas at Thali. Image: Claire Gunn

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Since moving to Cape Town in 1994 I’ve seen the city’s culinary scene ignite and then explode. Post-Apartheid, a free flow of international culinary styles and chefs, both foreigners and returning locals who’ve gained experience overseas, has ushered South Africa into a new gastronomic era.

These chefs’ demand for a greater quality and variety of produce, in a region that’s already a key agricultural and fishing hub, has raised the bar for local eating. Ethical sourcing is catching on, with both restaurants and diners increasingly asking where ingredients come from, as well as how they’re produced. Lately, myriad indigenous plant species, from land and sea, are beginning to make their way onto plates in small yet impactful doses, such as at Janse & Co, where they serve yellowtail with soutslaai (a local succulent) and La Tête, where sea spinach is tossed into an octopus salad. It’s also creeping into cocktails at bars like The Botanical Bar and Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen, where you’ll find lemon-scented, pelargonium-infused margaritas and drinks garnished with crunchy and sour spekboom, another indigenous succulent.

Sustainability has also been on the minds of a growing number of chefs, particularly as the city is in the grip of one of its worst droughts for over a century. Many have risen to the challenge, however, coming up with creative ways to reduce water consumption. These include Luke Dale-Roberts’ Drought Kitchen, a two-month pop-up within his flagship restaurant The Test Kitchen, that used 90% less chinaware and offered dishes that required minimal water use in their preparation.

And then there are the wines. In this new culinary era, the country’s industry has been revitalised, with big thinkers bringing a new, youthful energy to South Africa’s now world-class tipples. As Cape Town rubs elbows with the country’s wine valleys, its most creative chefs and winemakers tend to see each other as collaborators. This means bottles that push the boundaries — from unusual varietals to small-batch wines from boutique producers in the Cape’s farther flung regions — are cropping up at the city’s more forward thinking restaurants.

South Africa’s laid-back lifestyle means service is relaxed wherever you eat — it’s not uncommon to see guests at fine dining restaurants in shorts, especially at lunch. But this doesn’t mean you should be casual about arriving: most restaurants take reservations, and for the most talked-about spots you’ll need to book a table before you even arrive in town, such is the demand.

Cape Town is where culinary innovation meets casual Southern Hemisphere living. Whether you’re sampling Saldanha Bay oysters on Bree Street, drinking a Hemel-en-Aarde pinot noir or munching on crispy samosas from a corner shop, the quality of the food in this city shines through.

The Silo hotel exterior.

A day in the CBD
Capetonians refer to the CBD as ‘Town’ or ‘the City Bowl’, on account of the way it spreads out at the foot of Table Mountain. And while there are standout restaurants and coffee bars practically everywhere you look here, the hottest food streets these days are Bree and Kloof.

Start with brunch at Hemelhuijs, a quiet restaurant that oozes botanical style — from a suspended ceiling panel of multicoloured hydrangeas to the design of the menu, which was inspired by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. The elegant comfort food served here is distinctly South African: soft mieliepap, a maize porridge served with butter and honey; and roasted beetroot and lemon hummus on toasted mosbolletjie (soft, sweet bread flavoured with aniseed) are winners.

Head afterwards to Zeitz MOCAA, Africa’s first contemporary art museum. Set within a repurposed 1920s grain silo at the city’s Victoria & Albert Waterfront, the building’s industrial style is awesomely cathedral-like; the collection a powerful mix of African expression.

For afternoon food and retail inspiration, hit Bree Street and its surrounds to browse galleries and shops, including Mungo, a miller/producer of heirloom-quality cotton woven throws. Over on Kloof Street, a flat white from Deluxe Coffeeworks, plus an artisanal creation from Unframed Ice Cream, will keep you going; blue coconut, and turmeric latte are among the interesting vegan flavours at the latter, and there are plenty of dairy options too.

Have a G&T at The Gin Bar, which has Cape Town’s largest selection of craft gin, before heading to La Tête for dinner. Chef Giles Edwards scours the Cape Peninsula for organic and sustainably farmed, raised and caught ingredients, turning out simple seasonal dishes that bring vibrancy to this monochrome space. Highlights include his lemony octopus, fennel and sea spinach salad, and the excellent chicken liver parfait, while curveball dishes, such as deep-fried pig tails, keep diners on their toes.

A day in Sea Point

Over the years, this coastal neighbourhood, with its stretch of sea-facing high-rises and art deco gems has gone from glittering to dishevelled, and back to desirable. Chefs, meanwhile, have been setting up shop on Regent Road, which is now a restaurant row.

Start with breakfast at the southern end: a poached egg on a rosti or smoked salmon bagel at Kleinsky’s Delicatessen — a black-and-white-tiled space with a hip/homely diner feel that speaks to the area’s Jewish community — or opt for greener fare at Scheckter’s Raw, which makes great vegan smoothies and bowls.

Spend the morning on the waterfront Promenade: rent a bike next to the seawater swimming pool, and cruise the verdant walkway (it’s walkable too). On your return, hit Mojo Market, a food hall opened in 2017, for lunch. Keep it local and sustainable with plump West Coast mussels from The Mussel Monger & Oyster Bar, along with a glass of Cape sparkling and an oyster shooter (try the one with rose geranium syrup). Further down the road are shops like Blink and Mash Boutique, which showcase Cape Town’s young design talent, with everything from ceramics to hand-printed linens for sale.

Stop for a caffeine hit at Mischu, Sea Point’s best coffee spot, then relax for the rest of the afternoon on one of the four beaches in Clifton, a short taxi ride away. Prized for its wind-sheltered bays, Clifton has some of South Africa’s most expensive real estate.

Head back to Sea Point for a sundowner on the sea-facing deck at Euro-kitsch stalwart La Perla, with its waiters in white jackets and fascinating mix of old and new money, before queuing up at Three Wise Monkeys, where the look is Zen-meets-anime, and the beef brisket ramen nourishes body and soul.

food in cape town

Octopus, fennel and sea spinach at La Tête. Image: Claire Gunn

Small Plates

Modern tapas is the format of choice for many of Cape Town’s most lauded and creative chefs, which means more opportunities to experience superb seasonal produce and foraged ingredients.

Acclaimed chef Luke Dale-Roberts presides over warehouse-chic The Pot Luck Club, one of Cape Town’s first modern small plate restaurants. The menu is divided into tastes (salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami), which you can mix and match. Try dishes like prawn- and king crab-stuffed chicken legs, or silky aubergine in dashi broth with tempura scallops.

For modern Indian-style tapas, Thali is a treat. Small dishes to share range from tender tandoori chicken skewers to cauliflower done three ways: pickled, pureed, and in a peanut and coconut salad. And while global cooking styles proliferate in Cape Town, recent opening Upper Bloem Restaurant is an exception. Chef Andre Hill, who grew up in the city’s historic Malay Quarter, weaves fragrant spices into a set menu of sophisticated small plates; these include smoked Cape Malay-style onions stuffed with pickled aubergine and caramelised onion, nestled in a bamboo steamer over smouldering spices.

Drinks

The Botanical Bar
The shelves of this city bar groan with jars of tinctures infused with aromatic botanicals. These bitters and shrubs (fruity drinking vinegars) are delicious served with soda water and craft spirits or in cocktails. Try the KwaZulu Coast: dark rum, tropical shrub and bitters, lime, mango masala spice, dried pineapple, cassia bark and wild mint.

Publik
A neighbourhood wine bar stocking off-the-beaten-track wines from across the Western Cape, including the Swartland — considered ground zero for maverick winemaking. Close ties to local ethical butcher Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants mean there are meaty bar snacks too, like biltong bowls and lamb belly strips with salsa verde.

The Willaston Bar
Ever since The Silo Hotel — a luxury bolthole atop the Zeitz MOCAA — opened last year, its sixth-floor bar has been a huge draw. Come during daylight hours for Waterfront, city and mountain views, captured between geometric prisms of glass. Drinks are pricey by Cape Town standards, but you’ll find a strong selection of local spirits and beers.

Neighbourhood favourites

Jason Bakery
Baker Jason Lilley is an Upper Bree pioneer, and while his menu includes eggy breakfasts plus salads and sandwiches, the sourdough reigns supreme — as do the croissants and pastries. A particular draw is Lilley’s Saturday doughssant: a cronut-like pastry (pictured above); past incarnations have included apple strudel (filled with a spiced custard and topped with poached apple buttercream and a mini strudel) and fluffernutter (peanut butter custard and marshmallow fluff, topped with peanut butter fudge sauce and peanut brittle).

Giovanni’s Deli World
For decades, lovers of European food have been drawn to Giovanni’s, a small, family-owned deli under green awnings, crammed with imported pastas, chocolates, deli meats and more. The espresso bar, which spills onto the pavement, is thoroughly old school and remains a place where regulars meet and catch up over a doppio. 103 Main Road, Green Point.

The Kitchen
Just south of the CBD is Woodstock, a gentrifying industrial neighbourhood of creatives, coffee roasteries and galleries. At this drop-in lunch gem, breakfast highlights include carrot pancakes with eggs, horseradish creme fraiche and herbs, while the deli window is filled with dazzling salads.

Essentials


Getting there

British Airways flies to Cape Town from Heathrow, while Thomas Cook Airlines flies from Gatwick. Airlines offering flights from the UK with a stop in Johannesburg include Virgin Atlantic and South African Airways. 

Where to stay
Located on the Sea Point Promenade, Winchester Mansions is an old Cape Dutch building with great views. Doubles from R2,075 (£112), room only. The Silo Hotel not only has ultra-cool guest rooms, it’s also home to The Willaston Bar and stylish dining at The Granary Café. Doubles from R13,500 (£730) a night, B&B.

How to do it
Tropical Sky has five nights’ B&B at The Townhouse Hotel from £1,099 per person, including flights. tropicalsky.co.uk

As featured in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.