If you hadn’t had South Africa on your culinary radar, you need to get your stuff together and book a flight now. Better lose a few pounds before too, because it definitely ain’t happening while you will eat your way through the country and ask for seconds along the way.
Especially Cape Town and the surrounding Winelands are serious foodie destinations so when the most serious foodie I know, my brother Stephan, came for a visit after New Year’s I had my work cut out for me. Calculating the number of days he would be there (10), multiply it by the amount of meals per day we would have (2, because we both don’t eat breakfast), minus the days we would be working (3) and the meals we would spend at family homes (5) resulted in 9 lunches and dinners I wanted to be absolutely perfect.
That’s when I realized that I had unfortunately left my little calculation for too long, Cape Town in January is nothing like Cape Town in winter and chances are all the good places will have been booked literally months in advance. That realization gave me a mild panic attack, I’m a control freak and a people pleaser; the idea of not getting into the Test Kitchen would not please my brother, the foodie.
But I shouldn’t have worried. There is plenty of
fish in the sea great restaurants in Cape Town and we ate like kings. That is after our initial lunch at Camps Bay’s Umi. I usually avoid Camps Bay to the extent that I don’t even want to drive through (it’s always congested!). Whoever writes in travel guides that Camps Bay is a great spot to be, is lying. Just know that Camps Bay beach is always crowded and if it is not crowded it is too windy to stay put in one place. The bars are pretentious and the restaurants crap. All of them. They live off the fact that they are in a prime location which doesn’t necessarily mean you get a great view but it definitely means you will pay exorbitant prices for mediocre food and shotty service. I can live with the prices and the service, however, there is just no good excuse to have mediocre food in Cape Town.
We had gone location scouting in Camps Bay for our upcoming photo shoot and so by the time lunch rolled around we decided to stay put. I blame the fact that I was deliriously hungry and also still ecstatic that we had actually found parking (also something that is unheard of in Camps Bay) so I decided not to be snobby and give the restaurants another try. I shouldn’t have done that. So here my first foodie tip for Cape Town: Do not eat in Camps Bay. Instead here are some the best Cape Town restaurants where you should be heading if you get hungry…
Head up Kloof Nek Road to find one of the hippest (and yummiest) corners in town. Have a quick last beer at famous Rafiki’s before it’s gone forever and then go to Kyoto Garden for a grown up dinner. I have mentioned Kyoto Garden before and after going back now, I still cannot recommend it enough. This is Japanese done right, every single time. Outstanding products, no frills. Do order starters and sides – you cannot leave there without having the mixed grilled mushrooms! – because while portions are not small, they are definitely very light.
If you feel like something a little more substantial and also a lot less expensive head across the street to El Burro’s Taqueria. This place nails wall color and tacos! They don’t have a liquor license as of yet, which is a pity because El Burro’s margaritas rock, but there is a shop around the corner and they won’t charge you corkage.
BRING ‘N BRAAI
There is nothing more dear to the South African’s heart than braaing. Chances are that you will be invited to a braai at some point during your stay. Proper etiquette for a bring ‘n braai is to bring whatever you would like your host to put on the braai.
There are a lot of great grocery stores and markets in Cape Town. However, by far my favorites are Fish4Africa and Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants. If a braai is in order those places will definitely have something to impress you and your fellow eaters. Fish4Africa is at the Hout Bay Harbor, but definitely worth a trip for a whole fresh tuna (call before to check the catch of the day) or crayfish tails. FFMM’s motto is Eat proper meat. That not only means farm fresh, locally sourced meat but it is also the go-to place for unusual cuts.
THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
While my brother had initially declared he didn’t care where we would or wouldn’t eat, he did do his research once he arrived and all of a sudden announced that we had to eat at The Test Kitchen. Yes, of course, we had to eat at The Test Kitchen, the only problem being that this is not only one of the best Cape Town restaurants but also South Africa’s number 1 restaurant and booked out months in advance.
After spending too much time and money at my favorite wine shop in the Old Biscuit Mill, Stephan had become good friends with Nigel the own and thought to take advantage of his newfound connection. “Nigel, can’t you help us to get into Test Kitchen? Pleeeeeeeease!” The Test Kitchen is basically opposite Nigel’s store and while you may assume it is his extended living room he, unfortunately, has no reign over the seating arrangements inside. However, he did advise us to come early for lunch and request to fill in for any no-shows.
We did just that the next day. Stephan found the manager, told him of our heart’s desire to eat here, and then we waited. We also managed to secure the last table at Luke Dale Robert’s second baby Pot Luck Club upstairs as a backup option (and that is one fancy backup!) and then we waited some more. I also did a lot of smiling and batting my eyelashes at the manager (he was quite cute, so I wasn’t selling out for a table!!). Eventually, we just sat in front of the restaurant and stared at the door for about an hour. While a watched pot never boils, the door did eventually open and the manager came towards us with a huge smile: we were in!
What can I say? It was worth the wait and yet as if to make up for it the manager who was also the designated truffle shaver gave me an extra sprinkle on my amuse bouche. I also had one of the best dessert, no THE best dessert of my life – a tropical island in my mouth. Stephan even declared upon eating his tropical island that the meal had just moved from 1 to 2 Michelin stars in his mouth.
For those who don’t get so lucky and/or don’t have the patience to wait I recommend a visit to Luke’s latest addition to the family: Naturalis. What looks more like a container is actually a tiny lunch place that offers the most amazing vegetable salads, charcuterie, pâtés, and homemade lemonade. You pay by weight, but I recommend you eat first because chances are high you may want seconds. So of you can’t get into one of the best Cape Town restaurants or just want a quick lunch, this is an amazing alternative.
TOURIST FOR A DAY
The V&A Waterfront is an area that can as touristy as Camps Bay, but I have a soft spot for it nonetheless. It always makes me feel like a tourist too when I go, but in a good way. While it is still a mall with all the trimmings like KFC, Subway and Ocean Basket – some ‘insider’ blog once recommended Ocean Basket as a nice restaurant in Cape Town and I almost cried, it is not! – there are some nice food options to be found. While you won’t find any of the best Cape Town restaurants here, we tried Mondiall and I can definitely add it to my V&A go to places now: beautiful ceviche, amazing classics like fish tacos and fish ‘n chips, and great service. The prices are still steep, but again, you are paying for the location too and as the rest was spot on I didn’t mind.
I like it when really great chefs open little secondary eateries where you can still get their signature style, but in a more relaxed setting. Lucky Bao does just that. Here you will eat Cheyne’s signature Pan-Asian/Pacific Rim food (and happy endings for dessert) but street food style. And for those who are scared of street food a) you really shouldn’t be! and b) don’t worry because this is fancy street served on pretty plates. However, cutlery is optional, a big plus in my books. Definitely have a Bird Bao and try the nori dusted fries!
There is something oddly appealing about a meal at a big dinner table with strangers and everybody talks instead of checking their phones. However, when Stephan and I tried that concept at Spasie and were a bit let down. They may have had an off night, but for ZAR 650 you can really expect more in Cape Town.
I did get more when I went to Reverie later, a new ‘social table’ in Observatory. While a lot depends on the people you are eating with, the food here was spot on: innovative, local and very very yummy. They were also only serving wine from Black Elephant Vintners, which I liked a lot for more than just its taste.
Honestly, my list of places where to find great food in Cape Town could go on and on, the town is full of amazing options for all occasions and budgets. Eat anywhere, eat somewhere and you will definitely have a great meal. That is, of course, as long as you skip Camps Bay and Ocean Basket!
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