The menu reads “Summer 2016” but the offering is distinctly wintery – for instance, there's an irresistible lamb bunny chow served in an oversized bun with a side of chips. It’s definitely a meal for two. The snack board, the waiter will tell you, is small enough for two, but it’s really designed for at least four people to share with a few beers. It’s a rather deep-fried, battered affair complete with onion bhajis slathered with a creamy dressing, beer-battered fried olives, and a selection of cheeses – including deep-fried, battered halloumi fingers and toasted slices of French bread.
Breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, a scrambled eggs dish with chives, avo, smoked salmon and pepperdew cream cheese on a sweet potato rosti or homemade granola parfait served with fresh fruit, Greek yoghurt and honey. The lunch menu offers up a selection of warm salads – there’s the warm halloumi and red lentil salad and the warm chickpea, aubergine and broccoli. The portions are large enough to make for a full and satisfying meal all on their own.
Popular dishes, according to the waiter, are the House Burger with bacon, emmental cheese and The Hill’s smokey barbecue sauce, served with a side of your choice; and The Hill BLT, which features chilli-garlic oil, bacon, cheddar cheese and avocado inside a toasted baguette.
Local and craft beers, Prosecco, champagne, wine as well as hot and cold beverages make up a drinks menu that seems to tick all the boxes. Try the freshly blended juices or their juiced combos such as the Green Machine made from apple, spinach, pineapple, cucumber and ginger.
Staff could use a little more training on helping customers discern which dishes to order, but otherwise the service is pleasant and unfussy. A product of the Awethu Project, the restaurant – which is owned by entrepreneur Vincent Chipendo – seems to be headed in the right direction.
You could spend all day working inside the restaurant, which has more off a coffee-shop ambience, great for lunching outdoors on the covered terrace. Sitting in a sunny courtyard – perched on paved stones and in the environs of an historical establishment – creates a somewhat peaceful and slightly pensive mood as you watch the South African flag flap in the wind.
Put down a R50 deposit and play a board game of your choice – from Bingo to Trivial Pursuit and chess.
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The chefs source responsibly, sustainably and super-fresh; grow the ingredients; bake all the breads, rolls and baguettes every day on site; preserve and bottle accompaniments and sauces; and even make cheeses to produce a variety of delicousness every weekday. The menu is a mixture of firm favourites and experimental specials, but always what’s in season.
The bun of the house burger is baked that very morning; the bacon cut to desired thickness. This, the best burger patty in my eating experience, is composed of a combination of three different beef (not fillet) sections from Braeside Butchery, for varying textures and tastes. The accompaniments are plucked from the planter boxes in front of your hungry eyes - I’ve even seen sweet piquant peppers flourishing in boxes - and the burger’s sauce has been created in the kitchen for the right smoky flavour. The chips are hand-cut, of course.
People stand up to come examine a plate of sweet potato, feta and avo pancakes served with homemade yogurt flecked with just-picked herbs and golden pumpkin seeds - and then ordering the same. Guests exclaim a lot and Instagram when the food arrives, such as bunny chow of lamb curry in a specially created bun; the pulled pork of slow-cooked barbecued neck that comes with brioche and fresh coleslaw; and the pies with house-made phyllo pastry containing a mixture of artichokes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes and white wine. A seemingly simple roast chicken salad features roasted baby tomatoes, balsamic breadcrumbs, grilled thick-cut bacon and The Hill’s mayo spiked with mustard.
Specials featuring currently are marrow bones with herbed crostini and homey soups, while salads like the warm chickpea, box-grown aubergine and broccoli with bulgar, toasted sunflower seeds and a lemon yogurt will never be allowed off the menu.
There’s no real dessert on the menu; people often order a grilled pineapple dish, unbelievably thick and fresh milkshakes, or fun coffees in Consol jars.
The serious coffees are made by Mike the barista, who’s been practising his art since The Hill opened late last year. Alongside the Graham Beck bubbly range and the Spier collection, expect dalliances with Shannon Vineyards and the red wonders of Morgenster before the management settles on what wines are most eagerly sipped by “the people”. I love that absolutely every wine is available by the glass. Beers fall into the classic and the very local craft categories, but the most popular drinks are actually pressed juices made with farmer-sourced fruits.
Vincent Chipendo is the masterful manager of The Hill. He's very earnest about his food and its journey to your table, but is also very amusing. Staff always look as though they’re having a joyous time here, and it’s infectious.
That lightness of spirit is especially remarkable contrasted with the gravity of the old gaol courtyard, ramparts and watchtowers. Nothing permanent may be built here, so the outdoor part of the restaurant seems to float a little above the old paving stones, with specially engineered sun- and shade-vents. The long bar runs its smooth length under Mandela’s quote about letting there be justice, peace, work, bread, water and salt for all.
The old warden’s house contains the bakery, kitchen, more restaurant rooms and a comforting fireplace. The kitchen is wood-fronted and sunny, with men in toques popping in and out to snip produce out of the décor, the fresh things in boxes surrounding the outer tables.
Part of the success of The Hills is that it is an Awethu project, where promising chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs are given experience and trained in every possible way for excellence in their chosen fields.