In a rather grimy, unattractive corner of Harrington Street in the east city lies Dias Tavern. It's not much to look at when empty and, even when it’s full, most people are caught off guard at first glance. Some might mention it has great views of the mountain, but nobody's looking out the windows.
The food isn't exactly haute cuisine either: calamari, prego rolls, steaks with fried egg on top. Simple Portuguese food. Yet Dias manages to attract a very loyal following. It's full at lunch every weekday and packed for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. If ever there was an institution in Cape Town, Dias Tavern qualifies.
Even people that don't go to restaurants like Dias go to Dias. Everybody goes: businessmen, students, advocates, criminals, old men, young girls. While the demographic is mostly male over forty, there's nothing chauvinistic about the place.
Pop in on a Friday night when there's live music in the bar area and see people really let loose. Amidst the general chaos beneath the mirror ball, you're almost guaranteed to see folk langarm dancing. I remember one night they were filming the dancing and playing it on the big screen at the other end of the restaurant for the diners to watch. Brilliant!
When I think about it, it's not a mystery that Dias holds such attraction. Many people out there aren't fussed about what a restaurant looks like. They don't care if the seat is leather-covered or red plastic. They don't care if there's starched linen or cheap placemats. And they'd be far happier with half a grilled peri peri chicken than they would a portion of seared tuna with ponzu sauce. These are everyday people who want everyday food.
But here's the thing: some days even the most picky, snobby eaters just want comfort food in an environment that is unfussy and unpretentious – and that's what Dias delivers.
“Consistent quality, value for money, and a good time. That's what we offer people,” says Dan Faias, a partner in the restaurant, along with Jose Pereira and Jose Hilario. He tells me they've been open 23 years now. Things have changed, including the venue, twice. And with the smoking laws in effect, the restaurant is no longer separated into two sections, but entirely non-smoking. “We see far more families coming now,” he says. “We sometimes see three generations of customers at one table.”
At my most recent Dias lunch, there were five of us. A single generation, but a hungry one. We tucked into hearty dishes of squid tentacles, chicken livers, calamari, and that perennial favourite trinchado – steak cubes served with chips – all heavily drenched in vinegar- and garlic-heavy sauce. The peri peri chicken and prawns apparently fly out the kitchen here, but we were set on our surf 'n turf option, which we washed down with bottles of Laurentina beer from Mozambique. Few are the lunchtime patrons who don’t enjoy a beer or glass of wine.
Things might have changed over the years, but sitting there I realised Dias Tavern is in somewhat of a time warp. This is not the restaurant that's going to add sushi to its menu or join a restaurant week. In a world where everything strives to be the best, the newest and most unique, Dias wants none of that. But in its timeless consistency and familiarity, its simple yet hearty food, it offers an escape from all this. Diners don’t ignore the tacky décor and TV screens everywhere, they love it all. It's the quirky edge to the place. And like me, they'll be back to enjoy it again and again.
By David Cope