“You’re going to love living in Gardens,” people who’d lived in the historic suburb right near the centre of Cape Town’s City Bowl said to me before I moved. “It’s so central.”
At the time, I was sad to say farewell to the Atlantic Seaboard, but now, two years later, I’ll admit I’ve grown rather attached to my hood. I just have to walk out my front door onto the sidewalk and I’m close enough that I can walk pretty much anywhere: to grab a coffee, browse the latest exhibition at the South African National Gallery, or read under a tree at The Company’s Gardens. I also love admiring the suburb’s history, evident in such things as the elegant Victorian cottages lining the slender streets, and the stately oaks which were planted in the time of Simon Van Der Stel.
The best thing about getting comfortable in a new neighbourhood is finding the food and drink spots that will become your favourites. Now that I consider myself a Gardens local, here are some of mine.
I was a regular at the Vintage India in Durban, so when I crave the familiar, I visit the Cape Town branch of Vintage India. The décor is nothing flashy, but that’s not why people come to this curry house. The menu is so extensive – traditional North Indian, Goan and Hydrabadi dishes, with several kadai, tikka, makhanis, kormas and so on – it can almost be overwhelming. I go for a combo that hits the spot every time: kadai paneer (firm curd cheese, green pepper, tomato and onion simmered in spices in a copper bowl, R65) with Aloo Stuffed Paratha (an oily, potato-stuffed flatbread, R25) to mop up the spicy sauce. Bliss!
On sunshiny days, when I want a real taste of Durbs, I sit outside at Vandiar’s Indian Cuisine (AKA “Durban’s Finest Curry”), on Dunkley Square, for a chicken bunny chow (R60), washed down with a crisp glass of sauvignon blanc.
To appreciate Cape Town’s rich past and vibrant present, enjoy breakfast or brunch at The Company’s Garden Restaurant, which offers the usual breakfast fare but with a bit of a twist, such as the omelette with field mushrooms, brie and onion jam (R66). The gardens themselves are a tonic for the soul: walk through the veggie garden, admire the blooms in the rose garden, or meander through the tree-lined walkways alive with scampering squirrels. If you have kids, they’ll love it here. (Be sure to book in advance, though, or anticipate a long wait.)
Recently, I’ve spent a few Saturday mornings at The Big Box Café, Cape Town’s only dedicated board-games café, located right near Parliament. Take your time to settle into the weekend over board games and copious cups of Tribe coffee. To fill up, try one of the delicious crêpes whipped up by French owners Eric and Emilie Breteau. I can vouch for The Puzzler (R35), which is filled with delicious lashings of bacon, egg and avo.
Sample an array of tasty morsels as you browse the stalls at the hip yet friendly City Bowl Market on Hope. It’s less pretentious (and crowded) than some of the other Cape Town markets, and there’s a play area with activities for kids.
For a truly transporting experience, Maria’s Greek Restaurant, which has been going for decades but which is now located on Dunkley Square, delivers every time. The pavement setting and taverna touches – think wine served in small tumblers, meze options scrawled on a roving blackboard, and fairy lights at night – are thoughtful and charming. The food is as delightful as the setting. In addition to the many meze options, try the calamari salad (R75), or the Yiouvetsi lamb, slow-cooked in a tomato sauce and served with orzo noodles (R98). Both are just heavenly. The waiting staff often seem a bit run off their feet, though, so make your lunch here a leisurely one.
Kloof Street House, set in a regal-looking Victorian building with plush, eclectic décor, is a superb choice for a birthday gathering not soon forgotten. Whether you sit in the Baz Luhrmann-esque bar, the intimate library corner, or the garden courtyard, every section offers something interesting to look at – including the trendy crowd. The menu offers quality bistro fare with a Mediterranean and Moroccan influence.
While the suburb may not boast sea views, you can unwind in the gardens in Gardens. For a civilised get-together to toast the end of a busy work week, nothing beats sharing bubbly and oysters at Planet Bar, situated at the Belmond Mount Nelson. The lush lawns, set back from Orange Street, belie the fact that you’re at the edge of the city’s central business district. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you may even spot a celebrity. (If you do, the unspoken Capetonian rule is to play it cool – something I struggled with when I saw James Purefroy, who played Marc Antony in the series Rome.)
For something more low key, there’s Zepi Grill & Bar at the Sun Square Hotel. Sip on a cocktail or artisanal beer while lounging beneath the palm trees and pool, before indulging in something from either the à la carte dinner menu or the more informal daily specials board. (Hint: the hotel isn’t too set on the “residents only in the pool” rule. If you eat there, you can swim there.)
At Societi Bistro on Orange Street, there’s a fireplace at the bar for cool days and shaded outdoor seating for balmy summer days, and the ambience is that perfect balance of sophisticated but relaxed. As it’s near to the Labia cinema, it’s a great spot for a pre- or post-movie meal. If you’re after something more special, book the Chef’s Table. There are several wines served by the glass, and the menu boasts a vast and varied range of pastas. I’ve never been disappointed with the mushroom risotto (R68 for half; R105 for full).
Another great spot for drinks, dinner or both is Café Chic by Conrad Gallagher, located on Breda Street. Here, Conrad Gallagher serves exceptional cuisine in an intimate setting. If you’re feeling flush, treat yourself to one of the three tasting menus: the five-course Prestige, R410; the seven-course Gourmand, R610; or the ten-course Envy, R910. Or just stop by to enjoy late-night cocktails from Thursdays to Saturdays at the plush bar – think velvet-covered wingbacks, candelabras and chandeliers, aubergine-toned walls, and glass counters.