SEEING THE LIGHT
Survivors, 2022: Celebrating Cape restaurants that weathered the Covid storm
Trading restrictions, no alcohol sales, travel bans keeping the usual influx of tourists from our shores – restaurants have weathered a beating. Cape Town in particular relies on a booming summer season, which didn’t happen in 2021.
There needs to be an award for those who have made it through the last two years, says David van Rensburg, owner of The Seaboard in Sea Point, and can we get an amen to that, brothers and sisters?
It’s been without a doubt the strangest two years in living memory, not least for the point of reflection we now have as we look back. My 2020 Facebook memories, and the journal I kept, taunt me. I was crazier than a box of frogs, and I know I’m not alone. I’m not going to catalogue everything the restaurant industry went through; we all know, and there will be little recaps below. Today, it’s about the survivors, and those who took the leap of opening new places even as others around them closed. Today it’s about being positive, celebrating successes, and a brighter, shinier future. Today we celebrate.
Van Rensburg, who has a long history in the business, opened The Seaboard with his lifelong friend Paul Kadish in December 2021. “It has taken off way beyond our expectations and is growing from month to month,” he said. This has much to do with the no fuss, no frills beach shack theme serving fish and chips, and one of the best all-you-can-eat sushi specials in town.
The question I put to everybody was how the typical season had played out for them. We’re all accustomed to summer visitors, from overseas in particular, but the Omicron variant caused a clampdown on international travel.
“Other than locals keeping us busy, there was not much of a season. They helped us keep the doors open but that’s about it. We really missed the foreigners and local travellers alike,” said Van Rensburg, who is also involved with Mojo Market in Sea Point where he began as a consultant and ended up with a few stalls in partnership with the owners. “This has evolved into me having the two coffee shops and a burger bar there.”
Figures have been down 35 to 40% on pre-Covid numbers, but there has been a steady growth over the last six months with an average growth of 5% per month. “So we are getting back to pre Covid but it is taking time,” he said. “Working from home has definitely had a negative impact on lunch trade; we do however see a slow increase here. Eating out is a luxury and consumers are now more than ever before looking at value for money.”
As for the future, Van Rensburg says all he can do is give that value and keep plugging away at producing what his customers want. “For all its challenges I still enjoy the business,” he said.
Another one that opened right in the thick of things is Bo-Vine Wine & Steakhouse on the Camps Bay strip. Pete Goffe-Wood’s restaurant Viande at Grande Roche in Paarl was a Covid casualty and he was approached by his old mate Steve Maresch (previously of the award winning Local Grill in Parktown, Joburg) to give him a hand opening a new steakhouse. It’s no relation to Oliver Cattermole’s fab spot, of a similar name, in Franschhoek, Goffe-Wood pointed out.
“Steve and his partners – Gregor Bremer and Roy Ingle – had in turn been approached by The Promenade in Camps Bay to open something, and Bo-Vine opened the week before Christmas 2021.”
Bo-Vine is a simple upmarket steakhouse with a strong wine influence (hence the name), explained Goffe-Wood. “We’ve tried to keep the food simple, honest and authentic. Our primary focus is on meat but we endeavour to have a balanced offering that also includes a couple of vegan options. We age all our meat in-house. Out front we’ve tried to create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere and you will always find either myself or Steve on the floor.”
When they opened they had set out to focus on locals, on account of South Africa being red-listed by traditional foreign markets, which has the advantage of setting the foundation and relationships for the quieter winter months.
“South Africans couldn’t travel internationally; likewise with many of our northern neighbours. So we had a great Christmas and New Year. I consulted for Blues back in 2003 and Camps Bay was every bit as busy as it was back then.
“We started to get foreign visitors in January 2022 and those numbers have slowly risen, but they have not been our primary focus – we see them as a bonus rather than our foundation customers,” said Goffe-Wood.
Bo-Vine has been continually busy since it opened and there is no secret to its success: “We’ve kept our offering simple, affordable and consistent. Our service – warm, informed and friendly. We’re not trying to compete with the hip, cool and vibe restaurants on the strip. We do steak and we do it well,” said Goffe-Wood.
“If the past two years has taught us anything, it’s to take care of the here and now and that’s our local business.”
Wine farms and estates have been as much put upon as restaurants. Cape Point Vineyards in Noordhoek – the only vineyard on the Peninsula – is known for its unique Sauvignon Blancs and amazing sea views. It offers an à la carte restaurant and an informal courtyard restaurant, picnics, sushi and wine tasting, and a Thursday night pop-up food market.
“We certainly had more of a season in 2021 than December 2020, but I think like everyone else, our dreams of a ‘normal’ season were dashed with the discovery of the Omnicron variant,” said owner Lizanne van der Spuy, for whom the worst thing has been the uncertainty.
“Before Covid I understood the framework under which I operated. I accepted that things out of my control (such as the water shortage) could affect my season… but the legal framework was constant,” she said. “What knocks us for six is the uncertainty. Do you plan a much needed New Year’s Eve party (or any event for that matter) if you are not sure whether you will not be allowed to operate or sell alcohol on the day of the event? We missed out on quite a bit of income because we did not want to run that risk. The curfew for New Year’s Eve was cancelled the night before – also out of the blue. How do you take advantage of this to plan an event in less than 24 hours? You don’t.”
Being still standing is a mixture of “our God-given advantages as well as flexibility,” says Van Der Spuy. “We are absolutely lucky to have what is very much considered to be an outdoor venue – but as a small family-run company that operates on our own property we also had the opportunity to adjust our offering with immediate effect whenever a new rule or regulation was pulled out of the hat.”
Van Der Spuy said she dreams of a future where we know that alcohol bans and curfews will only be implemented under strictly defined conditions and lifted as soon as those strictly defined conditions are no longer met. “I appreciate it may be necessary when hospitals are full to the brink due to abnormal circumstances, but I want to know that I will be left alone to operate within the country’s normal and constitutional legal framework up until such a point.”
Everyone has worked incredibly hard through all this nonsense but I happen to personally know Gabbi Katz of Catch 22 – another family enterprise – has had an exceptionally taxing time of it. The Blouberg restaurant opened in 2013, founded by Katz and her father Ivan, from whom she learned a passion, love and respect for staff and clientele, old-school style hospitality, and to always strive to uphold the highest standards and not compromise on quality.
“Sadly in about 2015 my father, the driving force and patriarch of the business, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia which progressed as the years went on, leading him to have to be worked out of his own beloved business, with myself and my mother taking over the reins,” said Katz.
“As a partnership, my father was the ‘business man’ and I was the creative, marketing force. Very quickly I had to dive right into the deep end and take over the roles my father was no longer able to fulfil.
“Over the next few years he battled progressive dementia, underwent chemo to beat two types of blood cancer, but sadly passed away on 14 February 2021, one day after his 69th birthday, following a battle with Covid pneumonia.
“My driving force in the business for the past seven years has been to honour his love and passion for it and its people, my family legacy in hospitality, and to prove myself as an owner and director in my own right, and put my own stamp on Catch 22.”
In a seafront location with a colour scheme and decor which evokes a Mediterranean feel, Catch 22 has a “linger longer” holiday vibe. Cocktails (Katz’s area of expertise), surf and turf, small plates and big platters are all on the menu, along with blackboard specials.
“The past two years are often difficult to keep track of, purely because so much has transpired. However, we are very happy to report the best season we have had since 2019!” said Katz. “But it never comes without its challenges, and we found the ‘local season’ which tends to start for us at the beginning of December proved to have setbacks.
“Firstly, the first week of December we traditionally find ourselves with a number of larger year-end company functions. However, due to Covid we believe many companies didn’t have the same budgets as previous years, and also many employees at the time had contracted Covid, so these bookings were few and far between, and some were cancelled due to positive Covid cases.”
The Omicron/travel ban in December immediately resulted in calls from overseas guests cancelling their reservations, and even the local tourism trade felt like it came to a stand-still, said Katz. “I do believe later school holiday dates also played a part in our local tourists getting a shorter period of time to enjoy the December holidays in Cape Town.
“However, come January we finally started to feel a vibe, and started seeing our regular kite-surfers returning to our shore and hearing foreign accents around the restaurant. We saw some of our regular foreign guests for the first time in two years, so it was an absolutely wonderful and joyous time for us.
“Even though our summer season started late, we fortunately felt that it pushed on later than normal and we had a great February and March trade as well.”
Now isn’t that just the kind of happy story you need to hear right now?
For the first time in a very long time Katz said she has hope. “The 18 months before was a pure fight for survival. For the past six months we’ve actually been able to believe, dream and focus on a future for Catch 22. We are still very budget conscious, mainly focusing on strategies and systems to keep costs at bay, and only focusing and putting money into projects that are top priority.
“One main goal is to always keep Catch 22 current and relevant, without losing the old-school influences my father imparted on the business, in the way we treat our crew, the service we offer, and some of the old-school dishes that are still being enjoyed by guests over 30 years after their original creation.”
Sacrifices we don’t even know half of have taken place. Societi Bistro owner Peter Weetman sold his house to keep his restaurant going. The restaurant first opened at V&A Waterfront in 2003 and has been at its location in Orange Street, Gardens, since 2008. It will take more than Covid to bring this longtime favourite to its knees.
Societi Bistro is a contemporary bistro serving rural food in an urban environment, where the focus is on the ingredients, and serving the best quality in an unpretentious manner, an extension of your kitchen table at home, said Weetman. “As Covid restrictions are relaxed we are slowly returning to our bi-annual seasonal menu launch parties to raise funds for worthy charities; and our previous speciality of exclusive use of the bistro for product launches, weddings, birthday celebrations. Oh those menu launch soirées are legendary.
“This past season did not see a return to pre-Covid and drought visitor numbers; however, we are expecting a surge in numbers for the 2022/2023 summer season,” said Weetman. “We are expecting a bumper autumn-winter 2022, but with limited numbers booked because we are unable to seat (people) outside.”
The past six months have shown a marked improvement though. “We continue to innovate, while remaining true to our authentic selves with multiple marketing initiatives, by keeping it simple, and focusing on the basics.
“We are very fortunate to have fostered loyalty from Capetonians, and visitors alike, and their unwavering support has hugely contributed to us being able to survive and hopefully once again thrive in the future.”
The autumn/winter menu was launched a couple of weeks ago, featuring 11 new dishes. My picks are tender braised ox tongue smothered in a parsley and caper cream, with crispy Dauphine potatoes, tomato concasse and parsley; slow braised Karoo lamb shank on a bed of buttered mash – you really can’t go wrong, especially when you get a table next to the fireplace; bœuf bourguignon – brisket in red wine with smoky pancetta, mushrooms, pearl onions, oven roasted garlic, carrot, and tomato, served on a bed of buttered mash, oh my word; and tender pork belly in a sage and Granny Smith apple sauce, topped with lightly roasted red onion and deep-fried sage, served on a bed of buttered mash.
I think it’s all the buttered mash that’s doing it for me. Jeeves, bring the car – I’m going out for dinner. DM/TGIFood
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.