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GRANDEUR & GRAVITAS

Liam Tomlin’s triple-layer gateau of restaurant dreaminess

Liam Tomlin’s triple-layer gateau of restaurant dreaminess
Crêpes Suzette tableside fun at The Brasserie. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

In 2014, Liam Tomlin built a restaurant in Cape Town called Chefs Warehouse. Then he built seven more. One of them – The Bailey – is the object of my undying love. This is why.

I get crushes on restaurants like most people do on humans. They are fast, hard, obsessive. But while I love the food and the wine and the service and the entire vibe, it’s the guts of a restaurant that really light my fire. Knowing how they work makes them that much more intoxicating. Of course, in my case, this reverie is counterbalanced with the relief of no longer being a restaurant owner, even though that was what felt like a million years ago, in the previous millennium.

Now, just like a grandparent, I can give them back when I’m ready to go home.

One of the very few that survived the crush stage to become my forever love is The Bailey. It is chef and restaurateur Liam Tomlin’s extravagant triple-layer gateau of restaurant dreaminess, on Cape Town’s Bree Street. In a feat of restaurant construction and operations, this three-storey heritage building has been reimagined to house three unique restaurant concepts, one on each floor.

Why am I so bewitched with this place? Because it’s my own fantasy of classic European-style elegance come to life in my hometown, without the expense of international flights and paying euro prices with rands? Yes, in part.

The Bailey is directly opposite the original Chefs Warehouse restaurant on Bree Street. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

But more so because it’s the combination of restaurant magic, elegance and excellence, bolstered by mammoth and complex behind-the-scenes logistics that keep it not just functioning, but finely tuned. That I love, now and forever.

They say it’s all in the details, and it is. The steak tartare prepared tableside, baked baby Brie and trolley of exquisite desserts, French Pineapple Spritzes and Bailey’s Bully, sticky pork belly with kimchi, chicken larb, tuna belly romesco, three different wine lists, 370 whiskeys from 14 countries, oysters and caviar, a vast collection of wonderful artwork including a private room dedicated to the late artist Paul du Toit (a good friend of the Tomlins) and insanely comfy and elegant (there’s that word again) red velvet chairs to sink into for the night. To mention but a few of thousands.

Multiple elements. Three operations. One building. Separate but astonishingly one. How is this possible under one roof? For me, that’s the fascination, particularly knowing how challenging it is to just run one.

Admittedly I’ve spent a lot of time at The Bailey, when it’s open and when it’s not. I’m not just some unhinged groupie. Full disclosure, I’ve been working on a writing project about Liam. I’ve been listening, watching and occasionally eating there for months. Mostly the first two.

I am in awe of its intents and scale. It’s a place of exceptional excellence with three independent, well-defined concepts – Chefs Warehouse at the Bailey (a reprise of the original Chefs Warehouse restaurant which was across the road), The Brasserie (classic French-style food and service) and The Old Bailey (whiskey and cocktail lounge). It’s got so many moving parts and staff, it feels a lot like a boutique hotel. Which is no surprise as it’s always been Liam’s dream to own one. And eventually live in it; he’s hopelessly romantic like that. I hope someday his dream comes true.

Liam Tomlin. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

Liam is a culinary legend in Cape Town – half the husband-and-wife team behind the first Chefs Warehouse which opened in 2014 and five other restaurants currently in operation: Thali, Chefs Warehouse restaurants at Beau Constantia, Maison (Franschhoek) and Tintswalo Atlantic (Chapman’s Peak) and most recently The Red Room at The Mount Nelson. In his spare time – ha – he’s the food consultant for the Singita group of luxury private game reserves.

What many don’t know is that he has 40 years of experience in restaurants across a number of continents. From Europe, where he cut his restaurant kitchen teeth at the age of 14 and worked brutally hard to build his career at some of Europe’s finest establishments, to Australia, where he and Jan owned their own renowned restaurant Banc, before arriving in South Africa in 2003. A lifetime of preparation for The Bailey build. And that’s what the project demanded.

Modern classic at Chefs Warehouse at The Bailey. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

When Liam and partner Warwick Goosen first walked into the building for sale that was directly across the street from the original Chef’s Warehouse, Liam was smitten. It was bizarre that he’d been glancing at that facade every day for nearly 10 years but had no idea what it looked like inside, while it was first a family planning clinic, and later vacant. The more its massive (and derelict) scale was revealed, the more possibilities he saw.

This was going to be much more than another Liam Tomlin restaurant. With permission to go up 11 storeys, this could someday be a hotel. With its classical bones, it felt like the perfect space to open the ode he’d long dreamed of to the cafes, bistros and brasseries of European cities. These are his happy places, where he’s spent hundreds of hours sitting, morning, noon and night – eating, drinking, smoking and people watching. Which is why Liam calls The Bailey “a selfish build”.

“The more we looked at the space, the bigger the project became.”

First, it was apparent that it was too big for one restaurant, so it became three. It required massive upgrades and renovation. Infrastructure on steroids: new slabs, roof, electricity and plumbing. A basement that could serve as a receiving area and storage for all three offerings. Two lifts: one for customers and an electric dumbwaiter for transporting produce from one floor to the next.

“I didn’t want chefs and waiters trooping through the restaurants with produce and prep and waste; that’s something I really hate.”

Its size alone necessitated 13 toilets to comply with city council requirements. The number of walk-ins and freezers required for three venues was reminiscent of the demands of a small cruise ship. Three-and-a-half kitchens, three bars and a big walk-in wine cellar. “It all adds up.” Understatement of the century.

Then, there was the challenge of designing three different spaces that still had to come together in some way. 

“The idea was to give people lots of reasons to come back.” 

Indeed, there are many reasons to come back to this place named after a dog. A very special dog. Bailey was Liam and Jan’s much-loved Labrador whose likeness is captured in several artworks on the walls. Which brings home the fact that this place is deeply personal to Liam.

The Bailey is where you can pretend you’re in Paris for a night and eat Chateaubriand carved at your table from a guéridon trolley by an immaculately dressed server in black trousers, waistcoat and tie. Or play an edible Twister game of global tapas, from beef tataki to octopus ceviche to gado gado, without leaving a baby toe of a global footprint. Or drink a cocktail that is just that: a classic martini. Just what you expect. Or something you don’t: a Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10-year single-malt whiskey from Islay, or a tot of whiskey from India or a rare bourbon from Kentucky. It’s all of this.

Eating at Chefs Warehouse at The Bailey is a global game of culinary Twister. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

On the ground floor is Chefs Warehouse. Its à la carte menu is a greatest hits of Chefs Warehouse, with classics like Liam’s famous salt and pepper squid with chilli and pineapple, along with a metaphorical lazy Susan of dishes, from Spain to Vietnam. Global tapas is everywhere now, but Liam was Cape Town’s originator of quality international grazing, and here you can do it in a cushier style than the original Chefs Warehouse.

The Brasserie transplants an elegant French dining experience to Cape Town. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

On the first floor is The Brasserie, Liam’s take on the French brasserie. It has many of the classics you’d expect – French onion soup, confit duck leg, steak with pommes frites, crêpes Suzette – but there’s also Liam’s more contemporary spin on French classical.

Whatever you call it, it’s long-cooked sauces, well-coaxed flavours paired with freshness, and beautiful presentation. The room has the romance of restaurants written on every surface, from white tablecloths and long tapered candles to the level of service: it’s respectful and old school, without being stuffy.

The smart and speakeasy-ish Old Bailey Lounge with whiskey lockers in the background. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

On the second floor is the speakeasy-ish Bailey Lounge, place of dark parquet floors, luxe green and midnight-blue wingbacks and Winchester couches, as well as hundreds of bottles of whiskey. Where you don’t have to drink whiskey if you don’t like it, for there are cocktails and wine, but if you do, it’s Nirvana. There’s a members’ club and tastings and a full food menu and art exhibitions and live jazz and…

So many to choose from; there are 370 whiskeys at the Old Bailey Lounge. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

It’s the sum total and range of these multiple elements and experiences that make it hard to define The Bailey in a single, easily consumable media nugget, but I’ll try. Elegance, excellence, grandeur and a bit of theatre that is somehow also grounded and real.

There are 70 employees to look after in this business. This is the reality behind the romance, with all its responsibilities, messy human complications and rewards. Overseeing it all is Jan and general manager Rachel Nicholson, herself a seasoned hospitality icon who’s worked with Liam and Jan since the opening of the original Chefs Warehouse. She knows the Tomlin way like no other.

Confit Duck Leg is a simple classic dish at The Brasserie. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

Heading up the kitchens is chef Asher Abramowitz, whose extensive experience in all kinds of venues in Europe, New Zealand and South Africa make him the ideal kitchen flexitarian. He understands Liam’s vision and knows how to put it in place. There’s flexibility in the kitchens, although the three are run separately. All the managers can manage different sections, all the bartenders can work the different bars, but in the end, each operation is independent and has its own identity.

The vision of The Bailey is one thing; running it is another. There’s no magic to the business end; it runs because of hard work, thoroughness, planning, scheduling, hiring, training and more than anything, great people.

The romance of The Brasserie. (Photo: Claire Gunn)

When you are running a place like The Bailey, the pressures by virtue of its size and complexity are immense. This has been Liam’s most challenging build to date and since it opened in 2022, he’s tweaked it to get it just right. Is it there yet? He thinks so.

The Bailey may have only been in existence since 2022, but it feels timeless, as if it’s a Cape Town institution circa mid-20th century. I believe this is because it has the substance and authentic gravitas that could only come from a seasoned restaurateur who’s lived a worldly life.

Liam has had many restaurants over the years. They’ve all had meaning and all have been a piece of him. Nearly all have been great successes. A couple haven’t. That’s the restaurant life. This one – it’s super personal. It feels like a legacy. And that is perhaps the ultimate allure. DM

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