After eight weeks of eating out near daily—thanks to the reasonable South African food prices—let’s just say I’ve chewed my way through Cape Town. The gourmet choices are many, but there’s lots more here, too. From coffee to cocktails, fast food to sweets, here are my recommendations for tasting the full range of what this culturally mixed city has to offer.
Eat at Woodstock hotspots with “Kitchen” in the title. The ultra-gourmet Test Kitchen is often called the best restaurant in South Africa, and one of the best in the world. But book ahead in this mandatory-reservation country. We called in early June and were told the next dinner booking for two would be in October. Not far away in the same funky industrial neighborhood is the Kitchen, the cozy spot Michelle Obama chose for lunch when she was in Cape Town. The Test Kitchen offers molecular gastronomy. The Kitchen dishes up surprising salads of roasted vegetables and grains blended in unexpected flavors. Mix it up by having lunch instead of dinner at the Test Kitchen (much easier to snag a reservation) and dinner instead of lunch at the Kitchen (owner Karen Dudley has an evening sister space, the Dining Room).
Sample one of the many food markets. Like Americans, South Africans are loving their urban markets. Neighbourgoods Market gets all the press (and Brooklyn comparisons). But the Hout Bay, City Bowl, and St. George’s Mall iterations are excellent, too. City Bowl and St. George’s (both on Thursdays) are both food-only. Choose between South African springbok, Lebanese hummus, Argentine empanadas, Hungarian flatbread squirted with yogurt-thyme sauce, and much more. If you’re here only other days of the week, the V&A Waterfront has similarly great food vendors every day. But the Bay Harbour Market, housed in a cool old fish factory in Hout Bay, is best for the live music, diverse crowd, buoy-and-net decor, and the artisan craft vendors supplementing the food.
Take a mandatory Cape Malay cooking lesson + shop at the Bo Kaap spice market. There are restaurants in the Bo Kaap, like the Noon Gun and Biesmallah. But for the best taste of the unique Southeast Asian-meets-African fusion that is Cape Malay cuisine, you need home cooking. There are lots of options to eat (and even practice cooking yourself) now in the private kitchens of Bo Kaap, the colorful Muslim neighborhood. Shireen Narkedien got many of them started. You can still take a tour with her. She’ll share the history of the Cape Malay community and take you to Atlas Trading Company, the curry-heavy spice market. And later you can buy the Bo Kaap Kitchen cookbook Shireen helped compile if you want to try making Cape Malay dishes at home.
Indulge at places promising truth & honesty. I’m a tea girl. Coffee’s acidity throws my stomach. If I do need the caffeine, I soften it with cream and sugar (and still regret it afterwards). But Truth Coffee is so smooth, their capuccino doesn’t need a grain of sugar to go down easy. As a coffeehouse, Truth is aggressively steampunk. You’ve never seen more complicated machines than their roasters. Yet the vibe is relaxed. So is the service—Sean Penn actually walked out without ordering a few weeks ago, maybe because a server didn’t come around fast enough. (You missed some damn good coffee, buddy.) Also promising candor and offering fab treats is Honest Chocolate. The artisan chocolate is beautiful in both taste and look: just cacao and agave nectar wrapped in artful paper.
Find a gritty side-street dive doing excellent food. Down an alley, in what looks to be a former garage now lit with vintage lampshades, blues grinds out. You’ve found the Dog’s Bollocks. This trendy joint does 30 burgers per night. They serve them up with ridiculous sauces on mega-buns. Not far away, Lefty’s has a deceptively grungy look, but similarly killer food cooked in a punked-out atmosphere. Try a meaty banh mi, or the open-faced beet & cucumber falafels.
Try a braai. Full disclosure: I hear the best braii, or South African barbecue, is always in someone’s backyard. But it’s season-specific—despite frequent sunshine and temps in the 70s, no one seems to feel like grilling out in the “winter” months of June and July. To chow down on tasty meat in a party atmosphere, hit Mzoli’s. It’s a Sunday ritual in the township of Gugulethu. The smell of wood char hangs in the air as a DJ spins Xhosa hard beats through speakers tied up by extension cords. Forget silverware. You’ll get a bowl of boerewors (richly spiced South African sausage) and bristly flame-grilled lamb to tear with your hands. Go with tour guide Gregg Cohen—an unofficial Mzoli’s mayor—to make sure you get a good spot.
Hunt out a great cocktail bar. South Africa’s wines are excellent. Its craft beer scene is “emerging.” But cocktails are often limited beyond gin & tonics or brandy & Cokes. After several requests for martinis or manhattans got us blank looks at full bars—they had no vermouth—we gave up asking. The Orphanage changed everything. African ingredients, like rooibos tea and kumquats, are infused into memorable cocktails. They’re served playfully, like in a brown paper-covered flask or a zip-tied baggie with a (fake) goldfish. And the modern-speakeasy vibe is perfect.
Try the fast food South Africans obsess over. There are a frightening number of KFC’s here. But don’t settle for fried chicken when you can get the peri-peri variety from Nando’s. Of Portuguese origin and also popular in Mozambique, peri-peri is a savory marinade of crushed chillies, citrus peel, onion, garlic, pepper, salt, lemon juice, bay leaves, paprika, pimiento, basil, oregano, and tarragon. You can get the flavor on potato wedges and spinach along with the flame-grilled chicken. Nando’s is the fast food South Africans commiserate about missing when abroad.
Experience red velvet like never before. In the West, we mix chocolate and white cake mix together and call it red velvet. The color? Reddish, yes. The flavor? Mostly just sweet. At the old-but-hip Charly’s Bakery, where a classical building and crystal chandeliers meet neon colors, they do it differently. At Charly’s, red velvet cupcakes are made with deep crimson beets (or beetroot, as South Africans call them). The bright taste is somewhere between carrot cake and strawberry. It’s a revelation.