High season holiday hot spots can be hellish. Queues are long, streets are strewn with litter and badly behaved visitors ruin the very atmosphere that they came for.
In comparison with many other countries South Africa is not overrun with leisure travellers – in fact, many argue that our economy could do with considerably more of them. But even here there are particular places and periods when the holidaying hoards do descend. Since everyone must eat, restaurants are a significant pressure point. Some of these over-touristed dining destinations are more unpleasantly overhyped than others…
Crowded doesn’t begin to describe the air-kissing crush of depilated, bronzed, Loubertin’ed European and Birkin-bagged American visitors (plus local wannabes) spilling out of beachfront bistros onto the Camps Bay pavements. Wild gesticulation is always the order of the day and tables are so closely spaced that customers can identify each other’s deodorant brands. The business model for the majority of these Atlantic Seaboard eateries ensures that funds that might otherwise be spent on skilled staff and/or quality ingredients go towards creating expensive interiors dressed in what Guardian food critic Jay Rayner once described as “tasteful shades of taupe, biscuit and stuff you…”
Garish cocktails and glamorous waiters are presumably designed to distract diners from the fact that most of the food is the kind of lazy that happens when kitchen staff work illegally long hours for criminally low wages. Menus specialise in the random capitalisation of foodie words – think “Julienned” and “House Salad”. East meets West confusion cuisine reigns supreme. In such a scenario “jamon” and “sashimi” have become regular platter companions. The muddle of culinary concepts is doubly offensive in a city with not one but two home-grown fusion food genres (Cape Malay and Cape Dutch).
Silver lining seekers should know that the Camps Bay people-watching potential is unparalleled – elsewhere opportunities to see such transparent surgical self-improvement, such improbable blondeness and such flamboyantly misspent wealth are few and far between…
From late November until the end of March the restaurants at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront might kindly be described as a crowded septic tank of edible exploitation. The majority of diners are international visitors passing through and service staff neither expect nor desire repeat custom. Vanity Fair recently described the food and prices in such settings as “stupid in the way Donald Trump is stupid. It’s a kind of aggressive stupidity.”
V&A venues don’t bother with Camps Bay style supermodel waiters but rather rely on the emotional and intellectual degradation that a combination of jet lag, cramped conditions and strip lighting will induce. Indian-style offerings specialise in gritty coriander and breathtaking chunks of raw onion. In such spots the best dishes lack depth of flavour while the worst are acrid and dispiriting. It’s not just Asian food that is awful here – there are multiple faux Italian eateries and a plethora of the sort of steakhouses which seemingly set out to insult prestige ingredients. “Artisan” cut fries (yes really) are almost invariably doused into floppiness with synthetic, migraine-inducing truffle oil. And the most depressing thing? These revolting restaurants are all full.
South African statistics show that even more tourists go for game than mountains and sea. Sadly the food in our safari settings is every bit as bad as that served up in our beachfront bistros. Venison literally leaps across the road and there are little boys selling oranges at every intersection as travellers head towards the Kruger Park but once ensconced within the luxury lodges, visitors are treated to frozen orange juice concentrate and the sort of incongruous Scottish salmon and Irish scallop-laden suppers that count up carbon miles.
Claustrophobia makes me mean which is why I feel obligated to point out that Soweto’s Vilakazi Street is not (as Gauteng government publicity material consistently claims) the “only street in the world that can boast having had two Nobel Laureates as residents.” Archbishop Tutu’s house is indeed on Vilakazi street but the Mandela family front door is (and always has been – check the address on Madiba’s Robben Island letters to his daughters if you don’t believe me) on neighbouring Ngakane Road. Not that this stops the fume-pumping tour busses from streaming into the street. Food has never been prioritised as part of the Vilakazi Street package – when the Mandela house was being renovated as a museum in 2006 the very peach tree that Madiba planted when he first lived in the house in the 1950s was cut down. Dark tourism is difficult, though – who knows what the ideal epicurean accompaniment to apartheid history ought to be – but I am certain that unconscionable prices, fly-blown bain-marie’s of tinned chakalaka and tepid tripe is not it. There is plenty of fine food to be had in Soweto – the kwela jazz accompanied seven colours Sunday lunches at Kliptown’s Soweto Hotel on Walter Sisulu Square come magnificently to mind – but Vilakazi Street consistently misses the mark.
The good news is that no one needs to lunch like a lemming. South Africa is an economically complex country with a large land area, great ingredients and many talented chefs. There are more than enough excellent eating establishments to go around. The problem is not a lack of decent restaurants but rather the foolishness of humanity. Faced with multiple eating options, choice paralysis takes over and social proof (the concept that people will conform to the actions of others – in other words, they don’t eat in empty restaurants) becomes the heuristic for choosing a dining destination. For the lucky few who can see beyond bedlam a delicious diversity of serene settings await…