Surrounded by world-renowned wine estates (Napoleon purportedly adored the Cape's Vin de Constance), abundant farmland, and miles of rich coast, Cape Town has emerged as South Africa's—and arguably Africa's—foremost food destination. Distinguishing the champs from tailwind riders can be tricky, though. We did the (grueling) research for you, so instead of risking a ho-hum meal, try these categorical winners.
Long Lazy Lunches
You know those meals where brunch turns into lunch, and suddenly it's time for tapas and another bottle or three of wine? The sun is shining, there's nowhere you need to be, and the kitchen keeps it coming.
First up is Casa Labia. Don't mistake those 18th century Venetian interiors for an exclusive gentlemen's club. This recently restored 1930s mansion once belonged to Count Natale Labia, South Africa's first Italian ambassador. Sitting atop fynbos-covered hills overlooking the magnificent surf, this excellent Italian-inspired cafe churns out well-priced meals from delicious all-day breakfasts (homemade scones and poached eggs with pancetta) to homemade pastas and an excellent spinach and ricotta pancake with gorgonzola. Friendly staff encourage you to linger amid the English arts and crafts and Italian rococo mash-up—think gold coffered ceilings, Venetian wallpaper, and marble fireplaces—whose effect is mellowed by a sun-filled courtyard overlooking False Bay's horizon.
One can't-miss is the Steenberg wine estate's Bistro Sixteen82, named after the year this Constantia farm (the Cape's oldest) was established. Though the dishes are meant to pair with the estate's vintages, this is the opposite of hoity-toity fine dining. Let's start with breakfast: the eggs Benedict with pork belly bacon and rosti will either defeat or convert you. The minimalist bleached wood, metallic accents, and high ceilings opens onto an outside terrace that boasts gorgeous mountain views—a perfect setting for brunch to transform into lunch. Try favorites like mushroom risotto and seared tuna with squid ink emulsion. Stick around until the sun drops, and indulge in a tapas menu of ginger lime beef tataki, gnocchi carbonara, and churros and chocolate.
Skip breakfast before visiting Overture, the original long lazy lunch spot. Anchored into the craggy mountainside of Hidden Valley wine estate about 35 minutes out of Cape Town, this award-winner remains unpretentiously fabulous. Overture's changing seasonal menu offers a la carte or tasting menu (4, 5 or 8 courses) options. Amid the stunning views, a certain down-home love imbues everything from a chervil egg salad on heavenly ciabatta to mini beef-tartare grilled sandwiches. Wine pairings, which extend beyond the estate vintages, are highly recommended. Cancel all other meals for the day, and consider hiring a driver: this is destination eating.
Sexy Dinner Spots
For the days that you were able to avoid meals at the above-mentioned eateries, dinner remains something special. The following restaurants keep date night alive and well.
Say what you will about colonial grandeur, the iconic Mount Nelson Hotel's recently re-visioned Planet Restaurant promises the best in old-world service and over-the-top luxury. The thoughtfully executed (and well-priced) menu includes hits like a ceviche of oysters, scallops, sweetcorn, and avocado, and the ridiculously addictive Jerusalem artichoke risotto topped with sweetbreads that are so good you can just nevermind the gland thing. The beef wellington is famous. Don't be put off by the fact that the grand space rarely fills up—ingredients remain super fresh and service super personalized. Also, this is the only fine dining restaurant in town that not only has a vegetarian menu, but also will happily prepare it all for vegans, too.
Down the road, an old favorite has been brightened by a new location. The beloved Bizerca Bistro reopened on Heritage Square last year. Known for its excellent French bistro fare, Bizerca continues to produce sublime flavors (like a perfectly balanced butternut and prawn soup) with changes that are reflected on a chalkboard menu. The bistro has maintained its six signature dishes, including Norweigan salmon salad and pig trotters and scallops, but now does so in one of Cape Town's oldest buildings, dating from the 18th century. Raw brick, stone paving, and a vertical garden of herbs and salad greens define the new space, and in warm weather, the restaurant spills into a gorgeous courtyard.
Cape Town's sexiest dining spot these days has to be The Potluck Club. Recently reopened at the top of a restored grain silo at the Old Biscuit Mill (aka, the epicenter of Cape Town's Williamsburg-esque urban revival), this warm, low-lit space with 360 degree views from mountain to harbor knocks you out with its view, and then just keeps on hitting. Self-described as "small plates of modern global dishes," a meal at Potluck is like ordering a meal of all the best appetizers. With flavors from India (curried celery leaves) to Korea (fried chicken with kimchee) to Mexico (brisket tostadas) to France (smoked beef fillet in a cafe au lait truffle sauce that may inspire you to lick the plate), the Potluck Club makes all the blah blah about living in a global world feel highly worthwhile.
Seafood by the Sea
When in Cape Town you will want to try the seafood. By the sea. Unfortunately, most of the Mother City's best seafood experiences enjoy nary a view of water. Except these.
The top choice is Kalk Bay's Harbour House. A 35-minute drive towards the peninsula, this restaurant was built on the breakwater of Kalk Bay's working harbor. Which is to say, its location is unbeatable (waves are known to crash against the huge plate glass windows at high tide). Large, light-filled, and orchid-adorned, the Harbour House is beautiful, and the seafood is fresh. Accompaniments may be a disappointment, though, considering the prices, which by Cape Town standards are high (foreigners enjoying current exchange rates might not even notice). However, the view really does make up for a lot. Stick with the fish of the day (the fresh angel fish with a poached egg and Japanese mayo is excellent). Other dishes that rely more on the freshness of the seafood (oysters and calamari) than the brilliance of the chef will surely satisfy.
Want to pay a little less but still enjoy that view? Head downstairs to Live Bait, where the same management serves a simplified version of the menu upstairs in a more casual setting. Alternately, head next door to Lucky Fish (same management again), where locals go for the best takeaway fish and chips in the harbor; sit on the pier and make your own view.
Or you could head to Cafe Orca in Melkbosstrand. A 35-minute drive (north of Cape Town), this rustic joint in an old wooden house across the street from the beach only serves fresh fish (if you don't like the fish of the day, wait 20 minutes, it could change), which it cooks to perfection. Owned and managed by two brothers, Cafe Orca caters to a loyal local clientele. Sauces and sides may recall your great aunt's cooking—think heavy garlic cream sauce, cauliflower with cheese, and parboiled rice—but in that same vein, you can tell that everything here is done with love. If you're a fussy foodie, stick with simple grilled options, then sit back and enjoy the reasonable prices, and yes, that elusive ocean view.
Lee Middleton is a Cape Town-based culinary and environmental travel writer, and has written for Time Magazine, Africa Geographic and the Mail & Guardian. She is also a correspondent for Fodor's African Safari and South Africa travel guides.
Photo credits: Long Lazy Lunches: Courtesy of Overture at Hidden Valley; Sexy Dinner Spots: Courtesy of The Pot Luck Club & Gallery; Seafood by the Sea: Courtesy of Harbour House