People looking to the future have been eyeing the East City Precinct of Cape Town for some time. After all, there is nowhere else for the immediate city to expand. The revival has been gradual and low-key; nothing like the surging development of the Bo Kaap.
Under the Cape Town Partnership the area is now going as the Fringe, the city’s creative and design hub. The Fugard Theatre and Charly’s Bakery have breathed new life into the quarter, as has the always-buzzing Book Lounge. A phalanx of start-ups and small offices has entered the quaint underutilised warehouses and alluring heritage buildings.
The biggest café is the Truth Coffee shop headquarters on Buitenkant with its Heath Robinson coffee machine that serves up an Americano for R25 a cup.
Although only a few years old, the Blend on Roeland Street has just been sold to new owners who are working side by side with the old for the transition. The ice cream counter has been discontinued. Slightly below street level, the Blend has a very Continental feel – the white tiles, the wooden, round-edged window counter, the wrought-iron candelabra with ball candles, and a station clock. As you enter there’s a gumball rocket, which somehow seems to fit with the retro East City.
The friendly, excellent service tempts one to make it your “local”. You come here for great coffee, not the food. I tried a vegetable salad: hot, roast vegetables – overcooked butternut, carrot, courgette, cauliflower and broccoli – bizarrely served on top of a cold, undressed lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad.
Two streets down is the Field Office. With its high ceilings, spacious tables, free wi-fi and music played softer than most places (even when it’s hard rock), it is exactly what it says it is – a remote office where freelancers plan elusive futures and telecommuters tap away at their laptops.
It is also a showroom for the décor by Perdersen and Lennard – skinny-legged furniture, milk-pale lights and suspended plants. The canteen menu offers simple sandwiches (prepacked to take away or served on boards), salads, cakes, muffins and pies. The coffee is first-rate.
But if you’re in the East City in the evening, then the hippest place right now is Lefty’s. Its fluorescent signage and name are inspired by a seedy bar with a brothel at the back featured in a risqué 1980s computer game, Leisure Suit Larry, which has made a comeback on iOS and Android phones and tablets.
Attractive piano Lefty’s is not a place you would want to see in the full glare of daylight – grey floors, wood-panelled walls, embossed wallpaper, 1950s lights, a relief carving of the Dromedaris, and some bric-a-brac including granny’s trammed tapestry of flowers. There is an attractive upright piano as you enter, but the rest of the furniture is utilitarian – classroom chairs, old sticks of lounge furniture, solid wooden benches and tables in the courtyard. In short, it’s a dive.
The bar on the lower split-level allows smoking inside. The grunge crowd are here, and young men with long hair and Voortrekker beards, beanies and lumberjack shirts do the serving. Hard rock and Gaelic metal hammer away while a family arrives with the father bottle-feeding a baby who seems unperturbed by the Pixies.
The blackboard menu hasn’t changed that much since opening a few months ago. Owners Ryan McDonagh (of Hello Sailor in Obs fame) and Jan Davids (of Marvel on Long Street) call it “drunk food” or “dude food”.
The fried chicken on a Belgian waffle with maple syrup and bacon is “our most photographed menu item”, I am told. The most popular meal is the sticky pork ribs – smoky, a little sweet, perfectly blackened, and the meat falling off the bone. You can ask for a finger bowl, which in this place feels almost like a special concession. But staff are attentive and food comes swiftly.
The beef rib is served as a boneless stew on mash. There is also a pulled-pork sandwich. The burger on a toasty bun is fresh mince, with just the right percentage of fat to give taste, topped with yellow cheddar, and served with skinny fries.
For vegetarians, there is dhal in a wrap with mayonnaise and coleslaw.
Prices are low, around R55 to R65, and so the place gets packed out. You have to reserve a table, especially now in winter as the open courtyard falls away. An awning is planned, I believe.
Lefty’s seems to stand as a bulwark against any plans to gentrify the East district; deliberately aiming down-market remains a refreshing novelty in schickimicki Cape Town.
Lefty’s, 105 Harrington Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 461 0407.
The Blend, 79 Roeland Street, Cape Town. Tel: 071 927 3031.
The Field Office, 37 Barrack Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 461 4599.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 11 July 2014.