“What a daft idea,” said Munchkin, when I proposed dining at the Ritz Hotel’s revolving restaurant. Most locals have forgotten it even exists. Imagine my surprise then to discover they were full. At first, I thought this was the usual irritating ruse of the Cape Town maître d, but on each subsequent visit every table was indeed filled.
“Revolving usually means revolting,” quipped Munchkin. True, restaurants with captive audiences – airports, cableways, nudist colonies – or which rely on a gimmick to attract the punters –conveyor belt sushi, stationary railway carriages, all-you-can-eat – usually are below par. The CN Tower’s 360 in Toronto, Sky Tower’s Orbit in Auckland (New Zealand), and the Skylon over the Niagara Falls, like the Niagara Falls itself, have all left me cold. However, the only revolving restaurant in New York, The View at the Marriot on Broadway, does a stunning frozen margarita, and I’ve enjoyed a convenient if over-priced pre-theatre prix fixe menu there for $59.
A.Seattle architect, John Graham, patented the gyrating restaurant in 1964. His La Ronde (now a penthouse) opened in Honolulu and along with fads such as disco, pet rocks and Star Trek, revolving restaurants, their shape recalling the starship Enterprise, became a craze by the 1970s. There are over a 150 left in the world, though many have stopped spinning, such as London’s Telecom Tower restaurant, which never recovered after a bomb blast in 1971.
There are recent additions too. After he was flattened in the first Gulf War, to regain his phallic pride, Saddam Hussein built Saddam Tower in Baghdad with a revolving restaurant standing 203 meters up.
In South Africa the Roma opened in 1973. I ate there years ago and it was like much of Durban’s restaurant scene a deeply retro experience. The decor consisted of mural knockoffs of Botticelli, plush red curtains and two-tone table settings. It even had a nightclub photographer. Everyone seemed to be having birthday parties with sparklers and singing staff.
So I approached the 21st floor of the Ritz with some trepidation. I wanted pre-dinner cocktails to enjoy the sunset (FYI sunset will be at its earliest, 5:44pm, from June 4 to 19). Unfortunately, they only open at 6:30pm, and bizarrely this restaurant built for the attraction of its views doesn’t serve lunch.
Night fell quickly; a pea-soup fog had rolled in. “I don’t feel as if I’m in Cape Town at all,” declared Munchkin. That was until a Dutch tourist started running up and down the restaurant hollering for her handbag. You see, only the doughnut shaped floor plate with the dining tables rotates. She had placed her bag on the windowsill which was now 180 degrees away.
The revolve turns at a delicate speed, completing one revolution every hour. Patrons have not only the changing panorama (when visible), but also a shifting view of the central service area. This of course means each time a waiter emerges from the kitchen, their table has moved off; and if you visit the restroom, your dinner won’t be where you left it. There happen to be a lot of staff and they cope rather well.
The ambience is retro, with a pianist doling out Richard Clayderman-type schmaltz. The food is dominated by the 1980s (prawn cocktail, beef stroganoff, crayfish thermidor), before rocket and the sundried tomato had made their appearance, though they do use frilly lettuce. Its years since I found a menu bragging about “mounds of vegetables”.
The kudu loin comes with a ‘creamy cranberry’ reduction, the gemsbok with ‘creamy cider sauce’, the ostrich with a ‘creamy curry sauce’, the chicken with ‘creamy mushroom’ and the veal with, you guessed it, a creamy sauce. Munchkin, who has recently become a little sensitive about cream, ordered the entrecôte (R104.50), but the promised cafe de Paris sauce turned out to be two huge dollops of flavoured butter.
Getting in the retro mood I ordered the ostrich colonial (R114.50). An enormous oval plate, far more dizzying than the view, arrived covered in rice with pineapple rings, three small ostrich steaks, a fillet of line fish with prawns on top, and a fried banana that was not ‘a garnish’ as the menu suggested, but a dish.
On a return visit we fared better, choosing wisely. It was a clear day and the vista stunning, from the bird’s-eye view of the new Greenpoint stadium to the mountain slopes. The fish of the day, a cob (R99.50), was tender and juicy, and accompanied by crisp, steamed vegetables. As the steaks are all 300g, I opted for the smaller ‘Surf and turf’ (R114.50), a 200g fillet with a couple of wholesome prawns.
Our only nod to nostalgia, was the crêpe suzette (R39.50) prepared before one in the classic style on a brass trolley with a gas flame. The portion is somewhat niggardly, two miniature pancakes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but it is a whole production, the white sugar caramelized before you and the triple sec and the brandy exploding in flame.
The Ritz may be a little dated, but it’s not too shabby.
The Ritz Hotel, Cnr Main and Camberwell Roads, Sea Point. Tel: 021-439 6988. Open for dinner Monday – Sunday
Roma. 32nd Floor, John Ross House, Victoria Embankment, Esplanade, Durban. Tel: 031-337 6707. Open
lunch and dinner, Monday – Saturday.