It has become the soundtrack to our lives, ubiquitous piped music blaring at us everywhere we go: in supermarkets, clothing shops, the gym (where everyone wears earphones anyway), taxis; and all of it only made possible by cheap electronic devices in the past twenty years. It is used for torture in Guantanamo Bay, and of course in restaurants, where it is gratuitous, mind-numbing, and often wholly inappropriate to the clientele. Even if the music happens to be something I like, I don’t want it blasted at me over dinner. Ask for it to be turned down and you’re invariably disregarded.
It’s a worldwide phenomenon. On a recent trip to Serbia, where the preference is for hard rock, I could hardly hear myself think in many of Belgrade’s less formal eateries.
How often have you been in a restaurant where you can hear the specials the waiter rattles off? Or where the waiter has to walk absurdly around the table repeating their spiel? We spend our evening meals screaming at each other, and the competing conversations have us yelling louder and louder. There are hardly any restaurants left where a table of more than three isn’t perforce reduced to atomised tête-à-têtes.
If you have to raise your voice to be heard across the table you can be sure the decibel level is over 70. Several studies have shown that the noise in many restaurants is at physically harmful levels exceeding the industrial legal 85 decibel limit.
Numerous surveys, among them Zagat, reveal that next to poor service, noise levels cause diners the most irritation. The current interior design trend of hard surfaces, open plan kitchens and minimal use of fabrics, has exacerbated the problem.
So why do restaurants persist with a practice that turns off diners, is harmful to their clientele, and breaches legal requirements for their employees? I haven’t an answer, but I know of at least one sensible establishment where there is no music at all. For this reason alone, I am a regular.
Now in its 11th year, the Savoy Cabbage has accrued many top accolades and is firmly on the fine dining tourist route, though one has to admit it seems no longer so favoured by the A-list judges. The problem with a restaurant is that you are only as good as your last meal, and living up to high expectations is harder still. Overall the Savoy deserves its esteem. I have eaten here eight times in the past year and it has happened that on occassion things can slip up. Once the chef was off ill and the lamb shank that day was unforgivably bad.
But from the moment you arrive (usually maitre ’d Frank Winter greets you at the door), you know you are entering a classy enterprise. Exposed brick walls, quirky cabbage chandeliers, the high ceilings, a staircase leading up to the mezzanine, all make a chic impression.
Service is a strength of this establishment. Some of the waiters are knowledgeable about the wines, others not, but the management has a knack for finding a few little-known wineries with high quality. Mark-ups are lower than industry standards and there are always several wines for under R100.
Owner Caroline Bagley, regularly arranges special evenings, from celebrating Bastille Day to opera soirées and an annual offal festival (in June). It is worthwhile getting on their mailing list. http://savoycabbage.co.za/
Currently, their winter special is Chef Peter Pankhurst’s Pot Luck Dinner (R195). The menu changes daily, but I enjoyed a chicken liver parfait with port soaked figs; the tenderest, most succulent pork chop I have ever had in a restaurant, on crushed potato with sautéed apple and cider jus; and a magnificent vanilla pannacotta (which I wager as the best in Cape Town) accompanied by a tart berry compote.
The menu really does change daily, but one of the most dependable mains usually on the menu (in one or another variation) is the rare Chalmer beef fillet with a potato rosti, “boozy onions” and a red wine sauce (R160) or the Chalmer rib-eye steak with mushroom, onions, sometimes with a Guinness sauce.
Since Rozenhof Restaurant closed down, the Savoy Cabbage is the only restaurant on my preferred circuit that doesn’t hound its patrons with music. Here you can have a decent conversation in convivial surroundings.
Savoy Cabbage, 101 Hout Street, Cape Town. Open for lunch (Monday – Friday) and dinner (Monday to Saturday). Telephone: 021 424 2626.