Some of the best food I’ve eaten in the Britain was not in classy restaurants, but in venerable old pubs. Places with names such as the Five Mile House or the White Hart, that serve kedgeree (haddock, eggs, rice) or bubble and squeak (fried cabbage and potatoes) for breakfast; Ploughman’s platter and shepherd’s pie for lunch; and for dessert good old spotted dick and treacle pudding. The British pub is apparently fast disappearing. A host of factors are blamed, but whatever the cause closures abound – 2365 last year, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, and in February this year they were still going under at the rate of 39 a week.
In Cape Town too, these once male-only bastions for smokers and drinkers, have slowly disappeared along with the corner café.
There are still a few old pubs about; among the very oldest survivors are the Perseverance Tavern (1808), where you can have bangers and mash (R35) or liver and bacon (R38); the Kimberley Hotel (1895), now also a backpackers; and the Fireman’s Arms (1906) with its hardy wooden benches and terracotta floor, serving mostly pizza these days. The old Dias Tavern, relocated from one corner of the dodgy East city to another, has expanded into a casual, cheap and cheerful eatery with plastic chairs, rugby broadcasts, and red gingham tablecloths.
One tavern tenaciously clinging to its ground while brand new developments have hemmed it in on all sides is the Vasco da Gama in Green Point. It’s been here longer than anyone I know can remember, but with its black tile floor and the opaque yellow stipple glass, it probably dates from the 1970s.
The affable managers, Jorge and Graham, have another establishment in Paarden Eiland.
The Vasco has all that sports paraphernalia of flags and pictures pinned and hanging from dark wood ceilings; all the clutter of various alcoholic branded fittings from mirrors and lightshades to coasters and calendars; and yesterday’s lame pub jokes on the bar shelf: “I took an IQ test and the results were negative” sort of thing.
Not exactly at home in high testosterone crowds, where beer is a substitute for conversation, sport commentary for music, and direct eye contact is easily given primatological interpretations, it took Munchkin some persuading to get me there for lunch. “My grandma has eaten there,” said Munchkin.
True enough, I have now returned several times.
The Vasco is far removed from one of those all white, all male South African drinking holes, where people dress to be killed, that is in khaki shorts, felt hats and long, woolen socks. Women, though few, are present, and the Vasco, known colloquially as the Portuguese embassy, often has a table or two of Angolans and Mozambicans.
They offer several draft beers on tap and wine by the glass. Usually they keep a bottle or two of Tassies in the fridge, which helps it go down. There is a menu and one of those multi- coloured chalk boards with specials. You can also buy Portuguese bread and rolls to take away.
The food has never disappointed. Popular items are: Vasco’s Portuguese steak sizzling on a cast iron griddle, with chorizo and a fried egg (R89.90); um bifinho (R58.90), a mini steak with a fried egg and chips; a prego steak roll is R53.90 as a main or R38.90 on the light menu; battered hake and chips (R49.90).
You can eat at tables or at the bar counter on beer soaked mats when its busy.
There is a daily special for R49.90 which runs as follows: Monday curry, Tuesday pork beans, Wednesday osso buco, Thursday braised steak, Friday tripe and bean. On Saturdays there is homemade soup for R27.90. Arrive early if there is a big match. This is a popular spot with locals and it can get very crowded.
Vasco da Gama Tavern, Corner Alfred and Schiebe Street, Green Point. Tel: 021 425 2157.
Published in the Mail & Guardian May 7, 2010