With the speed of change that has swept up Cape Town, it is possible for even a relatively young person to reminisce.
The internet, which we believe can tell us everything, often disappoints when you’re looking for places or people that came and went before everyone got their own website.
Sitting in St George’s Mall with my laptop and Wi-Fi access, I tap into Google “Marks coffee shop” and nothing even vaguely relevant is returned, not even after a blog search. It is as if the place never existed. And yet, this legendary, cramped little coffee shop was already an institution in Cape Town by the 1980s.
Conveniently located opposite newspaper house it was a favourite place to grab a quick lunch with journalist friends. We usually had wholesome soup of the day and “Cape seed loaf” served by the ebullient Mina who was on a first-names basis with much of the clientele.
Mark’s survived the pedestrianization of St George’s Street in 1992. It was later joined by another celebrated coffee house that opened on the opposite corner, the Scotch Coffee House. Neither survived the subsequent soaring rents. There was a brief outcry when Marks closed.
The Scotch Coffee House hung on until a couple of years ago. Its vivacious proprietor, Beulah Lombard, has now moved to the garden at the back of the Old Townhouse on Greenmarket Square. You’ll instantly recognise the tartan tablecloths.
People used to come here to pose for wedding photographs in front of the gorgeous ivy until hurricane winds ripped the ivy from the wall. Before it was gated, attractively one might add, it was a bergie dossing ground.
One used to enter through the Old Townhouse museum, but now there is a separate entrance on Burg Street. Lombard has done wonders with the garden and spruced the place up. It is a beautiful, tranquil spot secreted away right in the heart of the city.
A place like this makes its long history felt. Built in 1755 in Cape Rococo style, the building once served as the City Hall. It is home to the Michaelis collection donated by Sir Max Michaelis in 1914, an internationally significant selection of Nederlandish art from the seventeenth-century Golden Age with works by Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob Ruisdal and Anthony van Dyck among others.
Currently on is an exhibition of repatriated black South African work that left the country during apartheid. Curated by Carol Brown for the Ifa Lethu Foundation, Home and Away: A Return to the South, reclaims some of our lost artistic heritage. Prior to the mid-1980s, the work of black artists was generally ignored by the local market. Those that didn’t leave the country, existed in a sort of internal exile. These marginalised artists are at long last receiving recognition.
Speaking of posthumous honours but of a very different kind, many who frequented the previous tea room here will recall Max, the cat. Sadly that moggie has passed on. He is buried in the corner of the garden. The Friends of the Michaelis Collection erected a blue tiled plaque to Max, museum cat, 1989-2007, ‘a most cultured and musical feline’.
The Friends still host cultural talks and stage one-hour chamber music concerts in the Frans Hals room. Cats however are banned – “health and safety” as the catchphrase now goes.
Whether you visit the museum or not, the Scotch is worth stopping in at for some respite from the city. An ideal spot to read, write postcards or play with your smart phone.
It serves a range of breakfasts: full English style (R52), with kippers (R63), omelettes (R42-49) and continental style (R18, with ham R35).
From noon light meals are available, with old favourites such as quiche Lorraine (R52), Cape bobotie (R65) and braised smoked snoek with rice and veg (R58). The kitchen also prepares chicken breast or beef burgers (R52).
As the restaurant’s flyer describes the fare – “all your lekker old favourites with a fresh twist plus a free scoop of history”.
The Scotch Coffee House, The Old Townhouse, Longmarket Street, Greenmarket Square, Cape Town. Tel: 021 423 0322.
To book and for more details of the Friends activities, contact the Secretary, Colin Stevens, on 083 713 5498 or email: email@example.com
Home and Away: A Return to the South is on exhibit until January 30, 2011. Open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, Saturday 10am to 4pm. Telephone: 021 481 3933. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org