It is near impossible to avoid sounding pretentious when your task is to dissect six-course chefs’ menus at places that serve such dishes as “forest foraged black and yellow, wild morchella on a bed of handmade, gluten-free ziti with celeriac and lashings of foie gras crème”. What a relief it is now to write up one of the most unpretentious eateries in Cape Town; the kind of place you can take your dog.
Arnold’s, founded by Arnold Bettendorf in 1998 – when the Long Street restaurant strip was extending itself up Kloof Street – is today the envy of many a restaurateur in the city. Open seven days a week, Arnold’s enjoys custom morning, noon and night, on weekdays starting at 6:45am, shortly after the nuns in the nearby convent start banging their bell for matins. I have never seen it open and empty. Arnold’s will be near full, while neighbouring establishments have waiters standing around glumly in pristine aprons with folded arms.
Part of its success ought to be credited to one of the first managers – a rotund, ebullient man. He and his successors have been good at luring in passersby. Arnold’s is on my way to the post office, the Labia cinema and the supermarket, so I walk past it almost every day to cheerful greetings from the chief tout on duty. It took years however before I was convinced to enter. Perhaps it was their disarming honesty that made me resist.
The kerbside seating (on gravel ground) consists of heavy duty wooden benches and tables, perfect for withstanding spilt beer. In the summer heat, there are mist sprayers; in winter, transparent plastic awnings, infra-red and gas heaters.
Al fresco dining is the main attraction here. The interior is orange, which in the evenings under electric light looks garishly vermillion. The plywood flooring and mucky brown partitioning remind one of a corner café. Wine racks help a little, but it has all the ambience of a dining room in a backpackers’ lodge. There is a large screen television invariably showing sport.
The clientele is alluringly cosmopolitan and from all walks of life. You find almost the full spectrum of the city – rough-and-ready locals, lots of expat Europeans, retired Cape Townians, economic migrants, African refugees, skateboarders, bikers, relapsing alcoholics (conveniently, right next door is the Union Congregational Church where they hold addiction meetings). The Wi-Fi hotspot attracts laptop lounging. Arnold’s is the quintessential neighbourhood restaurant.
Located in the facebrick ground floor of a rather neglected art deco block, Langholm Court, exactly opposite the Mount Nelson, the front of house staff are expert at enticing guests from the five-star Nellie to cross the road. The men, dressed in blazer, collar and tie with their wives in delicate white linen with their pearls and gold earrings, seem quite happy sitting in amongst leather jackets, checked lumberjack shirts and sweaty vests.
One hot evening, seated at an outside table on the periphery, I had to keep lifting my legs as a large, undeterred rat scampered back and forth under the bench.
The abnormally considerate staff – although at times the occasional waitron can be hung over, appear stoned or just be congenitally cloth-eared – is about the most accommodating and friendly you will ever encounter. Waiters and patrons share snapshots on their smart phones. You’ll suddenly find you have an arm thrown around your shoulders or a waitress is holding your hand. Some even pop round as guests themselves – to socialise with their friends or fraternise with the regular customers.
Prices are within reason and there is almost always some or other special on: early bird breakfasts, happy hour drinks, wine vouchers for a return visit or a good value-for-money wine on promotion.
The food is wholesome, generous, accessible and straightforward. The menu covers all the popular bases: chicken curry, lamb shank, beef fillet, pasta and lasagne, fish and seafood, a range of burgers. Arnold’s establishing hallmark was venison. They still serve: roasted springbok shanks in a tomato gravy; grilled warthog ribs; gemsbok sirloin steaks imported from Namibia; flame-grilled ostrich fillet with Madagascan green peppercorn and mustard sauce; Oudsthoorn crocodile ribs marinated and served with gooseberry chutney. You can also sample the lot on a game platter.
Arnold’s large, light-box roadside sign has a short-circuit and has been on the blink for weeks, but the place is decidedly open, as busy as ever, and it seems in no need of such advertising.
Arnold’s, 60 kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 4344.