In the mid-1990s, I was somewhat in awe watching Cleon (pronounced Clayton) Romano. In a short space of time he had started a mini-revolution in the Cape Town restaurant scene.
He conceived and designed Café Bardeli, the trendiest place in town when it opened and an enormous hit. The beautifully appointed Long Street Café followed. Based on its success, came Obz Café. Next it was the East City Café, but Romano was ahead of his time on that one. It’s now a sort of strip joint.
He spearheaded the cigar bar concept in Cape Town. Then he developed Dunkley Square with Ikhaya Lodge and loft apartments, transforming the area. Its enduring success is still a testament to his vision. With his company, Clay Projects, he continues to design and conceptualize eateries for his clients.
Romano was born to food; his mother, Yvonne, is the founding owner of Mediterranean Kitchen Catering Company and Cookery School. His first restaurant however was Maria’s Greek Restaurant which he purchased in 1994. Situated on Dunkley Square, it remains close to his heart and he spends much time there with wife Kate.
Maria’s was practically an institution, but the building needed serious shoring up. Romano took the opportunity to facelift the rather confined old space and after just over two years has now re-opened.
He has updated the décor and made it more spacious. In a sense he has done the kind of transformation which is happening now to traditional eateries back in Greece and Turkey. Instead of replicating some nostalgic tourist idyll (as so many ethnic eateries attempt), he has enhanced the charm without selling out to chichi culture. The fresh look has Romano’s idiosyncratic charisma; a urinal has been reimaged as a basin in the men’s loo; the lights are on a rope system individually adjustable in height and placement by brass weights. A “bit Heath Robinson I know”, says Romano.
This is comfy tavern chic. There are quaint LED candle lights (rechargeable) in lotus flower glass table lamps; real poppies – white, yellow and red – grace the brass topped table.
Lunch times, people enjoy sitting outside on the square. Backroom boys from nearby parliament can often be found here.
At night, the atmosphere is cozier even though one has a thrilling sense of the surrounding space of the square. Upstairs there is a functions room.
On a frosty evening, a complimentary shot of ouzo is brought with a glass of ice; you watch it turn white even as it warms the cockles of your heart.
The menu is based on Yvonne Romano’s recipes, written up on blackboards and prepared in an open kitchen. What’s on offer can change daily. The mezze includes: tzatziki (dill with a particularly delicious yoghurt), mucver (a Turkish courgette fritter that looks a bit like a falafel ball at first but is big and cheesy when you bite); dolmades (large and tasty), spanakopita (filo pastry parcels with feta and spinach).
Wine is served in customary Greek style in glass tumblers.
Among the mains the priciest dish is the slow cooked lamb with an ouzo and artichoke cream sauce, potato wedges and a ramekin with Greek salad. The lamb moussaka is served in eccentric homemade pottery, with layers of potato, mince, and aubergine. It is pleasantly lighter than most.
Of the desserts I’ve tried: the baklava is unusual in that it is cigar shaped, with finely ground nuts and in its favour, not cloyingly sweet; ravani is a citrusy semolina baked cake; a surprise delight is the rizogato – a syrupy, white rice pudding served in a glass.
Maria’s is definitely a neighbourhood restaurant worth frequenting for casual dining with friends and family.
Maria’s, 31 Barnett Street, Dunkley Square, Gardens. Tel: 021 461 3333.
This article appeared in the Mail & Guardian 2 September 2011.