The Cedar Café used to be a hole in the wall on a strip of Seapoint’s Main Road frequented by les filles de joie. The slogan on the window said, “You’ve tried the rest, now try the best.” You pressed the buzzer on a security gate to be let in.
Lacking all pretension, the interior was lit by bright white neon and a swathe of duvet fabric secured above one by the loudspeakers hinted at a tent. The chairs had no backs and no arms. “It will teach you posture,” said Munchkin, who introduced me to the establishment.
There were only five tables. On my first visit, all occupied by men. “That’s authentically Middle Eastern,” I commented. “It’s Seapoint,” said Munchkin, “they’re gay.”
A small shrine of party snapshots adorned the side wall. I noticed in one a particular food critic, well known for his teetotal habits which had become a necessity after a long career.
Elsewhere the tourist vision of an exotic clime was on display with postcard pictures of the two thousand-year-old Roman ruins at Baalbeck and the six columns of the Temple of Jupiter, ruins that have a grace about them the bombed out high-rises of Beirut will never eclipse.
The only false economy was an attempt at modern convenience with wall-to-wall carpet tiles.
Lebanese music played, unfortunately not Fairouz, but redolent of distant travels. The patriarch sat squinting at a television with the sound turned off while taking long drags on a hubbly-bubbly. Surely the Minister of Health has made a cultural allowance?
“We have more food in the kitchen that is not on the menu!” the menu declared. From my travels around the Levantine, the opposite is usually true, and sometimes there was a lot of food actually stuck to the menu. But the Cedar Café was always spotless.
A few years ago, they expanded into a mid-sized restaurant in the Courtyard building, also home to Fujiyama. You still need to buzz to get in. Inevitably it has lost a little of its charm, but most patrons will be happier with its new slightly more upmarket style and seating. Now sporting a full wall trompe l’oeil mural of the ruins, it remains family run and as homely and down to earth as ever. The television is still there, but discreetly faces the reception counter.
They have no wine list, so bring your own.
The specials vary according to what mama has decided to cook, but most items on the menu are in the kitchen. Of the meze (R40 each), which come with pita bread, I recommend the baba ganouj (grilled aubergine with yoghurt and sesame puree), the potato harra (mostly fried cauliflower, with cubed potatoes, nuts and their secret sauce) and labneh, a homemade cream cheese.
They have two salads (R45 each): fattoush, a green salad with pieces of deep fried pita drizzled in a tasty pomegranate dressing, and tabbouleh, made from the freshest, chopped parsley, diced tomatoes and onion, and bulghur wheat. It has happened that too much lemon was squeezed over it, but generally this is not a dish you want to miss. Order it and share it with the mezes.
For mains (average price R50) inquire what’s cooking. The only miss I’ve had was the minced lamb yoghurt pie, which was tasteless. If the okra stew is on the menu, have it. This vegetable is a well kept secret from the West. Mama makes it with or without lamb, but I prefer her vegetarian version for its purity of taste.
In fact, the Cedar is one of the best places to take vegetarians. The ful madammas is a stew of chick peas and fava beans with tomato and vinegar. There is also a chickpea special with tahini and tomato. And of course falafel, served with hummus and salad.
Of the meats, the chicken thighs cooked in a lemon infusion is consistently good.
For a delicious, unfussy dinner at reasonable prices, the Cedar Restaurant rates as one of the best.
The Cedar Restaurant, Courtyard Building, 100 Main Road, Sea Point. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch (11am – 3pm) and for dinner (from 5pm). Tel: 021 433 2546.