How easy it is to slip in and out of Cape Town harbour amazes. Usually one simply drives through, sometimes an official waves. This time I was actually stopped by a guard with a clipboard. “Have you got a pen?” he asked. We didn’t. He gave an embarrassed laugh, shrugged, mumbled sorry and let us continue.
The docklands, especially at night, with its deserted industrial spaces, skulking shadowy figures, and the stacks of containers and machinery that dwarf one, has an air of danger, excitement and of covert activity. These days however it’s probably safer than your average suburb.
“Where on earth are you taking me?” asked Munchkin, somewhat anxious. We turned down an unmarked road and I pointed to a nondescript face brick building with a dull neon sign: The Jewel Tavern. “Looks like an ablution block,” said Munchkin. “And Chinese food makes me swell up.”
I’ve been eating at The Jewel Tavern for fifteen years. Situated next to the Taiwanese Seaman’s Club, the clientele used to be almost exclusively male sailors. The welcoming staff spoke very little English and the menus were in Chinese script only. You took drinks from the glass refrigerators (which still operate), and you’d have to venture into the kitchen or quack like a duck to explain your desired victual. The bill was all in Chinese with a total in roman numerals. My accountant loved those.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I returned at the height of the summer season to find a row of smart cars with GP number plates parked outside. The secret was out.
The seamen still go, but today the menus have simple English descriptions (not transliterations) and in the evenings are even presented in leather folders. The dining room is slightly spruced up, but if you hadn’t been before you wouldn’t know; it remains utilitarian. The peach pink interior is lit with bright lights, and a poem in Hanzi about good fortune and making money covers the far wall. Everything is clean. The eight-seater round tables now have lazy Susans, which helps. The portions are large and best shared.
I confess never trying the Pig Tripe and Preserved Mustard Soup, but usually go for their superior Sweet Corn and Chicken Soup (R20). Munchkin ordered the Won Ton (R20), and was finished eating by the time my soup appeared. The kitchen makes everything fresh so the dishes arrive as they are cooked, steaming, but not according to any schedule you might have had in mind.
Here’s a pick of choice dishes I’ve discovered eating through their menu over the years. Ask for a Beef Hot Pot (R72). It comes liberally sauced with ginger and chilli. The Three-Cup Spare Ribs (R88) served in an iron pot with garlic cloves may be tricky to eat, but worth the trouble. The restaurant isn’t so traditional that you can spit the bones on the floor, as I’ve seen in Shanghai hotels; rather put them on a napkin. The Sizzling Kingklip (R92) arrives on a metal grill still cooking, as its name implies. The fish is lightly battered and served with fried onions and a thick syrupy sauce. It’s one of their best. The Tavern is a great place to take vegetarians as the chef is not shy with the tofu. Finally, you can’t go wrong with Stir Fry Chinese Green Vegetable (R42) or Fried Noodle with Vegetable (a steal at R26).
Everything bursts with flavour. Munchkin had been won over. “I don’t care if it kills me.”
Despite being discovered by the restaurant set and now having a second appellation ‘the fortune cookie’, the quality and standard hasn’t slipped an iota.
I strongly suggest you over order and take home. Unlike the Chinese takeaways from most establishments in the city, which congeal and seem to mutate overnight, the Jewel Tavern’s leftovers look as appetizing the next day.
And for the first time at a Chinese restaurant, Munchkin didn’t have an allergic reaction.
The Jewel Tavern, Corner Duncan and Vanguard Roads, Cape Town harbour. Open 7 days a week for lunch (11am – 2.30pm) and dinner (6pm – 10pm). Starters: R20 – R45, Mains: R42 – R96. Tel: 021 448 1977