In the end I didn’t get the fellow’s name, but let us call him Mr Pinch. We both happened to be on our own; quite early, before the buffet hordes invade Tobago’s (the spread is opened from 12:30). Even the Honourable Patricia de Lille has been turned away twice, except when a waiter recognised her and suddenly there was space after all.
The reason for the crowds is that even though Cape Town is a coastal city, bizarrely there is nowhere to eat beside the sea. From Mouille Point to Seapoint to Camps Bay, there is always a busy, wide road between yourself and the ocean. The Radisson Hotel, on Granger Bay is a spectacular exception; right on the seaboard with sweeping views facing Robben Island. That is, until the Dubai crowd fill in the bay and add a few skyscraper hotels to the view.
After an exceptionally long Cape winter, it was finally a hot summery day; the sea was as smooth as glass, and without a breath of wind the yachts were under motor. Catching my eye, Mr Pinch invited me to join him as all the other tables on the water’s edge had reserved signs.
Probably in his sixties, he still had a full head of hair, now turned platinum; he wore chic docksides and white shorts. Evenly tanned arms and legs, supple skin, well maintained in all respects, everything about him exuded the comforts of wealth. He reminded me of that snooty banking advert a few years back, “Who are these people?”
He quickly stressed he wasn’t inviting me for lunch, but merely to sit with him. Then he asked me a rather weird question.
“Forgive my strangeness,” he said (I think he was Austrian). “But can you pay cash, not card?”
“I think I have enough cash on me,” I replied, somewhat baffled.
He grinned enthusiastically, and summoned the waiter.
The buffet costs R195 per person (available on Sundays during the year, then daily from November 1). The exact content of this smorgasbord changes, but the general format has a bean soup, various salads, including a pasta salad, and a range of seafood: peppered mackerel, rollmops, smoked salmon for starters. On this occasion we were in luck; there were oysters too. I plated a dozen of these for myself.
The hot mains in the chafing dishes are less successful. On several occasions I’ve encountered hard boiled chicken breasts and stringy meat floating about in the opaque gravy.
As I peered into a deep stainless steel dish with filleted line fish ( which is usually the best bet here), I asked Mr Pinch if he had seen much of the Peninsula.
“Don’t go out anymore,” was the reply. He nervously looked around to see if any hotel staffer was within earshot. In a hushed voice he told me how his debit card had been confiscated a week ago by an ATM. His credit card too was refused in several Waterfront shops. Embarrassingly, he’d had to leave the goods behind. Now he was too scared to try again.
Much later, when we were finishing off the meal with a sampling of cheeses and green fig preserve, unable to contain my puzzlement, I finally asked, “But surely you called your bank to sort it out?”
His face contorted in terror. “I…I…Iceland!” he gasped and gave a shudder. “Gone. It’s all gone.”
Searching on the internet for the highest interest rate in the first world, he’d discovered Iceland. Then the Icelandic Krona tumbled from 60 to the dollar in January to 122 in October, his balance shrunk until finally in one last electronic blink, what was left vanished to settle other sour investment debts he’d leveraged with failing stocks.
When the bill came, Pinch gave me a conspiratorial glance and charged the meal to his room. He sheepishly added a cigar too the account. Together with the tip, sparkling water and the superlative bottle of steely-dry Springfield Sauvignon Blanc we had drunk, my share of the bill was R340. I handed it to him in cash. He fingered the notes excitedly.
“The real thing,” he panted.
I suddenly had this weird fantasy of bankrupt millionaires in hotels in Singapore, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, stranded in little enclaves all over the globe, extending their stays and unable to leave the building, notching everything up on their hotel bills, their last line of credit before these too collapse.
Making money is easy. Keeping it; now there’s the hard bit! – Lunch at Tobago’s as told by Brent Meersman)
Tobago’s, Radisson Hotel, Granger Bay, Cape Town. Open Mondays to Sundays for lunch and dinner. Tel: 021 441 3000.