Zingara’s restaurants

Madame Zingara’s restaurant realm
Don Pedro’s was one of the few establishments one could go to for a late night drink and a bite – after the theatre, after the actors got out, after the musicians finished playing. It was one of a handful of places that made all races feel comfortable – before apartheid ended officially, before equality was legalised. It was one of those eateries where you drank beer from the bottle and almost everyone smoked. But this Cape Town favourite with the left, NGO workers, performers and Woodstock locals, although practically an institution, was crumbling.

“When we get involved with a place it is essentially gone,” says Richard Griffin, the man behind the Madame Zingara brand and under whose sway Don Pedro’s now falls. “I went to a multi-racial school. We grew up in a sheltered environment … then the reality struck, we couldn’t go anywhere – Don Pedro’s was the only place you could go with a coloured friend.”

But taking over a business which has so much emotional history is a complex matter.

“This was hardcore. We got tons of flack,” says Griffin. “But we endeavor to be conscientious of our community. We work with old values, old names and old establishments, but we still want to create anew.”

In his defence, Griffin says, “We spent a lot of time understanding what we are embracing. With Don Pedro’s we worked with artists from Chamberlain Street, and spent time in the community forums. The place comes with 20 years of memories. It is to understand and honour those so it holds the heritage, but that it also grows up.”

“Restaurants also create themselves. I spend a lot of time talking to walls,” says Griffin.

Don Pedro has now been given the eclectic Zingara treatment; purple walls, fabric and tsatskes. A hallmark of Griffin’s success is precisely this theatricality. He has always understood that a restaurant is a theatre production. Not only the décor, vibe and service (“we’re not posh but we give a shit”), it carries through to the food too – chocolate chili fillet was his signature dish for many years.

He has kept the prices very reasonable. The menu is weighted towards poultry – soya glazed duck livers, duck dumplings, balsamic chicken, penne con pollo, chicken risotto, duck a l’orange.

The makeover has broadened its appeal, and the old faithful too seem to be returning, that is if they can get in; the place has been busy. But Cape Town’s new liquor laws will soon end the Don as a late night host.

I remember his first establishment, a cosy place at the top of Long Street in 1994, Serendipity, which he opened when he was still “just a kid”. The entrance way and the floors were scattered with rose petals. It lasted about 11 months before he opened Griffin’s in Castle Street. That building was sold much to the disappointment of many of us in Cape Town.

Griffin went to Australia for a couple of years. He would later get some formal qualifications through the Grace hospitality group and a masters in chocolate and sugar at Le Cordon Bleu London. “I felt like Little Lord Fauntleroy,” he says.

In 2001, he opened the enchanting bohemian Madame Zingara in Loop Street. It quickly became a vibrant city spot, always bright with whimsy and bursting with life. It burned out, literally, in 2006. But the Zingara brand rose from the ashes.

First, the camp mayhem of the Bombay Bicycle Club; Griffin has a continuing love affair with India and its endless cycles of rebirth. The place is ear-splittingly noisy for some of us.

His trademark style is not only about entertainment, but like the theatre there is an element of escapism too. He speaks about looking out of the window, and thinking “that’s not a world anymore out there, that’s a reenactment of the Wild West … We have moments of such savagery [in this country]. It warps our value system.”

“My vision is you leave your worries at the door; you walk in and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”

Much like his establishments, he too was something of a feral child. He never finished school. He left home at 16; hid out at Café Mozart, which 20-odd years later, he now controls. As a child of adoption he says, he had some issues. It is also perhaps why he is drawn to abandoned establishments in need of some foster care.

His charismatic personality is reflected in the manic but organized chaos of his establishments; like his upbringing – a strict Methodist minister father, but a free thinker who sent him to a Waldorf school.

Troubled youth is also why his group has a labour policy of “big boundaries, but a very big rule book. It’s not about the mistake, it is about the apology”.

“We do not discriminate against somebody because of who they’ve been in their past life …. South Africa has such fine examples of people whose greatness has come from pain and suffering.”

“Our labour policy is our greatest joy but also our biggest nemesis. We’re getting the feet through the door, but the escalation of costs is petrifying. And people are cutting back on staff, [while] we have massive staff retention.”

Another eatery with a venerable history in his stable is Café Paradiso. Griffin knows the place right back to its heyday with Mapula Swanepoel, the legendary Madelaine van Biljon’s daughter.

As this critic can attest, Paradiso went through several owners’ hands in recent years, each worse than the previous.

“I wasn’t even looking for a restaurant, but someone called me. I didn’t want it.” But then he found out the old vine had been cut down, the planting of which he remembers. That sealed it for him.

Paradiso “is deeply personal … It’s also about the integrity of a set of Afrikaans values.”

He has brought back the farm stall feel in the heart of the city and placed a bakery inside.

But is crowning achievement is the 400-seater mirror tent that tours the country. It’s a masterclass in organization, and hugely ambitious. So far he has pulled it off.

“I passionately believe we can change the world,” he says. “We have a following of happiness, and it’s beautiful.”

Madame Zingara’s restaurants:
Bombay Bicycle Club, 158 Kloof Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 423 6805.
Café Paradiso, 110 Kloof Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 423 8653.
Café Mozart, 37 Church Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 3774.
Don Pedro and all his beautiful wives, 113 Roodebloem Road, Woodstock. Tel: 021 447 6152.
Sidewalk Café, 33 Derry Street, Vredehoek. Tel: 021 461 2839.

An edited short version of this aticle fist appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 22 March 2013.

Comments are closed.