Company Gardens Cafe

In the early 1990s, my business partner and I tendered to develop the café in the South African Museum. We had plenty of fun ideas for an exploratory menu. I wanted to call the place TriloBites.

We did not get the contract. The café that did win the bid went under not long after, something we predicted after a mere glance at their menu and the decorative efforts of the department of public works.

Back then South Africa was reopening to the world tourist market. The restaurant in the nearby National Gallery fared a little better for a few years, but it too succumbed. The cable car station was overhauled and the charming, stone-house Table Mountain restaurant was replaced with a canteen to handle industrial quantities of tourists. The prefabricated tearoom at Kirstenbosch was closed and a stunning new facility built to replace it. Unfortunately, the food there has steadily declined to the level of national embarrassment, though not as disgraceful as the nosh dished up at Dulcé Café in the International Terminal at Cape Town Airport. It seems to be the way of places with captive audiences.

There was talk too in the mid-90s of upgrading the tearoom in the Company Gardens. We had a few meetings with the city authorities. They wanted the tenderer to invest vast amounts but were only prepared to offer a lease so short in term one could never make back the capital. Unsurprisingly nothing happened. As a result, the cafe hasn’t changed in possibly 40 years.

The City of Cape Town has now been busy with a R1 million upgrade to South Africa’s oldest public garden, the Company’s Garden, laid out by Jan van Riebeeck and master gardener Hendrik Boom who prepared the first ground for sowing seed on the 29 April 1652. A Pyrus communis tree (Saffraan Pear) planted around this time still exists propped up and surgically rescued. It is worth the pilgrimage.

The garden was intended to be primarily for vegetables to victual the ships of the Dutch East India Company, but in time it became a botanical garden. The first roses bloomed on November 1, 1659.

Simon van der Stel and his master gardeners, Hendrik Bernard Oldenland and Jan Hartog, planted indigenous and exotic ornamental species. Johan Andries Auge, superintendent from 1751, planted many indigenous collections. One of his Streletzia nicolai is thought to still be alive today.

In Victorian times, lions were kept in the grounds now occupied by Cape Town High School.

The Gardens embrace the cultural precinct of the city, with the Slave Museum, SA Museum and Planetarium, the National Library, the National Gallery, the Holocaust Centre and Tuynhuys, among other important institutions.

Last year, the Cape Town Mayoral Committee considered turning “the Bothy”, the old farm labourers’ quarters, into a cafe, coffee shop or take-ways kiosk and possibly the old Director’s House into a restaurant. Both buildings were renovated in 2008.

Talk of sprucing up the rather faded “corner” café at the heart of the Gardens has been going on for years. Sitting under the giant bluegums with beady-eyed squirrels peeping around the trees and always the possibility of a bit of pigeon garnish landing on one’s plate, I’m still in two minds about this café.

It would be wonderful to have something chic and comfortable in this glorious setting. On the other hand, this is a plebeian democratic space, relatively affordable: anchovy (paste) toast at R10 a slice; a R20 plate of slap chips; a plain hamburger for R28; a small French salad for R22 – all of these equally bland. One stops by this café for a quick fix, maybe a cuppa tea.

At the top end of its menu is a mixed grill for R105, and grilled kingklip for R80. When the food arrives, one sees the postcard-writing tourists stare at their plates, shrug and then get on with eating it while the less fussy squirrels entertain them.

The real attraction of the Gardens remains the plants. The gardens are laudably well-tended, clean and thriving. You may be accosted by a religious nut with a Bible, shouting and followed by four poor-white disciples in short pants, as I was the other day, but the grounds are pretty safe.

Among my favourite trees are the century old tree aloe (Aloe bainesii), the 200-year-old Outeniqua yellowwood and the Indian rubber tree. Then there are the birds. Plenty of pigeons, doves, hadedas and Egyptian geese, but also the impressive Gymnogene (African Harrier Hawk) and dazzling Malachite sunbirds.

It is good to know the city has a green heart.

This article appeared first in the Mail & Guardian 20 January 2012.

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