As often happens, there are gems just beyond the limelight. Hacienda isn’t unobtrusive, but its understated façade, elevated slightly from street level, makes it appear aloof from its noisier neighbours. Inside, my impression transforms. The décor is authentic, the cacti are real, the buzz at the bar is palpable as a bartender pestles-and-mortars limes for the margaritas. Patrons’ eyes are smiling as they eagerly await their tables, fingers tapping on tables in time to the mariachi.
Classy Mexican cuisine is marvellous, the contrasts that play with the senses. Rich colours — bean ochre, chilli red, lime green, corn yellow — alert the palate, and then comes the riot of flavour.
“This is a killer,” smiles our waitress, Saskia, pointing to one of three salsas. They all have chilli, but the supporting cast ingredients are, respectively, apple, strawberry and pineapple. Amazingly, they shine through — at least the former two do; circumspect at Saskia’s, warning we opt not to try the pineapple.
Hacienda’s standout dish is the adobo brisket with two salsas, macha and pineapple with sesame, and sandia — a kind of watermelon-like fruit — pickled in mescal. “No,” says my wife, “it’s the kabeljou ceviche.” She can’t remember the exotic ingredients, but we agree that the plate was as beautiful as its description. (Revisiting the menu online, the dish includes a tiger’s milk cure, avocado crema, salmon roe and a classic pico de gallo salsa.)
Saskia kills us with kindness at the end of the meal, bringing a giant candyfloss with the bill. It’s not only the margaritas that have me feeling blissful as we leave. If you only know Mexican food through takeaway tacos or packet-mix chilli con carne, you haven’t lived.
There’s a cluster of vibey spots across the road. Culture Wine Bar is a good place to wind down after work; if things keep flowing, head downstairs to The Blue Room cocktail lounge. The victuals at Grub & Vine belie its name — this is upmarket fare incorporating some unusual, even daring, produce: beef shin, black pudding, escargot butter.
Next door, Burger & Lobster has been stylishly revamped. This is surf-and-turf with a difference: just lobster, and just burgers. Part decadent, part soulful, Burger & Lobster is mainly about eat-with-gusto food.
Diners seeking just the surf should head to the top of Bree. SeaBreeze has the widest selection of fresh fish, daily. Well, almost every day. There are only three on offer, not four (or more) when we visit. The weather’s been bad for the boats, the manager explains — an understated comment on the bitterest Cape winter in decades. The spectacular whole roasted carpenter — unpretentious and unctuous — puts us in a cheerier mood.
Slightly trickier to find, just off Bree into Church Street, is Scala Pasta/Bar. Pleasingly, the bar menu punts my favourite drink, a Negroni. But what’s this, four versions? I try the Negroni sbagliato, which I find out translates as “wrong one”. Made with prosecco instead of gin, it may have resulted from a Milan bartender’s error 50 years ago. It tastes delicious — no mistake as far as I’m concerned.
Scala has other quirks. A beautiful tree climbs through the street-level section. At the stairwell heading downstairs a giant screen flashes fashion images that match the mood of the dining area’s sleek lines and dimmed lighting. Actor Stanley Tucci’s memoir and Italian cookbook peeks out next to the cash register. “Not your mama’s pasta,” the menu says.
We share a selection of cicchetti. My wife thought this was a method for teaching ballet, but she’s mixed up the first vowel. The Venetian equivalent of Spain’s tapas or Milan’s aperitivo, Scala’s snacks are outrageously good: plump burrata, chargrilled skirt steak, focaccia with culatello, pancetta and cherry tomatoes. The latter are sweet and salty, piquant yet subtle all in one bite. Beware, one too many cicchetti and they become a meal, which would mean missing out on specials such as Bistecca alla Fiorentina, duck Siciliana, and conchiglie con ragu made with Wagyu beef.
Scala Pasta/Bar is among the best Italian restaurants in the city. Co-owner Paolo Carrara is bringing more international flavours to the locale: opening next month is a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant in the former premises of the Gate 69 camp comedy and drag club.
Change, and innovation, threads along Bree Street. Newcomer Boma is closed on the Monday evening I stroll by, but manager Sivu Nobongoza comes to the door in greeting. “What’s the cuisine,” I ask. Vusi is understandably bemused; the name says it all — fire, African fusion, Kalahari and Karoo flavours. “My chef is bad ass,” he says, referring to Vusi Ndlovu, 2018 worldwide San Pellegrino Young Chef finalist.
Feel like a nightcap? At the entrance to Heritage Square, follow the murmurs of chatter from upstairs (the doors may be closed, but they’re unlocked). The Drinkery is one of the quaintest bars I’ve stumbled across. Maybe because of its hideaway location, the patrons seem friendlier than most Capetonians. Or, simply, dining and socialising along Bree Street has that genial effect.
Burger & Lobster, 105 Bree Street, Cape Town, 021 422 4298
The Drinkery, Mezzanine Level, Heritage Square, corner of Bree and Shortmarket Street, 0824644866
Grub & Vine, 103 Bree Street, 087 153 5244
Hacienda, 92 Bree Street, 021 422 0128
Scala Pasta/Bar, off Bree to 81 Church Street, 021 424 7204
SeaBreeze, 211 Bree Street, 074 793 9349