The Dining Room
The Dining Room
Image: Supplied

I recall my first meal at The Dining Room four years ago. To be honest, I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when our starters, made up of many delicacies on tiny china plates, was wheeled out to us on a trolley by a man wearing a black suit. It was something straight out of Downton Abbey but with more warmth and (regrettably) less Maggie Smith. The space always had such an intimate yet comforting air, from its pelican wallpaper, table-tops out of parquet and the painting of androgynous ballerinas in the bathroom. But most of all, the food was always delicious and indulgent.

I have always been a mad fan of Karen Dudley’s work. Anyone who knows me knows that when I make my way to Cape Town, odds are that I’ll be sitting in the window of The Kitchen eating salad and gammon a lot of the time. The same can be said about The Dining Room; I always made a point of going if I could when I was in town – especially if I had a date to impress. So when I found out that the last ever dinner service was happening on my trip it felt like fate. And so I went to pay homage to this special place – and the woman who always feeds me - and to ask what happens next:

So The Dining Room is officially closed? Yes and although it’s sad we had the most magical nights there. It will always be an amazing memory where we have the peace of knowing we created something really good and really beautiful. But a dining space alone that is not open during the day is not sustainable.

True, it never was a sustainable idea, but the fact that you kept it going for so long just shows you how special it was. I know, it’s pretty amazing and yes it was pretty indulgent. People had the best parties there and some really special times. We had people just spontaneously burst into song or became great friends with other diners that they never knew before. It’s been a very special place and it’s not common in other establishments. I’ve been really proud of that. It also got me to stretch my muscles as a chef and that was really fun for me. I’ve begun to take myself more seriously, which seems silly because I know I am really good at what I do. But there’s something about sending something out from the kitchen into The Dining Room and waiting to see what people will say. That is a uniquely “chef” experience and so I got to have the full experience of that with joy and delight, that feeling of “Oh! They like it! They love it!”

So what does the future hold? We’re finally expanding The Kitchen and doubling it in size into the space next door. For years I looked with greedy eyes at this amazing space. But then Blank (Gallery) moved around the corner to where Southern Guild used to be and now I get my chance. People like me dream things into being and then kind of hope that by harnessing their team and the sheer power of belief they will bring things to pass. It only becomes fun when you think you might fail but you have to keep going. In this case I am creating the future right now with builders and plumbers and I’ve moved from being utterly terrified to actually believing that we will be able to pull the love through. We knocked through the walls and it’s crazy right now but I’ve been buoyed up by the energy of people believing in me and yelling “Go Karen go!”

You wanted a bigger space and now you knocked a giant hole in the wall and done it. It’s not just about me. When you are doing a project like this you have to hold all the people in mind. I am thinking of all the people who work for me: “How will it be at their station, will it be nice? Can they hear the music? Can they have nice knives? Where are their knives?” I am holding them in that. And then I’m also holding all the people who are coming here: “Where will it be nice for them to sit? Where can they hide out with a newspaper? Oh this might be nice for people to have a meeting over here.” I’m holding all these people in the space and it’s so inspiring and affirming because I know I be able to do good by it. Do you know what I mean?

I do, it’s like playing house on a much bigger scale with people you care about at the center of it. Exactly and it keeps the focus on what people really need.

And what do people really need? People need a moment to be with themselves and food gives you that moment. People need a moment of consideration, to look after themselves and their basic needs. To feel comforted, to feel like they are getting attention. They need to be served well and feel like they are being heard. They also need lovely colours around them!

So which of these needs will be met in the new space? All of them. There will still be salads and love sandwiches in more or less the same space but we are moving the coffee over to the new space. Our coffee is really good, people don’t know how good our coffee actually is. We will be able to do more catering and do a lot more fabulousness for people because our kitchen will be amplified. We will be hiring out our vintage stuff for parties because I realised I have a lot of stuff: Beautiful linens, mismatched tea cups and the plates. So why not let people use it? We are doing a whole retail section of all the “Things Karen Loves.” Not only preserves, chutneys and some of our secret sauces but other things like bamboo straws and my favourtie knifes and spatulas. Only stuff that I think is fantastic.

So you’re basically Biggie Best now? (Laughs) Just a few kitchen smalls along with aubergine and cardamom jam. And gifts to take to people when you are dining at somebody’s house – people must know that they have to take a gift, and make nice. Are you getting that there is a lot of stuff going on?

Yes, I’m getting it. Also we’ll be doing stuff for picnics. Throughout the summer, we want people to be able to pick up everything they need: Some nice pesto, sandwiches, some salami and cheese. It’s like a one stop shop for your picnic. And of course we will also be doing take away suppers for one or two people, for busy people who are working to 6 o’clock or 7 o’clock – you’re probably one of these?

Maybe… By the time you’ve actually shopped and cooked you’re actually too tired to eat. So we are doing what we normally do but in smaller servings that you can just stick it in your microwave.

That is a lot of things. What’s more, now that you now have the space, if you ever have the inclination, would you ever bring magic of The Dining Room back, even for a moment?  We now have all the space in the world to do parties and events, so yes, that’s the other angle. And the tag line, is irresistible “The Best Parties are in The Kitchen.” That’s where the vibe really is; you’re standing right there in the kitchen and you’re eating something amazing. It’s kind of the fantastic isn’t it? To have supper in the kitchen? Picture those grand country kitchens and everybody is in there feasting. It’s kind of really tantalising and amazing. So having the experience of The Dining Room, we know we can pull that sort of thing together in our new space and I think we’ll probably call it something like The Kitchen Table. It’s so fun to think about, I just can’t tell you.

The new improved The Kitchen will be completed by November but they are still trading. Go past 111 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock and grab a freshly made love sandwich today.

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