REVIEW: Vibrant and fresh: The Company’s Garden restaurant for breakfast, tea or lunch

The Place: The Company’s Gardens is a green space where adults sit and reflect under very old oaks, children startle birds settling around sundials, and squirrels beg for nuts from passers-by admiring colourful shrubs. For years Cape Town’s central garden lacked a decent café. A week ago that changed.

The Madame Zingara group is behind the new The Company’s Garden restaurant. They started off calling it Haarlem & Hope, which I thought a catchy name cleverly promoting Cape Town’s historical roots. Dutch ship die Nieuwe Haarlem was wrecked in Table Bay in 1647, its crew waiting a year for a lift. Their gardening efforts inspired Jan van Riebeeck to return five years later and create the Company’s Garden to grow produce. However the restaurant hastily changed its name after a few Capetonians decided it was associated with a colonialist slavery past. Shall we do away with the recreated VOC veggie and fruit garden in the Company’s Gardens too?

The Company’s Garden numerous shady tables were packed during Sunday lunch. Local designers have contributed to understated furniture and a clean interior: wood-framed seventies-style glass now opens out from the bar counter to overlook Porky Heffer’s hanging nests, carved frogs and child-friendly logs. A giant chess game happens nearby.

The Food: Chef Linda Beuken’s modern, attractively presented café food has Cape Dutch elements here and there. This is feel-good daytime fare, from French toast and omelettes to toasted sandwiches and a selection of cakes. How nice to see scones on offer in a garden venue.

With two glasses of Buiten Blanc (R39), we shared a West Coast mussel pot (R60) in a deliciously unusual wine, lemon juice and creamy sauce, mussels plump with flavour, parsley and a secret twist.

The lunch menu has hearty salads to Karoo lamb chops, but fish and chips (R60) in tasty beer-battered hake made for better summer fare. Perfect golden-brown handcut chips are a good reason to return.

The beef burger looked delicious. Instead we enjoyed Cape Malay elements in a Dhaltjie burger (R65), combining grilled brown mushroom under melted mozzarella, cucumber raita and fresh tomato-coriander salsa zing. But deep-fried dhaltjie balls tasted too much of turmeric for the flavours to all fit together.

Two children at our table declared their lunch very good. An excellently charred ‘big boy, little kid’ burger (R40) had melted mozzarella and tomato on a toasted sesame bun, and more lovely chips. ‘Fish fingers and fries’ (R38) were actually battered hake strips. Thick milkshakes (R28) were just fine, and full of sprinkles and marshmallows.

The drinks: The wine list is small but sufficient, mostly a mix of uncomplicated Sauvignons, Merlots and blends, plus a few creative labels. Artful garden-facing bar stools looked just right for ordering a craft beer or late-afternoon cocktail.

The Verdict? The Company’s Garden restaurant was created despite the city’s complicated tendering process, and Zingara founder Richard Griffin wants to use it to change the way South Africans think about red-tape environments. He also wants it to be inclusive of many sectors of the community. I’m not sure the café’s pricing is affordable enough for that, but its extensive menu already caters to a mixed bag of diners.

Order a quality coffee or eat a meal, and mingle with young couples, tourists and families out for lunch, or groups of bridge-playing ladies in floral dresses. Go to The Company’s Garden Restaurant to recreate the nostalgia of Cape Town’s historic green lung – you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to enjoy yourself.

THE COMPANY’S GARDEN RESTAURANT, Company’s Gardens, Queen Victoria Road, Cape Town. Open daily from 7am to 6pm. Tel 021-423-2919, The Company’s Garden Reservations only for six people or more.

A version of this review appeared in The Times on 3 December 2014.