I have to be honest and say that I find African themed restaurants in South Africa quite intimidating. They are either jam packed with tourists on package deals or so commercialised, that you feel like this is a performance specifically put on for your convenience.
I ventured into The African Café, in the heart of Cape Town’s popular Heritage Square, in need of some assistance and insight into African cuisine. Instead of stumbling upon a franchise-type eatery for foreign currency, I met a gracious husband and wife team inviting you into their home.
The Africa Café has become a landmark African-themed establishment on the restaurant-scape of Cape Town. Walking into the restaurant, you are overwhelmed by loud colours, curious crafts and a rather large hand-welded gate. I was ushered into the office, crowded with papers, boxes and two rather busy-looking individuals. Portia, the head chef, and her husband and business partner, Jason Smidt.
I squeezed myself into a seat and was immediately swept away on Portia’s life journey – from her childhood during turbulent times in South Africa to their early married life in their old home in Observatory, Cape Town.
"I can’t believe we've been here since 1999. When we moved from Observatory we thought maybe two or three years and then maybe something else, " says the 47-year-old Portia.
Not a chef by training, she stumbled upon it after coming back to South Africa after a stint in America studying fashion design. She wet her feet in the food industry by carting around sandwiches to businesses in Johannesburg. Moving back to Cape Town with Jason, she soon realised that cooking was her passion. But South Africa was still very much in the final grasp of apartheid, so setting up a business, as a mixed couple, was not easy.
So, in 1992 they decided to open up their home and in flooded the hungry people of Observatory. All wanting a chance to sample Portia’s unique home-cooked African dishes.
"We love to travel and bring back ideas to South Africa. It started with me putting some new touches to things I ate in Egypt or while working in an Ethiopian restaurant. I would find things that I liked and then put my own mark on it."
They soon found new premises, more suited for their growing clientele, and moved to Lower Main Road in Observatory – squeezing in 70 people night after night.
In 1999 the Heritage Foundation offered this ambitious duo the use of their premises on Heritage Square and, as they say, the rest is history.
"We were really lucky with the building. At first we thought we would maybe just use one or two rooms and make the rest offices. It was so big. We moved in, painted the walls ourselves and decorated it – like we would do our own home. We brought back masks from Zimbabwe and things we picked up on our travels and decorated the restaurant with them," says Portia.
But one room wasn't enough, as Portia’s 16-dish-communal feasts became so popular they rushed to paint and decorate new rooms as the patrons increased.
"We never imagined this big thing, it all just happened by itself. For example people would like the plates and that evolved into its own business with a little shop where they can now buy plates, if they want to."
Today The African Café is a thriving business with worldwide franchise offers. Finding an open seat in this 260-seat restaurant in-season is almost impossible without a booking. Guests sit down to succulent fish dishes from Malawi, Ethiopian lamb in berere sauce, Zambian bean pies and Egyptian Koshery (that supposedly tastes better than in Egypt, according to one of the guests). The menu is printed, quite originally, on an enamel calabash that changes every four months as Portia explores more dishes from the continent.
"This is still our home with Jason opening the door and inviting them to sit down and me cooking in the kitchen," says the mother of two children.
What impressed me about African Café is that this African restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously. It's not selling you a postcard experience. Instead you are invited into a lovely African-kitsch environment, with hearty food and a warm communal spirit. Where the herbs still come from Portia's garden in Plumstead and the walls get painted when the couple feels like a change.