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The Cape Town rip-off

Are Cape Town restaurants in summer, one big rip-off looking for victims? Columnist Heather Parker takes a closer look at some scandalous examples.

by: Heather Parker | 09 Jan 2008

The smell of coconut is in the air (and in the drinks), and the verandas of cocktail bars are heaving. The holidays are over, but sexy summer will cling moistly for some months yet.

In Cape Town, that means everyone's cross about restaurants allegedly putting up their prices, and developing a haughty attitude.

I've lived through many summers in the Cape, and have not been bitten by this yet (admittedly, some restaurants are achingly haughty throughout the year). There are headlines every year, though, and I am keen to find out whether the famous Cape Town rip-off is real, or just a myth, like the infamous ratio of seven men to every woman in this pretty city.

Memorably scandalous incidents
There was a scandal a few years ago involving starters of perlemoen at Panama Jacks in the harbour. The price tag: R770 for two. Bizarrely, the waiter reportedly told the couple involved that he thought they were American, and would be paying in dollars.

And last year, Belthazar in the V&A Waterfront was involved in the mother of debacles when one of its managers offered guests a rare wine without informing them it cost R7 000. He wasn't motivated by commission, because managers don't get commission. One can only think that perhaps because the patrons were foreign he, too, assumed they were price-insensitive.

Though they could afford to pay for the bottle of Meerlust Cabernet '82, this group of patrons was acutely aware of how inappropriate that action was: the guests included restaurant legend Albert Roux (founder of Le Gavroche in London, amongst others).

One of Belthazar's owners, as soon as heard what had happened, ordered that the charge be reversed, saying to newspapers that he gave the Roux party "the benefit of the doubt". Ouch.

Some weeks later, the other partner in Belthazar found out what had happened, and was rightly embarrassed by this gaucheness: he sent a personal letter of apology to Roux, even asking whether he might fly to London to apologise in person (Roux declined).

What's the point of raising this, all this time later?

Belthazar is a previous winner of the Steakhouse of the Year competition; a previous winner of V&A Waterfront's internal Restaurant of the Year award; and a Platinum Award-winner in the Diners' Club Winelist of the Year awards. It's justifiably popular (if you don't book, you might never get in) and the staff are passionate, experienced, and really helpful.

Panama Jacks also has a decent pedigree. It has been there forever, one of the best-kept secrets of the Cape. It's down-home in a slightly sticky way, and reliably serves up the sort of uncomplicated seafood-based meals that you long for but seldom find up and down the long, long coastline of South Africa.

Both of them have earned their place in the sun. Mistakes happen. We move on.

It's where a restaurant mismanages the resultant publicity, that the mistake sticks. I patronise both these restaurants, but it took time for the memory to fade of the R770 perlemoen or the R7 000 bottle of Meerlust.

Are they the rip-off champions of the Cape?

I don't think so.

Is Cape Town in season one big rip-off looking for victims?

Again, I don't think so.

Do you agree with Heather? If not keep us in the loop and post a review on Food24.

Heather Parker is the editor of Health24 and Bride magazine. She is one of SA's most respected journalists, and a serious foodie to boot.

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