Race and Cape Town: Your colour matters at restaurants

2015-01-19 06:00

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Whether we admit it or not, black people in the Mother City are often ­discriminated against when they go out to eat. The subject is a touchy one, with many whites accusing blacks of playing the race card

I was delighted to see so many of my favourite restaurants listed in Eat Out magazine’s Best Restaurants in Cape Town: Where to Eat in 2015.

The introductory sentence to the online edition says: “It’s hard not to be smug about living in Cape Town.” Well, I live in Cape Town and do not feel smug about living here. Maybe the article and the list were not meant for me, or for people like me.

While my partner and I are part of Cape Town’s middle class, we also happen to be black. This means that we, more often than we like, find ourselves in otherwise exclusively white spaces. There are of course no “whites only” signs on the doors of these establishments, but when we enter these spaces, we often find that except for the staff, we are the only black people there.

This happens at restaurants, at seminars, at functions, at work meetings. It happens so often that we have a punch line to this “joke”: “Oh dear, we’re the only whites here! Again!”

We say it a lot more than we’d like, and we don’t really find it funny. But South Africa has a proud history of using humour as a coping mechanism for our painful fault lines – and we are, after all, South African.

Despite different progenitors, and the last number in our ID books firmly placing us in different apartheid “population registration groups”, we share a similar shade of “medium” brown. We both have “straight” noses. One of us has straight hair, the other tight curly hair, worn in long dreadlocks, so navigating middle class Cape Town is always an interesting experience for us.

While the Where to Eat in 2015 list of Cape Town’s top restaurants includes several of our favourite restaurants, it also includes restaurants we have tried to visit, but where we were made to feel invisible and could not be served. Many black people will know this incredible, magical Cape Town invisibility trick. For those who don’t, it works like this: “We can’t see you because we have made you invisible. We can’t serve you if you are invisible.”

In practice, it means we cannot visit all of the restaurants on the Eat Out list. We’ve tried, but if they can’t see us, they can’t serve us. After trying to get the staff or management’s attention, we either leave and find somewhere else to eat, or try harder to get noticed (waving hands in the air, getting up to advise someone, preferably management, that we’d like to be served, that we’ve been here 20, 30, 35 or 45 minutes and have yet to succeed in getting someone’s attention).

I am not at my best when hungry, so often it’s better to try to get served where we are than to leave.

It’s the start of a new year, so I decided to put my hopelessness about South Africa and Cape Town’s race future aside, and thought I would do something positive. I decided to start a list of restaurants in Cape Town that are “welcoming to all” – where we are not actively made invisible or excluded; where we are not discriminated against for daring to Eat Out While Black in Cape Town.

Wang Thai at the Waterfront in Cape Town, is welcoming to all it’s customers. Picture: Jaco Marais

This list would be based on the experiences of two brown-pigmented people, with a request that others add to it based on their own experiences, acknowledging that others may have vastly different experiences of the same establishments.

Before starting the list, it is important to clarify that there is a significant difference between restaurants (and other establishments) that “tolerate” people of colour and those that “welcome” us (in the same way that they may welcome our paler patron compatriots and pale noncompatriots).

Many Cape Town restaurants tolerate people of colour. This means we are allowed entry, treated indifferently or inhospitably (or as if we are being done a huge favour by being granted seating rights at all) and treated visibly differently to all of the other (white) patrons in the restaurant.

It also means that the restaurant reserves the right to grudgingly seat us in the “black” section of the restaurant – somewhere hidden away in the bowels of the building, close to the toilets or any other smelly or windy parts where we will not disturb the view.

Several restaurants, including many well-known chains, practise this approach habitually, not only in Cape Town.

A few years back, we arranged to meet a friend for sundowners at a restaurant in Bloubergstrand with a fabulous view of Table Mountain.

Our friend is male, of darker-brown colouring than we are, and does not have one of those palatable accents that help to smooth our passage through Cape Town. He had hardly stepped in the door of the restaurant when he was blocked and told there was no work available for him.

Of course there was no work available for him there. Our friend is a nuclear physicist. But he is a black man. And in Cape Town, that matters. Stories like this abound. We’ve all heard, seen and experienced too many of them.

I started my Welcome List and decided to share it in two different spaces on Facebook, explaining why I was doing this, and asking people to add their experiences of being made to feel welcome in any particular restaurant to this list.

I first posted it on my personal Facebook page and then on my neighbourhood’s closed Facebook space. The responses I received could not have been more different.

In my personal space, many people agreed about the necessity and appropriateness of creating such a list, and recognised that we should spend our money in places where we were welcome. Friends of all hues want to support restaurants where we are all welcomed and treated as equals. As humans.

My neighbourhood Facebook space, unfortunately, gives a better insight into the operations of unexamined whiteness in South Africa in a way that my self-selected white friends cannot and do not.

My Welcome List of restaurants was roundly condemned in the neighbourhood space. I was told that it was 20 years after democracy, so why was I creating an issue where there was no issue. I was told I should stop making things up. I was told I was being discriminatory and separatist by making such a list.

Many people who added contributions to the list were white and based “welcome-ness” on their own experiences. Others talked about lots of places having “mixed-group” tables – evidence of a specific venue’s nonracial credentials. They added these restaurants to the list.

The black people who engaged in the neighbourhood discussion were shot down as soon as they tried to share their experiences of being thrown out of restaurants, of having to give up a table to white patrons, of being made to feel invisible, of being told a restaurant was full, only to have their white friends make a reservation. They were told off for “turning everything into a race issue”. Their comments were termed as “nonsense” and their experiences condemned as “playing the race card once again” – “yawn”.

We were all reminded that “poor service” affects everyone, but only black people interpret poor service as racist. Apparently “poor service” is nonracial. It’s what unites us. Seemingly, we are in a postracial reality where white Capetonians get to determine where, what, when and how racism happens, and to whom.

This is Cape Town. It is 2015. And yes, it has only been 20 years since the dawn of democracy, compared with the nearly 400 years of embedded race-based, master-slave relationships in the Cape. Dismantling that prison house will clearly take much more than a short Welcome List of eateries.


Here is the start of Sarita Ranchod’s Welcome List. These are the places that do not actively discriminate against us for being black and for daring to eat out in Cape Town:

Massimo’s in Hout Bay

It’s owned by an Italian and English couple. It may help that the owners are not South African and don’t necessarily engage in South Africa’s race madness. It means that black staff engage with the clientele in an empowered manner. They take charge of their tables and are confident in their skills, knowledge and professionalism. They appear happy to work and to be at work. And the food is great. It’s often listed as the best Italian restaurant in Cape Town. You’re highly likely to be ­greeted and treated by professional staff practising good service – not to be taken for granted if you’re black and in Cape Town.

Kitima in Hout Bay

Often rated as the best Thai restaurant in Cape Town. It’s not easy to get a reservation, but it’s well worth the wait. The cocktails are the best we’ve tasted anywhere, and the staff are professional, efficient and treat all patrons equally. They greet you by name (based on the fact that you have made a reservation). I challenge anyone to identify a more delicious cocktail than the restaurant’s strawberry rose martini. And the food is sublime.

High Tea, a courtyard oasis in the Wynberg area

Has great breakfasts, including Banting-friendly (the craze popularised by Tim

Noakes) bagels. The staff remember you from your last visit, and are friendly and professional (again, not to be taken for granted in Cape Town if you are black and eat out).

Pakalolo in Hout Bay

If you want a laid-back spot where the fare is good and the prices not outrageous, this is for you.It’s not pretentious – there are some seriously sun-weathered clients – and the cocktails are made to suit your detailed requirements. This being Cape Town, there must be a white owner, but having patronised the place for years, we have yet to see or meet this person. Entirely black-run and managed, it’s efficient, chilled, professional and yummy.

Addis in Cape

Finding a restaurant that serves African fare in Cape Town is not easy. This is the city’s best up-market, Ethiopian restaurant. Delicious food with a great range of choices for vegetarians, seafood lovers and those on ­gluten-free diets. The service is slow, so don’t go if you’re in a hurry. If you cannot deal with eating communally, or must eat with cutlery – even when your charming attendant has helped you to wash your hands – this is not for you. To enjoy it fully, as with many things, you need time to savour the experience.

C’est la Vie in St James

This place has a low-profile, “neighbourhood” feel. It does great coffee, breakfasts and bakes confectionery on site. Don’t go if you want to be “seen” in Cape Town. The owner and staff are always friendly. We took our pooch along on our last visit and she got ­water without us asking and bits of bacon from the kitchen, something she doesn’t get to eat at home. I guess it’s doggy-friendly, ­although we haven’t seen other dogs there. Not the most racially diverse place, but it’s welcoming, friendly and the coffee is good.

Taj Mahal in Hout Bay

If you can’t eat superspicy, then order mild. I’ve made the mistake of ordering medium on several occasions and had to deal with fire I unsuccessfully tried to put out with yogurt. Now I order mild. The clientele is diverse – not just racially, but classwise too.

The décor is “Indian” kitsch. When the food doesn’t put your digestive system on fire, it’s good. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only to ­experience the diversity.

Café Roux in Noordhoek

This place is a delight. The food is fresh, ­creative and good. The restaurant has a ­relaxed ambience and much of it is situated outdoors under a massive, old tree and a ­canopy. It can get busy and the service isn’t always quick, but you are treated like a ­human being and the pace is unhurried.

Tashas in Constantia

Yes, this Tashas is related to the one in ­Melrose Arch, Joburg, where Oscar Pistorius (or his friend) fired a gun.

The food is fresh and wholesome. It’s of good quality and it’s delicious.

The staff are professional, polite and efficient. Consistently. And they corrected a ­family who thought they were higher up in the pecking order and tried to take our table.

Don’t take this seemingly obvious action for granted. It is notable.

In Cape Town, white people can routinely move to the front of the queue, given that the rest of us are invisible, even when we are clearly next in line and even when it is down in writing.

This is Cape Town, after all, where the master-slave relationship is a ­contemporaneous continuum.

Wang Thai

Unlike all the other restaurants on this list, we have only eaten here once, en route to a film festival that celebrates some of our South African diversities. The food was sublime, the service excellent and friendly, and we made it to the movie in time. A restaurant experience that’s definitely to be repeated.


This is a lovely, unassuming restaurant in ­Belvedere Road, Claremont, that you wouldn’t find unless you knew where to look. It’s ­excellent for breakfasts and tea/coffee dates. There’s always a queue at weekends, but the wait is never unreasonable. The coffee is ­excellent, the food is great and the waiting staff are, most often, lovely. The restaurant seems to have retained its waiting staff over the years, suggesting that they’re happy. We like happy staff. And the gluten-free chocolate brownies are divine.


A lovely, child-friendly restaurant in Hout Bay with lots of outdoor seating. It has a specially staffed children’s area with toys, dress-up outfits and videos running constantly. Kids in the know rush straight to the kiddies’ room. It also has a special menu for little people. The food is good. The service is inconsistent and can be slow, or confused. However, we’ve never been made to feel unwelcome.


The Foodbarn

This restaurant receives glowing reviews, so we have to try it. We arrive in a place that’s nearly empty. We try to get the attention of the staff, who are lolling around. At one stage, someone walks towards us, but veers off course to update the blackboard menu. We are polite. We are patient. We wait. We attempt to speak to a passing waiter. We make sure we are seen among the empty tables. We don’t kick up a fuss. We wait some more. We leave. It’s the magical invisibility treatment: We can’t see you because we’ve made you invisible. We can’t serve you if you are invisible.

Four & Twenty

This is a lovely little restaurant and deli in rarefied Wynberg/Chelsea. We arrive on a Saturday morning, admittedly a busy time.

There are no tables available and we are offered seats at the counter. We’re first on the list for the next available table.

Our waitress shows us which table is about to become available. It is cleared, but as we get up to take our seats, the manager starts to seat another family. We say: “Excuse me, this is our table.”

She says: “No, this table is taken.” We say we’re next on the list and, being impertinent blacks who don’t know our place, sit down.

We are roundly ignored for this. If it wasn’t so annoying, it would make for a comical scene as we try to get anyone’s attention, including the manager who is no more than a metre away. We wave our hands in the air. We do everything short of standing on the table. We choose to behave in the well-mannered way we have been brought up.

I finally get the attention of the only waiter of colour. We are not seated in his section, he says. But I am seriously annoyed and rant at him. He cannot do much, but promises to get someone’s attention for us. My partner points out I expressed my outrage at the only person of colour when he is probably the only one who has nothing to do with this.

We order something to drink. We get our coffees 25 minutes later. We have yet to order food. More than an hour has passed.

The whole situation feels wrong. Having been challenged about choosing to complain to the black staff member, I decide to speak to the manager/owner on my way out.

I patiently explain to her what had transpired. She doesn’t offer an apology or show any remorse for our bad experience.

“Well, it’s busy. It’s a Saturday,” she says without making eye contact.

Naturally, I should have known my place.

This is Cape Town. We should have known we have to give up our table for white patrons. We broke the rules. We messed with how things have always worked here.

The master-slave relationship still stands.

And yet we return to this restaurant. (Going with white friends means we actually get acknowledged.) We bring them custom. It’s insane, I know. But this is Cape Town.

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Ranchod is executive director of Under the Rainbow – Creative Strategies for Positive Change

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