It all started with a handful of industry pioneers clad stone-washed denim and shoulder pads, gathered around a table at a now-defunct restaurant in Mouille Point, Cape Town.
But it’s been 20 years since then – and what a long way the Mercedes Benz Eat Out Awards have come.
Now, the venue is an arena filled row upon row of elaborately decorated tables. Cocktail and wine bars line the walls, the twinkling lights winking off hundreds glasses and tumblers. Frenzied waiters scurry to and fro with trays laden with an assortment of artful cocktails and glasses of wine.
And thankfully, there’s not a shoulder pad in sight.
The more than 600 guests at Cape Town’s GrandWest are dressed to the nines, mostly in cocktail attire, but several women don red-carpet ready gowns, designers scurrying behind them to tend to lengthy trains.
Presenter Elana Afrika-Bredenkamp is one of them. In an elaborate ensemble by Diaan Daniels that somehow features both pants and a train, she appears on stage and welcomes the crowd, after which local rocker Karen Zoid opens the event.
And then the moment plenty of us have all been waiting for – the food!
SA singer and restauranteur J’Something and the various chefs involved in making the various courses – all from SA’s top eateries – talk the guests through the plated perfection they’ve prepared.
It’s a good thing they did. The dishes that land in front of us look more like works of art than lunch.
The first dish raises more than a few eyebrows: a shimmering, black bread roll by Jason’s Bakery’s Jason Liley – he used activated charcoal, one of the foodie influencers remarks. But pulling apart the still-warm bread reveals a doughy centre, to be smeared with the rich black garlic aioli by The Restaurant at Waterkloof’s Gregory Czarnecki.
This is followed by a dish by Camphors at Vergelegen’s Michael Cooke, a local-is-lekker Malay pickled fish, sultana and amasi, which receives plenty of approving murmurs at my table. The next course, a flavourful seared springbok carpaccio by The Marabi Club’s Vusi Ndlovu, does too.
A saucy chicken dish by owner of Janse & Co, Arno Janse van Rensburg’s follows, and plenty of folks help themselves to the crispy potatoes heaped on plates in the centre of the table to mop up the creamy saucy.
Scot Kirton, James Gaag, Glen Williams and John Norris-Rogers have teamed up for dessert – a little smorgasbord of strawberry, yoghurt, verbena and ruby chocolate. Those with a sweet tooth are treated to another little chocolate dish after that, by Gregory Czarnecki.
“This looks like a sculpture!” a guest exclaims, lifting the rectangular black plate upon which three geometric bonbons are placed. “I want to take this home and put it on my mantelpiece.”
After this comes the moment the rest of the crowd has been waiting for – the top 20 countdown.
Several other awards were given out between the courses, but now is the time the 30 nominees will discover their place on the list – if they make it at all. Despite the full tummies and flowing wine, the tensions build. This is the culmination of whole year of top-secret restaurants visits, where anonymous judges have assessed everything for the food to the service – and it is South Africa’s Oscars of food, after all…
Celeb presenters like Minki van der Westhuizen and Liezel van der Westhuizen present the trophies to the restaurants and their head chefs, a surprising number of whom get teary-eyed during their brief acceptance speeches.
The day’s major upset comes at number two, when Luke Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen – regularly named as one of the best restaurants in the world – is ousted from the top spot by The Restaurant at Waterkloof’s Gregory Czarnecki.
The Restaurant at Waterkloof’s table explodes in cheers, hugs and tears as Gregory bounds to the stage.
After that, shattered nerves are soothed by more cocktails, and good-natured hugs, claps on the back and “we’ll get ‘em next year”s.
With that, the South African restaurant industry’s best and brightest drift towards the chauffer-driven Mercedes Benz waiting for them outside. They’ve got to be in the kitchen early tomorrow, after all.
See the full winner’s list here.