Anywhere that plays The Pointer Sister’s Jump, at a volume that makes you want to get up and dance, gets 10 points from me immediately. And Café Manhattan is one of those places that starts with 10 points, before you even open the menu.
Café Manhattan is a Cape Town institution. Known as the heart of De Waterkant and situated on the outside corner of the Cape Quarter at the top of the steep Dixon Street, it is vaguely reminiscent of San Francisco. It’s been there for 20 years but recently underwent a makeover after being bought by restaurant magicians, Madame Zingara.
The tree-shaded outside terraces on both sides provide the perfect setting for an afternoon spent with friends sipping on cocktails and sampling delicious food as you watch De Waterkant go about its business.
Inside, the décor is fun and unmistakeably Zingara in its attention to detail. It’s cowboy-themed: three of the bar stools resemble saddles on a bucking bronco, there’s a buck head above the bar, a Moulin Rouge-esque ‘Meat’ sign on one wall, and a cow-skin covered ‘water tank’ that resembles a huge drum. As a statement of manly elegance, a large vase of proteas sits prettily on the shelf between the dining area and kitchen.
The restaurant is divided into a front bar section with high tables and large windows that open onto the street. Behind this are two dining areas with tables cleverly arranged so that you can comfortably have lots of small tables or move them together to make long, many-peopled-party tables. This is the kind of place that lends itself to big, loud, fun birthday bashes and the like.
Upstairs is an intimate little lounge with a fabulous L-shaped couch opening onto a cosy outside courtyard. Basically, there’s a nook to suit everybody’s taste and party size.
We were welcomed by friendly staff and shown to our table, situated in the middle of everything, just the way I like it. People-watching is my thing. Mark, our fabulous waiter, brought us Club Champagne (with a cherry in it, another 10 points) and explained that the chef would make us a starter platter and a dessert platter, so that we could get a good overview of what is available.
The menu itself, complete with cowboy-style studded leather cover, is filled with casual bar-style food with a Southern flair: sticky ribs, burgers, steaks, black squid and soft-shell crab. I watched, drooling, as a couple of burgers and steaks went past. Served with double-friend potato chips and crispy thin onion rings, they looked mighty fine!
The drinks menu is vast, with a good selection of wines, beer – both on tap and bottled – and an extensive cocktail menu, including ‘slushies’. I was tempted when I saw a martini go by, its olive giving me a wink as it passed, but it was a school night and I can’t be trusted to only have one cocktail if I start.
Mark arrived just in time with our starter platter – a smorgasbord of sticky ribs, Texan wings, corn sliders and salt and pepper squid, with a summer salad on the side. The Texan wings and sticky ribs were finger-lickingly good, the wings had a good chilli bite to them, and the ribs were smoky and sweet and, served with a tangy chilli mayonnaise and chilli oil, the crispy battered salt and pepper squid was like tasting a sea breeze.
The hands down winners, though, were the corn sliders and the salad. The corn sliders – corn and Arborio rice balls, wrapped in crumbs and served on roasted peppers and courgettes, served with a tomato salsa, were little risotto balls of heaven. The salad, made up of greens, creamy avo, delicious Danish feta and melt-in-the-mouth salmon, was drizzled with vinaigrette which, on the addition of the fresh lime made me, I’m sorry to say, a little greedy.
The chef, Kirk, came out to chat to us, and we were checked on every now and again by the managers and Mark – attentive, but not intrusive. The restaurant filled and became livelier as it darkened into night outside. All the terribly good-looking waiters got ever more into their groove, bums wiggling to the music – including Diana Ross’ Chain Reaction – as they moved between tables.
After a suitable break to digest the vast amount of starters, the dessert platter arrived with cinnamony pumpkin pie, a lemon meringue that threw me back to my childhood, and a chocolate brownie – crisp on the outside, gooey on the inside – interspersed with dollops of ice cream and cream, all decorated with hundreds and thousands and chocolate ants a.k.a. sprinkles. The pièce de résistance here, though, was the buttermilk waffle topped with fried banana and syrup. Kirk came out of the kitchen again as I gushed my delight. I think I might be addicted.
And so it was that with full, happy tummies we tumbled out onto the streets of De Waterkant to wind our way home, leaving behind a bar that was just hitting its stride for the night. That party was just starting.
Café Manhattan’s kitchen is open every day from 10am to 11pm. The bar stays open until midnight.
Tel: 021 421 6666 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (NB Bookings essential for six or more people)