Wend your way up Long St and cross the intersection to Kloof St – that road referred to as ‘vibey’ by countless estate agents. Head on up towards the mountain, past the unique little shops selling retro clothes and new age food and trendy gadgets and gizmos, past the student bars with their promise of live music and 2-for-1 nights, and suddenly you’ll find you’ve gone rather further than most people and the street is a little emptier than before.
On one corner stands a dark yellow building – not old, not new, not big, not small: a very inoffensive, laid back, ‘everyone welcome’ kind of a place, with the words ‘Café Paradiso’ announced on its plastered garden wall.
I had heard about Café Paradiso’s reputation for good food, but only recently had I heard about its child-friendly policy. This was worth checking out.
We were shown to a table near one of the two fireplaces, just past the large pasta making machine (so proud of their pasta are these people that they happily make it in the middle of all the tables). Above us fettuccine dried on a rack, and lining the walls were assorted shabby-chic dressers and cupboards bulging with curious teapots and books and kitchen paraphernalia.
Like its counterparts in the Madame Zingara group, Café Paradiso is styled to within an inch of its life. Outside for instance, ribbons flutter in the branches of the trees, and there are lanterns and fire baskets and a water feature and two types of underfoot sensory experience… and a rusty old bicycle. For me, touches such as the bicycle are just a step too far, making the whole styling just a little too self-conscious. Yet at the same time there is a sense of fun about it all – a light heartedness that just makes one like the whole place.
Sure enough Lisa who looked after us laughed off the idea that she was the manager, and described herself wryly as a ‘mere waitress’. The various rooms of the building – the three main rooms of the restaurant plus the kitchen to one side and the stylish bakery to the back, were bustling with staff preparing for the evening ahead. It was just after 5pm and the restaurant itself was still relatively empty yet there was an invigorating sense of life and purpose about the place.
And this is where Café Paradiso has been particularly clever. By offering a kids’ story time in the early evenings it opens up for itself a whole extra ‘sitting’. And for parents it works like a charm. Our boys, aged 6 and 3, are peaking in their destructo-potential, yet within 3 minutes of entering the restaurant they trotted happily off to the Bakery to hear a story, and were still joyfully engaged there an hour and a half later.
And there’s not only story time on offer but activities too: on some days the Café Paradiso staff lead the kids in pizza-making, on others gingerbread men or chocolate chip cookies, or they might just ice a cup cake or do some drawing or games. There’s a charge of R 45 ‘per project’ – a charge levied essentially for the time that the children are being cared for rather than the value of any project per se. In the glimpse we had of our boys during our dinner, we asked if they were having fun. The response was a unanimous, nodding, shining-faced ‘Yeeeah!’ as they turned and skipped back to the Bakery.
And so we were able to concentrate on our ‘grown up’ dinner, and boy was it worth it. I’d enjoyed the nibble I’d tasted of the boys’ homemade fish fingers and chips, served on a wooden board, but was a little nonplussed to discover that the salt and pepper squid entrée I’d ordered was deep-fried. Somehow I’d expected it sautéed but in fact there was no indication either way on the menu. Still it was good and hot and crisp, and the spiced mayo and chilli mint sauces accompanying were tasty.
The menu as a whole veers towards the Italian, with antipasti, pasta, and risotto taking a starring role. Refreshingly there is no pizza offered, but despite being written on a single sheet of A4, there is still much to choose from, with prices ranging from R 45 for a camembert, onion jam, rocket and prosciutto sandwich, to R 165 for an organic sirloin with a black mushroom, parmesan and Café de Paris butter. The wine list is short and reasonable, listing South African wines ranging from R 95 to R 240, as well as three choices of Cap Classique and two Moet et Chandon champagnes topping out at R 750. Clearly they expect the occasional celebration at Café Paradiso.
My husband had plumped for one of the daily specials: yellowtail with crispy prosciutto, baby potatoes and cabbage with a champagne velouté. The fish was juicy and tender and the contrast of textures nicely balanced. An excellent choice, but I could not have been happier with my linguini. It was a huge portion, with the properly al dente pasta served with baked baby tomatoes, and a chorizo / calamari / chickpea sauce in a clay pot on the side, swimming in aioli deliciousness. I was full half way through, but I ate every scrap anyway, and was still smiling happily as I munched on a last rocket leaf.
I particularly enjoyed the thoughtful details – not just the candles but the little bowls of coarsely ground black pepper and Maldon salt – so much nicer than shaker pots. And the extra bowl of sliced chillies presented without being requested. It certainly seems Café Paradiso looks after its guests, big or small.
Checking in on the boys, I found them tucking into some ‘really good ice cream’ (which oddly enough is exactly what it is called on the menu. On my return I found my husband had ‘accidentally’ ordered a pudding. ‘For research purposes,’ he explained, and with a smirk he pointed to the menu which read ‘The best living lemon meringue’.
And so it was that three very happy, very full people left Café Paradiso around half past seven that night, followed by one middle aged man, who was struggling with mixed emotions following the discovery that someone can in fact make a better Lemon Meringue than his dear departed grandmother.
Café Paradiso is open Tuesday to Saturday 9am to 10pm and Sunday 10am to 3pm. Kids story times are at 5.30pm Tuesday – Thursday, and kids activities every day until 8pm.