Cool hangouts in De Waterkant

Posted on 5 July 2023

Cape Town’s compact edge-of-the-city De Waterkant precinct has seen an upswelling of vibrant new hangouts. Which makes it a great place to begin an exploration of the Mother City, especially if you like surprises around every corner.

The suburb of De Waterkant, adjacent to Green Point and on the seaward side of the CBD, is undoubtedly the hippest in town. And yet, a few hundred years ago its buildings were at the very edge of Table Bay, its taverns servicing swarthy seamen, its women and waifs no doubt too. 

Its street names – Waterkant, Riebeeck, Sea and Jetty – speak of a time before the beaches and the ocean were staved off to make room for buildings. Today, these streets are so far inland that their maritime names seem odd, but “Waterkant” — as it was then called — was so close to the sea it had a boathouse and was where customs officials were headquartered.

It is also one of the oldest parts of the city, its earliest homes dating back to 1790. Until 1966, when the city was re-zoned, it was a part of Bo-Kaap, and its connection to the Cape Malay quarter is evident in the colourful, beautifully restored houses which were once owned by freed slaves.

It has gone through ceaselessly unfolding iterations: Once upon a time not too long ago, it was considered the capital of Cape Town’s gay universe, a loud-and-proud after-dark neighbourhood full of clubs blasting diva anthems into the small hours, its dancefloors among the sweatiest in the land. A few outposts from that era remain, even if the burger-and-drag queen repertoire at Beefcakes is nowadays more likely to be besieged by hen parties than by the pink gangs of old. 

Nowadays, it is a slick and sought-after address, the somewhat sordid predilections of clubland mostly replaced by upmarket design stores and snazzy hair salons, with clever cafés and creative kitchens tucked down side streets. The clubbers chasing drug dealers have been replaced by Crossfit hordes sprinting along the pavements and by yells of fury emanating from that upstairs boxing gym where someone’s murdering a punching bag.

Its homes – and a few rooftop bars – command splendid views of the harbour and Table Mountain. It buzzes with neighbourhood cool and is eminently walkable (just not in heels, though, those cobblestones are real); street parking is scarce, but there’s loads of it underground.

Illustration by Jess Nicholson

Travel in Time

Vasco da Gama Taverna is pretty much the unofficial Portuguese Embassy. Cape Town’s third oldest pub, it’s built from rocks quarried nearby and just as boisterous as it was when it opened in 1972 – it looks almost exactly the same, too, with its black tiled floors and yellow stipple glass. The bar counter is still its original yellow Formica, and its famous “Catemba” (Tassies and coke in a draught glass) remains a popular tipple thanks to its late barman, Jorge. In a country with so much flux and transition, places like this are small miracles: the same people return on the same days and order the same food like clockwork. Follow their lead: order the prego, the peri peri chicken or a tasty steak with proper chips, an ice cold beer to wash it all down and listen to the strains of Pussycat singing their 1975 hit, “Mississippi”. You’ll forget what year it is and you won’t want to leave. 021 425 2157, 

Savour Culinary Sunshine

Yen’s Vietnamese Street Food is open, sunny and inviting, its bright colours providing the perfect setting for the fresh, bright flavours of Vietnamese food. Run by husband and wife team Philip and Yen, the food is exactly what you would find on the streets of Yen’s hometown, Ho Chi Minh City – fresh spring rolls, tasty pot-stickers and satisfying bowls of pho with its rich umami broth and layers of fragrant mint, coriander and basil. Cleverly, nothing on the menu costs more than R100 and, as a result, they are full to the rafters every night. They run a bustling takeout trade, too. 071 156 6782

Eat Sum Dim

Staying with the Asian food theme, you might want to poke your head in at Kong Fu Dim Sum, where it’s impossible to be in a bad mood thanks to the gracious smiles of Benson who opened his quirky little establishment a year ago and he can hardly keep up with the demand for his noodles and potstickers. ‘It’s like Europe!’ he says. ‘People like it because they can sit outside on the street.’ Indeed, it’s a great little corner to park yourself and watch the world go by. 062 051 9598

Trick or Treat Yourself

If the sound of Japanese cheesecakes, Korean macarons and Taiwanese canned coffee grabs you, then Café Chiffon – a pretty, minimalist confectionery – is sure to delight. Pastel chairs and pastel sugar magicked into masterful creations make for a dreamy combo. In keeping with the Asian tradition, the desserts are light, not overly sweet and subtle in flavour. 068 035 5552

Seek Alternatives

A space for “wellness and energetic healing”, at Shamballa  you will find crystals and bespoke jewellery, while at the attached Alchemy Bar you can order a “medicinal” mushroom smoothie – or perhaps a shroom or CBD coffee. Spiritual awakening in this slick and trendy “apothecary” does not necessarily come cheap – it is no mere crystal emporium, but a place where buying with intention is encouraged.  082 789 8493,

Strike a Pose

Around practically since the days of Jan Van Riebeeck, Café Manhattan is a De Waterkant institution which continues to delight its patrons, many of whom arrive in a good mood and leave in a party fugue. It’s a sexy straight-friendly eatery, full of style and beautiful young men who come for the topless barmen and the juicy steaks. No night on the town is complete without a shot of tequila here. 021 421 6666, 

Branch Out 

The first thing you notice is the tree. It’s an over 100-year-old Brazilian red peppercorn tree right in the middle of the courtyard on the corner of Dixon and Waterkant Street, and it’s extraordinary. If that tree could talk it would tell wonderful stories. It would also tell you that The Charles does a great breakfast, and you can sit right beneath it. Or, if you prefer, upstairs on the rooftop deck with its marvellous view of the hood. The intimate little guesthouse is a great place to stay if you want to be close to the action. To honour their proximity to Bo Kaap, bobotie and curry are speciality dishes served by the fire in winter, while summer is all about al fresco dining with lovely South African-inspired dishes like the Laingsburg lamb soutribbetjie, West Coast mussels and Karoo ostrich fillet. 021 409 2500,

Fuel Up

Ground Art Caffe is a corner coffee shop/mini art gallery that is almost always packed with yogis (before and after their sessions at nearby YogaLife) and other regulars vying for a space to enjoy their all-day breakfasts, bagels and light lunches. The vibe is happy, the service is friendly and everything is made from scratch using fresh, local ingredients. 

021 418 1331,

Shop Till You Drop

Whether you are someone’s nonna looking to cook up a storm or just love browsing for genuine Italian goods, you’ll love Lello’s, a deli next to Ground Art, at the top of De Waterkant. It’s an offshoot of the Turilli famiglia’s down-to-earth restaurant, Scarpetta, in Woodstock. From big fat porcini mushrooms to Scarpetta’s classic beef lasagne and other favourite dishes from the restaurant, you will also find essential ingredients (like tinned tomatoes) that even the fussiest nonnas will be pleased to discover are in the ’hood. 

Dine with the Don

Enrico Tarantino looks and sounds like he belongs in a Mafia movie. He’s direct, no-nonsense and a little bit scary when you first meet him, but actually, he’s a sweetie who, at his tiny, slightly hidden-away restaurant, Osteria Tarantino, loves nothing more than feeding you generous portions of homemade pasta creations he’s dreamt up. This small family-owned restaurant hidden in a corner atop a flight of steps is almost always packed, and people without reservations get turned away. The food is the real McCoy. Antipasto and pasta are his specialities, with a few mouthwatering meat dishes (like, duck and bone marrow veal) thrown in. A purist, he doesn’t do takeaways because by the time you get home, his beautiful pasta will be ruined. Fair enough. A lovely touch is the hot bread on the table, and the creamy truffle sauce that comes with the arancini will make you want to lick the plate. I don’t think Enrico would mind. 076 505 1771

Munch on Black Magic 

Many Capetonians swear by Origin for the best coffee in town (and they really do take that brew very seriously) but by night this coffee/brunch/lunch spot transforms into Café Noir, an innovative restaurant with its kitchen in the hands of the inventive chef, Mongezi Mzoneli. Its rustic, warehouse-y feel doesn’t prepare you for the skilful re-invention of some of our favourite Saffa dishes, and you’ll be amazed at what Mongezi does with samp and beans, pap and chakalaka and the pork belly he marinates in his own lemon peel and ginger kombucha. But wait for the sweets: how about salted sweet potato ice cream or Durban-inspired coriander panna cotta with spicy pineapple and masala sorbet? 021 421 1000,

Susu Bubble Tea 

Think bubble tea is for kids? You haven’t sat down thirsty and been served a cup of cold, creamy, just-the-right-sweetness Taiwanese concoction of joy at (069 559 2506,). It’s like a milkshake for grown-ups with chewy bits made of tapioca (the popping ones are made from seaweed) that make you unreasonably happy. 069 559 2506,

Make Mischief

Misfits is full of ideas, and is adaptable to changing needs. A large, cordoned-off section could be your office or boardroom for the day; a golf simulator could be where you practice your swing and make deals, and a long, generous bar where you seal said deal with a whiskey. Sounds a bit like a gentleman’s club? It is, a bit, but it’s also a very nice, comfortable, bespoke-y sort of place to kick back with friends, pizza and a bottle of wine after work. Or salad or sushi — the menu covers all the bases. There are also wine-tasting evenings, gin and ice cream pairings and The Shop of Mischief for, well, mischief. 072 127 6332,

Feast on Fattoush

Don’t be put off by the neutral décor at Tagine: this restaurant’s kitchen delivers some of the most authentic Moroccan dishes you’ll eat outside of Marrakech. There is just one problem: how to decide between the signature tagine (lamb, seafood, preserved lemon chicken or cauliflower) or a series of small plates with such delectable morsels as the crispy pita chips served with smokey, rich matbucha (slow braised tomatoes, aubergine and red peppers steeped in extra virgin olive oil), the Moroccan lamb chops with green zhoug yoghurt and crispy onions and the fresh fattoush (layers of cabbage, radish, cucumber, red onions, tomato and hummus). And it would be a grave mistake to leave without trying the za’atar fried chicken wings which come with a chilli honey butter dipping sauce. The only solution is to go more than once. Service is friendly, unobtrusive and on the ball. 082 847 1030,

Find the Party

Its cool decor and indoor/outdoor layout lend themselves beautifully to long, warm evenings of cocktails and conversation: KONG is a sports bar-cum-gastro pub over two floors: downstairs is good for dinner; upstairs is where the party is at. There’s a pool table, a beer pong table and funky strobe lights, and a resident DJ takes the space from restaurant to nightclub. Their Asian-inspired, tapas-style menu goes very well with a cold draught and includes delicious crispy fried prawns, exotic mushroom skewers, fall-off-the-bone ribs and damn good chilli poppers. After supper, the music is cranked up and the dance floor heaves. This is definitely summer’s go-to jol. 021 286 2730 / 071 424 9998,

By Susan Hayden
Photographs by Claire Gunn
Illustration by Jess Nicholson

A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2023 print issue of Getaway

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