The Don gets saucy

Don Pedro’s was one of the few establishments one could go to for a late-night drink and a bite — after the theatre, after the actors got out, after the musicians finished playing. It was one of a handful of places that made all races feel comfortable — before apartheid ended officially, before equality was legalised.

It was one of those eateries where you drank beer from the bottle and almost everyone smoked. Chairs and tables were white plastic and sticky. There was certainly no Gorgonzola, pear and honey salad.

But this Cape Town favourite with the left, non-governmental organisation workers, performers and Woodstock locals — although practically an institution — was crumbling.

A series of “Save Don Pedro’s” nights failed.

“When we get involved with a place it is essentially gone,” says Richard Griffin, the man behind the Madame Zingara brand and under whose sway Don Pedro’s now falls. “I went to a multiracial school. We grew up in a sheltered environment … then the reality struck, we couldn’t go anywhere — Don Pedro’s was the only place you could go with a coloured friend.”

But taking over a business that has so much emotional history is a complex matter. In Woodstock it all too easily smacks of gentrification. “This was hardcore. We got tons of flack,” says Griffin.

In his defence, his group spent time in the community forums and worked with artists from Chamberlain Street.

The Zingara group specialises in turning around restaurants that are almost institutions, but that for some or other reason start failing. The Zingara style had its naissance in 1994, in a cosy place that used to be at the top of Long Street, Serendipity. Even then, the entrance and the floors were scattered with rose petals. It lasted about 11 months before changing into Griffin’s in Castle Street. Then that building was sold, much to the disappointment of many of us in Cape Town.

In 2001, after years overseas, Griffin opened the enchantingly bohemian Madame Zingara in Loop Street, where he perfected his style. It quickly became a vibrant city spot, always bright with whimsy and bursting with life. It burnt out, literally, in 2006. But the Zingara brand rose from the ashes.

First, the camp mayhem of the Bombay Bicycle Club. Griffin has a continuing love affair with India and its endless cycles of rebirth. The place is ear-splittingly noisy for some of us.

Much like his establishments, Griffin was something of a feral child. He never finished school. He left home at 16; hid out at Café Mozart, which, 20-odd years later, he now controls.

Then came Café Paradiso. Griffin knew the place right back to its heyday with Mapula Swanepoel, the daughter of legendary writer and foodie Madeleine van Biljon.

As this critic can attest, Paradiso went through several owners’ hands in recent years, each worse than the previous.

The farm-stall feel in the heart of the city has been brought back and a bakery placed inside. It is once more thriving. Now rebranded as Don Pedro and All His Beautiful Wives the old Woodstock haunt has also been given the eclectic Zingara treatment; scarlet walls, purple fabric, lots of candles and tons of witty tsatskes. The idea seems to be to create a homely feel circa 1960.

There is a baby grand piano and, often, jazz in the evenings.

A hallmark of Zingara success is precisely its theatricality. Griffin has always understood that a restaurant is a theatre production. Not only the décor, vibe and service (“we’re not posh but we give a shit”), it carries through to the food too; here the avocado ritz is served with a Barbie doll hugging the coupe stem.

Prices have been kept very reasonable: under R50 for starters and many mains about R80, not to mention litre carafes of wine for R50.

The menu and the generous portions are nostalgic for the 1970s — the classic pink prawn cocktail, garlic snails and, for dessert, ice cream and chocolate sauce.

The menu is weighted towards poultry — sesame and soya glazed duck livers, duck dumplings, balsamic chicken, penne con pollo, chicken risotto, crispy duck a l’orange.

The Madame is running a two-for-the-price-of-one special on the duck and some signature dishes.

Oven-roasted beef fillet is a firm favourite, served with mushrooms and a cranberry, port and rosemary jus.

The makeover has certainly broadened its appeal and the old faithful seem to be returning — that is, if they can get in; the place has been busy.

Cape Town’s new liquor laws, however, will soon end the Don as a late-night host. The old Don Pedro’s would never have survived that.

Madame Zingara’s restaurants:

Bombay Bicycle Club, 158 Kloof Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 423 6805.

Café Paradiso, 110 Kloof Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 423 8653.

Café Mozart, 37 Church Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 3774.

Don Pedro and All His Beautiful Wives, 113 Roodebloem Road, Woodstock. Tel: 021 447 6152.

Sidewalk Café, 33 Derry Street, Vredehoek. Tel: 021 461 2839

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