Forget the wilted roses and cheesy card. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and few are the women who won’t go weak at the knees for an intimate dinner. Leigh Robertson and Andrea Nagel trawl town and country for SA’s most romantic restaurants.
You’re not alone if the very thought of Valentine’s Day makes you feel nauseous. The cheesy Hallmark cards, the shiny balloons destined to spend eternity in a landfill, the extortionate mark-ups on a bunch of roses… And is that Barry Manilow or, worse, Celine Dion playing in the background?
Romance represents big bucks for retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs, and the marketing onslaught begins straight after the Christmas decorations have come down. You might sigh at the insincerity of it all but, frankly, if you’re attached, it’s hard to get away from it. When “love is in the air”, as John Paul Young sang in the ’70s disco hit of the same name, even the more cynical would do well to make a little effort.
A spontaneous picnic is one way to do it, but try telling your honey how much you adore her while rubbing the sand from your eyes and holding down your flyaway chip and dip. Sometimes a decent restaurant meal is called for, freeing you up to gaze into each other’s eyes while a flurry of staff tend to your comforts. While some dining spots might merely jump on the bandwagon, offering the usual set menu with a complimentary glass of pink “champagne” or sugary-sweet rosé, there are some that promise the same superbly romantic experience all year round. From the traditional to the exotic, here are the restaurants bound to raise the love of your life’s heart rate.
River Place, No 18 R511, Hennops River, Gauteng. Tel 0860 748 377. Open for lunch Tues-Sun and dinner Tues-Sat.
THE MOOD:Style is something this charming Italian has in droves. Set on a river bank with views of the Magaliesberg, it’s sophisticated and subtly beautiful, and about as romantic as it gets. To get there, you walk down a hill, past stone buildings that could be straight out of Italy, and onto the wooden deck with its whiteclothed tables.
THE FOOD: This is traditional Italian fare – delicious but unpretentious – and you can choose a three- or a four-course menu. The Pesce a Acqua Pazza (fresh fish fillet) is a good choice while the Vitello con Feta e Spinaci (rolled veal fillet with feta and spinach in Marsala sauce) is cooked just the way your imaginary Italian mama would make it. And do order tiramisu for two…
THE DRINK: The well-stocked cellar holds a wonderful selection of local and Italian wines. There’s also a wide choice of MCCs and Champagnes, because what would a sparkling riverside setting be without a glass of bubbly in hand?
THE ECG FACTOR: Star-gazing evenings start with sundowners and snacks, followed by an astronomy presentation and dinner. Guaranteed to get a “yes” out of just about anyone, regardless of the question…
THE SONG: It should be Italian and all about amore. Go large with Sergio Franchi’s version of “O Sole Mio”.
24 Napier Street, Green Point, Cape Town. Tel 021 419 2501Open for dinner Mon-Sat.
THE MOOD: Middle Eastern mystique with real and trompe l’oeil carpets draped on earthy-toned walls, and souk-like service counters bearing gargantuan wooden trays of meze. Voluminous yet intimate with rich finishes and ambient lighting, all that’s missing is the silvery Bosporus outside.
THE FOOD: Intriguing Turkish meze dishes include ambrosial dips, creamy marinated leeks and spicy lamb meatballs with walnut sauce, all served with piping hot flatbread and meant to be shared (and provocatively nibbled with fingers, needless to say…). While the fragrant lamb dishes might tempt you, don’t even think of having a main course if you don’t want to feel like an over-stuffed sultan; rather, trade spoonfuls of syrupy baklava and libido-rousing, cardamom- or rosewaterinfused desserts.
THE DRINK: Get into the mood with a Turkish Rose
Martini, made with rose petal essence and cranberry
juice. A well-considered winelist offers plenty of choices,
including some good Shiraz, a worthy match to the robust
flavours of the food.
THE ECG FACTOR: Book a candlelit corner table and
let the sensual ambiance and exotic tastes take hold.
THE SONG: Turkish harem music for belly dancing
might seem appropriate. Or stir erotic feelings further
with Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.
The Westcliff, 67 Jan Smuts Avenue, Westcliff, Johannesburg. Tel 011 481 6000. Open for lunch and dinner Mon-Sun.
THE MOOD: It’s impossible to feel cynical when exposed to the candlelit surrounds, shimmering city views and excellent food and drink at this grand hotel, one of Jozi’s classiest landmarks (and appropriately pink-hued too). The intrigue begins on being whisked up the cobbled hill to the restaurant by golf cart, and surely needn’t end until at least the following day…
THE FOOD: An à la carte menu featuring “elegant international cuisine” offers something to tickle even fussy fancies, with classic fare such as braised rack of lamb, East Coast sole and springbok loin all faultlessly prepared. Or go with the more exciting dégustation menus.
THE DRINK: One of the trump cards here is the superlative winelist. Forget flashy cocktails and go straight to Champagne, ending off with a Jenneau Grand Armagnac VSOP. Or make a real impression on her (or him) and order a Remy Martin Louis XIII.
THE ECG FACTOR: Panoramic views over the Johannesburg Zoo add excitement to an already idyllic setting. Enjoy them again with breakfast in bed when you throw open the windows of your suite the following morning…
THE SONG: A full-on romantic experience like this demands a larger-than-life classic. Think Barry White’s “My First, My Last, My Everything”.
Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate, Spaanschemat River Road, Constantia, Cape Town. Tel 021 794 2390. Open for lunch and dinner Mon-Sun.
THE MOOD: French country sophistication abounds, both inside and in the pretty courtyard with its tables circling a fountain. Lunch offers the best experience of the enchanting setting but by night it’s all intimate, candlelit charm.
THE FOOD: The award-winning cuisine of executive chef Luke Dale-Roberts will melt the iciest heart, whether you opt for the Transcending Seasons gourmand menu (five or seven courses) or go with the à la carte blackboard menu, written in French but effortlessly translated by waiting staff. Try the layered poached crab, gravadlax and quails eggs with avocado and coriander purée, followed by venison loin served with pan-fried foie gras, peach and lavender jus and smoked snoek crema. And there can be few desserts sexier than warm chocolate fondant stuffed with white chocolate, dates and pine nuts. A five-course Valentine’s Day menu comes with a complimentary glass of Champagne.
THE DRINK: The excellent list boasts wines from the Constantia valley and beyond. There are some fine Champagne choices in keeping with the French flavour, but a good local MCC, including Constantia Uitsig’s own, should also do the trick.
THE ECG FACTOR: Take a stroll through the duckpatrolled vineyards. Better yet, stay the night, with brunch at the River Café the next morning.
THE SONG: “La Vie en Rose” – either the original by chanteuse Edith Piaf or the sexy ’70s cover by Grace Jones – because there’s nothing twee about La Colombe.
Le Franschhoek Hotel & Spa, 22 Minor Road, Franschhoek. Tel 021 876 8900. Open for lunch Tues-Sun, and dinner Thurs-Sat.
THE MOOD: Book a private “greenhouse” for two in the prettiest orchard setting with sweeping mountain views. Neat gravel pathways are lined with rose bushes in full bloom, with the occasional loveseat in the shade of a pear tree. Chandeliers add sparkle, while rose petals strewn across distressed white wooden tables are charmingly sentimental. On Valentine’s Day and anniversaries, you’ll also find long-stemmed roses.
THE FOOD: The à la carte menu offers “classic international cuisine with a modern twist”. Dishes to inspire amorous thoughts include a froth-topped lobster cappuccino, ostrich carpaccio with wasabi mayo and grilled linefish sitting sexily on a striking red shallot fish velouté. Or get your fingers sticky with King Tiger prawns and leave space for the Cherries Jubilee, hopefully with stalks intact to practise untying those knots…
THE DRINK: The unashamedly romantic setting demands bubbly, preferably of the rosé variety, and lots of it! Luckily the winelist offers a good selection of Champagnes as well as MCCs from Franschhoek producers.
THE ECG FACTOR:Book a suite for the night and start the following day with his ‘n hers aromatherapy massages at the sumptuously appointed Camelot Spa.
THE SONG: On special occasions, it’s violins all the way, courtesy of attractive female artistes serenading diners.
160 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg. Tel 011 447 6244. Open for dinner Tues-Sat.
THE MOOD: A luxurious den of iniquity that’s decadently over-the-top, with black Baccarat chandeliers, oversized gold-framed mirrors reflecting period paintings that hang from the ceiling, deep-coloured velvet drapings and Persian rugs.
THE FOOD: Executive chef Bruno Beurel, who hails from Alsace, has done time in some of the finest Paris restaurants. Impress your paramour with delicacies like home-made paté de foie gras. But don’t order the French onion soup, as delicious as it is; not a good idea if you’re looking forward to some after-dinner action. Instead, go for coquilles St Jacques (scallops) or the fabulously indulgent confit duck, which is tender yet crisp.
THE DRINK: Louis XVI encourages the enjoyment of the most delightful bubbles to come out of France, with an extravagant selection of Champagne as well as local and fine French still wines.
THE ECG FACTOR: It’s all about having fun here, starting with the waiters who wear period-perfect costumes with white wigs à la the court of Versailles, but with gold sneakers. If the bubbles put you in the mood, dance the rest of the night away at equally glamorous clubs Moloko or Latinova next door.
THE SONG: Something unapologetically naughty would go down well; most tracks from the Hotel Costes
series by Stephane Pompougnac, for example.
Forum Homini Boutique Hotel, Letamo Game Reserve, Kromdraai Road, Kromdraai, Krugersdorp. Tel 011 668 7000. Open for lunch Sun-Fri and dinner Mon-Sun.
THE MOOD: The Cradle of Humankind is where it all began, so where better to make a little history of your own? The magical setting, looking out across the plains and over a dam, is best enjoyed by day. Doors on three sides let in the spirit of the African countryside. On Sundays, a jazz band adds even more ambience.
THE FOOD: Renowned as one of Gauteng’s top finedining restaurants, the menu changes daily courtesy of innovative food maestro Philippe Wagenfuhrer. Tastes and flavours are combined to seduce any palate, mostly with an Asian or African influence, and so beautifully presented that you may have a problem concentrating on your date.
THE DRINK: There’s a wonderful winelist with an optional service of course-matched wines called “teasers” to complement each dish.
THE ECG FACTOR: The five-star location, food and drink should up your own approval ratings considerably. After lunch or dinner, savour the African bush together before booking into a suite for the night.
THE SONG: Miriam Makeba’s love song to Africa would complement this setting perfectly.
Glen Road, Kloofnek, Camps Bay, Cape Town. Tel 021 438 4347. Open for lunch Tues-Sun and dinner Tues-Sat.
THE MOOD: Set in relative seclusion amid a forest on the slopes of Kloofnek, with awe-inspiring views of mountains behind and beach below, the former hunting lodge of Lord Charles Somerset is an ideal spot for an intimate liaison. Request a window table in the stylish Afro-colonial Somerset Room to take it all in (when you’re not gazing into each other’s eyes, that is).
THE FOOD: What better to fuel (or should that be cool?) the passions in the sweltering Cape February than the clean, fresh flavours of chef PJ Vadas’s summer menu, artfully presented and paired with reserve wines. Choose from three, four or five delicately sized courses, making sure to include the prettily pink chilled watermelon consommé with pickled summer melon and Parma ham.
THE DRINK: A knockout winelist offers a good selection by the glass (including excellent Champagnes). Helpful headings instruct as to which local wines are Right or Left Bank Bordeauxstyle blends, or go for the real thing if your partner’s likely to be impressed by the French label or price tag.
THE ECG FACTOR: A terraced garden with green lawns invites post-prandial
languishing with shoes off, and perhaps another bottle of bubbly.
THE SONG: While the unmistakeable elegance of it all suggests a restrained Sinatra classic, Joe Cocker’s “Up Where We Belong” also seems fitting.
Ambassador Hotel, 34 Victoria Road, Bantry Bay, Cape Town. Tel 021 439 7258. Open for lunch and dinner Mon-Sun.
THE MOOD: Dramatic ocean vistas don’t get much better, especially as this is no casual beach shack. Modern and glamorous, you’ll probably want to dress the part. A table at the floor-to-ceiling windows, which open to the sea air and the sound of waves crashing onto the rocks below, is bound to score favours with your honey. But even the other tables, with their crisp, white napery and shell-shaped tea light candleholders, feel special.
THE FOOD: The delicious contemporary fare on this seasonal menu features evocative Spanish, Moorish, Asian and African flavours. You might start off with your own prawn and water chestnut wontons or fragrant steamed mussels, but soon you’ll be exchanging tastes of each other’s Tandoori roast quail with mango curry and coriander cumin yoghurt, and squid tempura with ouzo mayonnaise. Not to mention desserts like frozen tiramisu and grappa panacotta with strawberries.
THE DRINK: Start off with a Salt Sunset cocktail at the bar before moving on to something from the very thoughtful winelist, exceptional in that everything is available by the glass.
THE ECG FACTOR: What could be more romantic than the sun dipping into the Atlantic over a bottle of bubbly?
THE SONG: Despite the setting, a splash-out dinner like this calls for Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” rather than Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks”.
Zimbali Lodge, Umhlali, KwaZulu-Natal, Tel 032 538 1007
THE MOOD: Some things are intrinsically romantic, like sunsets and sunrises, palm trees and deserted beaches, candles and lanterns. Zimbali Lodge offers all of the above, and in the right quantities. For old-school colonial dining at its best, sit inside at a candlelit table near the grand piano but close enough to an open window to gaze at the distant ocean in the moonlight.
THE FOOD: The menu is extensive and changes daily, but special mention must go to the curries, lamb, chicken, vegetable or prawn, served in copper dishes and at the right temperature to melt her heart (or light her fire).
THE DRINK: Before dinner, indulge in a cocktail at the wickedly “White Mischief” Trophy Bar.
THE ECG FACTOR: Zimbali is the Zulu word for “Valley of the Flowers” and the view from the pool deck at sunset when the subtropical sky turns a deep purple is surely reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s first experience of paradise.
THE SONG: It’s not easy to find a song that matches this heady mix of Indian, Balinese and African influences. But Tarkan’s Turkish hit “Kiss Kiss” might suit this exotic scene.
THE BEST OF THE REST
In the Cape Quiet Italian: Chef Ristorante Italiano, Green Point, Tel 021 419 6767
Intimate Japanese: Kyoto Garden, Tamboerskloof, Tel 021 422 2001
Vineyards & Views: Mange Tout, Mont Rochelle Hotel, Franschhoek, Tel 021 876 2770
Dress for Dinner: Myoga, Vineyard Hotel & Spa, Newlands, Tel 021 657 4545
Dine & Dance: Pigalle, Green Point, Tel 021 421 4848 5-
Star Fine Diner: Rust en Vrede, Rust en Vrede Wine Estate, Stellenbosch, Tel 021 881 3881
Retro Romance: Top of the Ritz, The Ritz Hotel, Sea Point, Tel 021 439 6988
In Gauteng Seductive Greek: Filakia, Sandown, Tel 011 783 5805
Classical Elegance: The Fairlawns, Morningside Manor, Tel 011 804 2540
Dine with the Stars: Hedwig’s & the Observatory, Aloe Ridge Hotel, Muldersdrift, Tel 011 957 2070
Timeless Charm: Linger Longer, Wierda Valley, Tel 011 884 0465
Exotic Treat: Restaurant Mosaic, Orient Hotel, Crocodile River Valley, Tel 012 371 1190
In KZN Moody Sea Views: Bel Punto, Umdloti, Tel 031 568 2407
Grand Gourmet: Hartford House, Mooi River, Tel 033 263 2713
Fabulous French: Ile Maurice, Umhlanga, Tel 031 561 7609
Cool Colonial: Lynton Hall, Pennington, Tel 039 975 3122
Photograph courtesy of Salt