In an ever-changing restaurant scene where new establishments’ innovative chefs are constantly pushing culinary boundaries, Richard Holmes pays tribute to three classic Stellenbosch eateries that have thrived across the decades.
Family favourite: Delheim
It’s hard to imagine today, but it wasn’t too long ago that estates across the Cape Wine- lands offered wine tastings and little else. A peek in the cellar, perhaps, if the winemaker was around. But a fine lunch and a charming table to enjoy a bottle of the estate’s finest? Forget it.
In December 1976, that all changed when Michael ‘Spatz’ Sperling – also a co-founder of the Stellenbosch Wine Route – and his wife Vera made a bold move: to offer food to visitors on the family estate, Delheim.
“We weren’t allowed to call it a restaurant because it didn’t have proper bathrooms or a tiled kitchen,” recalls Nora Sperling, Michael’s daughter, who today runs the estate with her brother Victor. “Until the early 1990s we traded with a hawker’s licence, so we had to prepare the food off-site.”
Their licence also barred the sale of Delheim wine in the so-called restaurant. “So people simply bought their wine at the cellar and we then swopped it for a cold bottle!” she continues. After 15 years the licensing changed and the first kitchen was opened, evolving the offering from simple farm platters to a generous menu of country cooking.
“We’ve always wanted to simply do good farm food and still today we don’t try and do anything fancy,” adds Nora.
It might not be fancy, but it’s certainly delicious. Delheim’s signature seed bread has long been a crowd favourite, especially when served with the farm’s homemade snoek pâté. And the menu here is pleasingly predictable. The Cape Malay chicken curry – delicately spiced and served with basmati rice, hand-rolled roti and sambals – is another standout. As is the lamb shank, slow-cooked and plated with crushed baby potatoes, baby carrots and a perfectly reduced jus that is infused with the estate’s Merlot. Dessert? The mascarpone cheesecake is another dish that loyal locals won’t let them take off the menu.
Unlike so many wine estates that have developed their restaurants into architectural masterpieces staffed by celebrity chefs and a large brigade in the kitchen, Delheim has kept its restaurant deliberately low-key. It remains a simple space of brick floors and riempie chairs, where family photographs grace the walls. There’s a wood-burning stove for those days when the rain sweeps up the Simonsberg, but in summer the wide terrace offers the best seats in the house. From beneath the shady boughs of a towering jacaranda tree, the views of distant Table Mountain, framed by the lush estate gardens, are nothing short of remarkable.
Local flavours: De Volkskombuis
Stellenbosch is a town fiercely proud of its heritage, yet equally able to adapt to the zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the time’. And De Volkskombuis is a perfect example of that flexibility, showcasing contemporary cuisine and traditional plates in a beautifully restored heritage space.
The oldest buildings in the complex that today houses De Volkskombuis date back to 1902, when they were constructed as workers’ cottages on the farm Vredenburg. In 1968 the property was acquired by Historical Homes to be run as a restaurant and by the mid-1970s De Volkskombuis was firmly established as one of the most popular restaurants in town. But restaurants tend to come and go and by 2016 the buildings – where so many first dates, proposals and anniversaries were celebrated – had been shuttered for some time.
In 2016 the Rupert family stepped in to resurrect one of the most celebrated restaurants in Stellenbosch, purchasing the property and undertaking a full restoration of the buildings. Today it is a glorious space, evocative of the past while exuding a contemporary charm. In the main dining room the yellowwood ceilings and floors, by master craftsman Pierre Cronje, imbue the space with a rich sense of local heritage. For groups that prefer quieter surroundings, two private dining rooms bookend the main room, both offering private fireplaces and a lounge.
But in summer the best tables are surely those set out on the stoep or on the terrace shaded by towering oak trees. Seated at either, you’ll find the hustle of town is perfectly drowned out by the rushing Eerste River that runs just beyond the restaurant’s lawns.
Over the years the menu has equally evolved for the contemporary diner, without forgetting the past. Regulars will be happy to know that classic dishes such as Meraai se hoenderpie and Koekie se kerrie bredie are still going strong, but alongside these boerekos plates is a menu of unfussy bistro-style cuisine that whisks together local flavours and international inspiration. Think traditional lamb ribs served with a rocket and mint salsa or a fresh garden salad given a South African biltong twist. Main courses? They run from apricot-glazed pork belly to generous prime cuts of beef. The wines? Almost entirely from Stellenbosch, of course, except for a few cellars with a connection to the owners.
And if you need one more sign that De Volkskombuis has embraced the zeitgeist, look no further than the chickpea curry, served with tofu and vegan yoghurt. From the decor to the menu, make no mistake: De Volkskombuis keeps moving with the spirit of the times.
Italian classic: Decameron
If the walls of Decameron restaurant could talk, they’d surely have a few tales to tell. And perhaps that’s only fitting. The restaurant is named after Il Decameron, a collection of short stories written in the 14th century by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. In the book, 10 people flee the plague and escape to a villa outside Florence. Here they spend 10 days trading tales that range from the tragic to the titillating. It is considered a masterpiece of Italian literature. And, on a bustling evening in Mario Ladu’s restaurant, it’s not hard to imagine tales being swopped across the tables.
Decameron opened in 1987 when Mario decided to swap a career in winery engineering for the restaurant trade. His formula of old-school hospitality and authentic Italian cooking was a hit and the restaurant was soon playing host to a passing parade of the town’s business luminaries. For decades it has been where captains of industry and savvy financiers meet to talk, network and toast a sealed deal.
In fact, Decameron might be home to the most famous corner table in the Cape. It’s a simple seat, hemmed in by banquettes and surrounded by the Renaissance-style art that graces much of the walls. It’s here, at this humble table, that Stellenbosch business stalwart Anton Rupert loved to dine. Midweek for business deals, Sundays for family lunches alongside his wife and children. For generations of Eikestad locals it is a space of family memories, from first dates and engagement dinners to graduation celebrations and funeral wakes.
But that nostalgia and loyalty rest squarely on the exceptional food that has kept locals – and tourists – coming back year after year, decade after decade. Mario puts Decameron’s enduring popularity down to “enthusiasm and lots of hard work”, alongside a passion for sourcing quality ingredients. “In all the years I’ve never sold anything that I don’t like. It’s all my design and all my doing.”
Aside from the prices, the menu has changed little in the past 35 years and regulars still swear by the signature plates. Mushrooms al Forno, baked with garlic butter, mozzarella and Parmesan. Sirloin Tagliata, done ‘Italian style’ in a searing hot pan, then sliced and served on a bed of rocket. Of course, there’s an extensive pasta menu and wood-fired pizzas too, but the simple Italian plates are the best. The carpaccio – of fresh fish or matured sir- loin – is Mario’s current favourite.
“We have tried to take some other dishes off the menu, but the regulars just won’t let us. And so,” he says with a sigh of resignation, “they are back.”
And, no doubt, they’re there to stay.