Travel and Leisure
A View of Kalk Bay
There’s a particular table in a particular corner of a particular Kalk Bay restaurant that teaches you a lot about Cape Town – what it was, what it is, and what it yet may be.The restaurant is Live Bait, one of the growing stable of restaurants owned (or, as it turns out, co-owned) by Michael Townsend. It occupies the first floor of a building rising from the rocks and the breakwater of Kalk Bay harbour, and it is about as dramatically situated as a restaurant could be; arguably, only the Harbour House directly upstairs – Live Bait’s somewhat more sophisticated sibling, the jewel in Townsend’s crown as it were – commands more impressive views.
From this particular table, you can look east and south out across False Bay: an idyllic, azure expanse on calm days, or a moody, elemental presence when the waves rise and the clouds roll in. Either way, it’s a vista that stops you, mid-mouthful, again and again. Alternatively, you can look north and west, into the harbour itself.
The colourful boats at bay; the promenade and the lighthouse; the trains passing by ... Kalk Bay’s harbour, seen from afar or from above, is one of those places that lends itself to lazy descriptions such as “picturesque”. But up close, this working harbour demands the use of other senses that counteract the easy cliché.
There’s the whiff of diesel and the salty pong of seafood offal. There’s the shouting of fishermen and -women offloading a catch, their easy banter and occasional quarrelling, offset by the clank of metal striking metal and the squelch of blades gutting fish.
Admittedly, this visceral component of harbour activity is very much in the background at Live Bait. It’s not going to put you off your crayfish, yellowtail and calamari platter – best eaten with liberal squeezes of lemon juice, garlic butter sauce and a bit of chilli zing. Or if sushi’s your thing, there are the tuna tenaka, prawn maki and chunky sashimi, straight off the boat that shares its name with the restaurant (the good ship Live Bait sails out into False Bay daily). And by the time the seafood is done, and you’re tucking into the dark chocolate terrine – layered mousse, meringue and soft almond biscuit, served with fudge sauce – you may have forgotten entirely about the world beyond your palate.
But I have a vivid recollection of drinking a glass of Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir, waiting for my main course to arrive and observing a gruesome tug-of-war between seagulls bickering over some innards. My hedonistic, indulgent reverie – the kind you experience when you’ve had enough to eat and drink by the time the starters are cleared, but damned if you’re going to stop now – came to an abrupt end. Here was a thought-provoking preparation for the shellfish evisceration I was about to undertake. In the same way, eating “on the harbour” is a useful reminder of both the human sweat and the animal suffering (to use a loaded word) that make our omnivorous diets possible.
Now this may seem like a terribly bourgeois reflection and, indeed, it is. Being aware of your privilege is, after all, the annoying preserve of the privileged. But the point is that there seems to be a healthy balance of leisure and labour in Kalk Bay. To put it another way, the dynamics of race and class along the northern end of the False Bay peninsula (Muizenberg is another good example, St James perhaps less so) are different to those discernible elsewhere in Cape Town – in fact, the accusation typically leveled at Capetonians is that the city’s categories of race and class are static rather than dynamic.
It is often claimed that Kalk Bay managed to escape some of the more severe aspects of apartheid insofar as its residents sidestepped the Group Areas Act. Certainly, the coloured community there was not subject to the same kind of forced removal seen across South Africa in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But that’s not to say Kalk Bay is free of the chief legacy of apartheid and of the racial segregation that preceded it – economic disparity.
Even before Cecil John Rhodes arrived, well-to-do denizens of the Cape had been constructing holiday houses along this stretch of coastline. Tourism, rather than fishing or limekilns, became the dominant source of revenue. Nowadays Kalk Bay is known for its antique shops and fashion boutiques, and words like “luxury” and “refinement”, along with the boho-chic so resented in Capetonians by those who live upcountry, are readily on display.
Still, it’s impossible not to like that sense of style, the eclectic tastes of locals and visitors alike, the cosy village lifestyle and the spectacular setting between mountain and sea. And you do feel that a history of black and white cohabitation, as well as seaside cosmopolitanism – British and Filipino and Dutch lived cheek by jowl, just as today there are many immigrants from Francophone Africa – has forged a feeling of reciprocity among residents.
That “village spirit” has been tested over the last couple of years as the process of upgrading the single road running through Kalk Bay has resulted in heavy traffic delays and noise pollution, deterring many day-visitors. This, compounding the general recessionary conditions, caused a number of businesses to close.
Townsend’s portfolio, by contrast, has expanded – testament, no doubt, to the principle of diversification. A second Harbour House restaurant opened at the V&A Waterfront in late 2011, followed by the cheap’n’cheerful Mexican take-away El Hombre Loco. Back in Kalk Bay, the restaurant-cum-cocktail-lounge Polana has become a well-established evening venue, with a menu that is more oriented towards meat-eaters (and where most patrons who stay beyond a certain hour end up on the dance floor).
Then there’s Sirocco, which offers all-day dining au terrace alongside the Kalk Bay train station. Think of gratinated croissants with gypsy ham, emmenthal, rocket and roasted red pepper pesto. Think of omelettes with black mushrooms and Danish feta, or with bacon, brie and bellarosa tomatoes. Think of mint, grapefruit and lemon stirred into caraffes of ice-cold water to help you nurse that hangover from Polana the night before!
Sirocco’s open-fronted premises were substantially renovated in 2012; the giant palm tree in the centre of the deck is now offset by a glass-and-wood pavilion designed by Thomas Leach and a long bar built from floorboards salvaged from the old Majestic Hotel down the road. It’s clearly a place to see and be seen, and yet it lacks the pretentiousness of so many Cape Town summer haunts.
Perhaps a more important business principle than diversification is that much-abused but all-important word: sustainability. A few years ago, Townsend collaborated with local fishing families to establish the Kalk Bay Waterfront Development Company, which facilitates direct investment in the harbour building and infrastructure along with share options in his restaurants.
Those who catch the fish also own part of the final product, whether that is tempura prawn at the Harbour House (a signature dish, served with a tomato, avocado and aubergine stack) or hake’n’chips at the Lucky Fish takeaway (no vegetable tian here, just sachets of salt and vinegar). Now that’s the kind of partnership that Cape Town needs more of – just like every other South African city.
The FM bolsters its feature articles with a "7 Questions" supplement. I asked Ann Donald, owner of Kalk Bay Books and former magazine editor, to tell me about her experience.
1. When was Kalk Bay Books established, and why?
We opened in November 2006. It had always been a dream of mine to run a bookstore, so when the opportunity presented itself I held my nose and dived in.
2. What is the role of independent bookstores?
To keep the practice of book-reading alive – especially books that would otherwise disappear because they are not for the mass market.
3. Has Kalk Bay changed much since you’ve been here?
It has retained its individuality, with a strong collection of independent shops. There are now more restaurants, which is good on one level, but if people use their disposable income on eating out, other purchases become considered as “luxury items” (which is bad for the shops).
4. How has the business community been effected by the road upgrade?
There has been little “movement” or development; most business owners have been in survival mode, and a few shops have had to close. It will be interesting to see things picks up now, despite the general economic downturn.
5. Tell us about The Annex restaurant next door to Kalk Bay Books?
I bought The Annex as it seemed a natural extension to the bookshop. But I’m not a restaurateur, and I wanted it to grow in the way that it could, so I have sold it. December and January were bumper months for the new owner!
6. Do you have revenue streams outside of book sales?
We host regular events, for which we charge a small fee – talks by writers, interviews and so on. Next week we have mapmaker Peter Slingsby in conversation with author Tim Butcher.
7. Other upcoming events in February?
We are launching Hlumelo Biko’s book The Great African Society on the 21st and the debut novel by journalist Claire Robertson, The Spiral House, on the 26th.