It was on a visit to Birds’ Café about three months ago that I noticed the papered-up space two doors away, and heard from Birds’ Café that a restaurant was to open.  I was lucky to meet Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room owner Lyndall Maunder, who has worked with David Higgs and George Jardine, was ex-Superette chef, and has been an avid visitor of the USA, in the about-to-be renovated restaurant space, which previously housed a motorcycle repair shop.  An unbelievable renovation relative to what the space looked like before has created a buzzing and busy American-style hamburger joint on Bree Street, named after Lyndall’s mother’s maiden name.

The restaurant is L-shaped, one entering into a front section with a massive metal-top counter at which one can sit on wooden bar stools and see the three chefs prepare the dishes in rapid succession, and the waitron staff prepare the drinks.  Lamps are industrial, funky globes unhidden by any lampshade.  One non-descript artwork is too small to make any impact on the large wall, and there is a photograph of the motorcycle mechanics at the entrance.  Plants in terracotta pots line the shelves, even in front of the windows of a back section, adding a green touch to an otherwise white interior. On Saturday over lunchtime there was only space available at the counter, and Lyndall had her hands full in preparing all the food with her two assistants, one of them Chef Marcel, not stopping for one minute, not even having time to greet any customers or at least nod in recognition.  The busy restaurant is an amazing feat for a city which is quiet on weekend days, and which only really got going a week ago, having closed over the festive days after its early December opening, as business in the city centre was so quiet.  Sebastian was the most communicative staff member I spoke to, but appeared to know very little about his boss and the motivation for her American-themed diner, not even being able to obtain this information from his boss!  The rest of the restaurant has tile-topped tables with wooden chairs.  A paper serviette and Fortis cutlery is pre-set at the tables and on the counter, with bottles of Heinz ketchup, salt cellars, and pepper grinders.

Not American at all is the concept of a ‘Stammtisch’, a German tradition of regular guests having their ‘own’ table, with their name on it, which one can be requested to vacate if the Stammgäste arrive, the menu explains, and requests one not to be offended if this should happen.

As I sat down Sebastian brought a glass of water, without knowing me or asking for it, probably an American touch.   The menu is a very simple laminated white sheet, which is easy and cheap to update, even having a space for specials to be written onto it.  Unfortunately there are a number of typing errors on the menu. On Wednesdays – Fridays the menu says that the restaurant stays open until ‘late’, which could be as late as 2h00, Sebastian told me, depending on demand.  The customer profile to date is a mix of  businessmen from nearby, coming in for the all-day breakfast or lunch, or they are ‘poppies coming to be seen’, he said.  From the menu one can see that Lyndall is a no-nonsense type of lady, with every menu category having serving times specified, e.g. Breakfasts are served until 17h00, salads and sandwiches from 11h00 – 17h00,  burgers and sides from 11h00 until late, wine and beer are served from 10h00 until they close, and hot and cold drinks are served throughout the day and night.  The menu also has a ‘note on Clarke’s’, explaining ‘you may pick up from our menu that we’ve got a thing for that lump of land across the pond called the US of A – what with burgers, cheese fries, Reubens, Cobb Salad…They may have cursed us with the atrocities of fast food but the humble beginnings of their cuisine certainly wasn’t ill-intended and they have some cool, tasty as hell stuff that’s a lot of fun. If you do it right and with great produce you can end up having the greatest meal you ever ate’.   The suppliers are named, being Bill Riley Meats’ free-range beef, burger buns come from Trevor Daly in Worcester, coffee comes from Deluxe (supplying the machine as well as a full-time barista), breads come from the Bread Company in Muizenberg, Juicebox supply the juices, and from The Creamery comes a selection of four artisanal ice creams.  In my experience on Saturday, the last sentence in the welcome and introduction was not evident at Clarke’s: “We love being here and we love having you, so please enjoy your time with us and visit again soon”.  I popped in to say hello at Bird’s Café afterwards, and the warm welcome from Chef Leigh Trout was a delight, compared to what I had experienced at Clarke’s.

Breakfast options include a Fruit Cup, and raisin and pecan nut bread with maple butter, costing R20 – R25. Cooked breakfasts range from R40 – R55, and one can order scrambled egg with sausage, mushrooms and a muffin; eggs, bacon, sausage and mushrooms; hashed browns with poached eggs, asparagus and hollandaise; Huevos Rancheros, being refried beans, eggs, and avocado; omelette stuffed with spinach, smoked aubergine and goat’s cheese; and French Toast, sounding absolutely indulgent in consisting of a Nutella and banana-stuffed croissant with bacon, fruit, crème fraiche, bacon, and caramel Turtles, and Mrs Butterworth’s syrup. Sandwiches cost R25 – R45, and include grilled cheese, a pulled pork sub, ‘chicken parm’ sandwich (with tomato ragout and  Colby cheddar), a Reuben (brisket, braised cabbage, Emmental, blue cheese dressing), and a pressed vegetable sandwich.  For brunch one can have a Caesar or Cobb salad, smoked tomato soup, and macaroni and cheese, costing around R 40. I never eat hamburgers, but decided to order one as I believe this to be the essence of Clarke’s.  One can order any type of burger, as long as it is a Cheeseburger or Veggie Burger, at R50, with extra for bacon and fries.  The Cheeseburger was served in a big toasted bun, in a papered green plastic basket, with a tiny portion of pickled cucumber and onion relish on the side.  I missed a slice of tomato and gherkin.  The patty was prepared rare-ish, and one is not asked how one would like it. While one knows that the meat quality is excellent, it seemed expensive for what one got (without chips). For dessert one can order a ‘sweet pie’ of the day, or three scoops of The Creamery ice cream, from a choice of peanut butter, natural, cardamom, and coffee, at R35.  No cappuccino is specified on the beverage list, and probably the American equivalent is the Flat White, at R16.

Beer is served in quarts at R28, or at R16 – R20 for Corona, Savanna, Hunter’s Dry, Amstel, Windhoek, Black Label, and Tafel beer.  Surprising is that there is no craft beer, given the restaurant’s proximity to AndUnion.  The wine selection is disappointingly small for a ‘Bar’, with four options (no vintages specified), but at least each is available by the glass, for Groote Post Old Man’s Blend, Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc, Springfield Life from Stone, and Fat Bastard Shiraz, in a range of R 25/R95 – R 40/R150.

Clarke’s is a great new addition for the city centre for a drink, a bite to eat, or a coffee, given its excellent opening hours and easy-to-park convenience after hours and on weekends.  Owner Lyndall can be a caring person, as experienced at Superette, but needs to let go as chef and take on the role of owner, to connect with her customers, so that she can build relationships with them, to ensure that they return.

Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room, 133 Bree Street, Cape Town. Tel (021) 424-7648. www.clarkesdining.co.za Twitter: @ClarkesDining.  Monday – Tuesday 7h00 – 18h00, Wednesday – Friday 7h00 – late, Saturday 8h00 – 15h00.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage