I had read about the re-opening of Maria’s Greek Restaurant on Dunkley Square in the Property magazine, with a detailed description of the labour of love that owner Cleon Romano and his wife Kate put into the renovation of the building that was starting to show its age. I had the most wonderful evening on my visit two weeks ago, largely due to the friendliness and sharing of information by Cleon, and I could not help but think that Maria had returned to her original home, as a ‘reincarnated’ half-Greek Cleon.
Cleon’s Greek dad owned Romano Signs, and Cleon says his dad would have been proud of him opening a Greek restaurant, just a year after his dad passed away. Cleon’s chef mother Yvonne Romano, from the Mediterranean Kitchen, is currently running a Greek cookery course on Skiathos. Maria, the original owner of the restaurant, starting running a Greek deli from the property and had also lived there, as long ago as fifty years or more, but is said to have disappeared overnight in 1981. Cleon is only the fourth owner of the building, and bought it in 1994.
The work on a neighbouring property, in excavating it to create an underground garage, led to cracks in the Maria’s building, and Cleon had to close for three years to reinforce the building underneath the foundation, against the walls and across the ceilings, with the help of structural engineer, and an architect that had worked on the restoration of buildings in Tulbagh after the earthquake in 1969. The interior space has opened up, and doors can be opened in summer to allow the restaurant to spill out onto Dunkley Square. The colour scheme is earthy and wooden, and Cleon impressed with his environmental care, in his choice of wall decoration (a water-based sealer), the finish on the walls, the eco-sensitive floor paint, his wooden untreated brass-top tables, the chairs for which he made the seating himself, and biodegradable toilet paper. He proudly told me about his earthworm farm at his home, to transform his vegetable waste into compost.
Lighting is low, and interesting in being individual lamps with brass cup holders, which can be adjusted in height and in direction, the ones at Haiku having been Cleon’s inspiration. The tables have shell-shaped candle holders, but the flickering ‘candlelight’ is created by tiny LED lamps that are charged overnight. The ceiling is made in true Greek style with white painted reeds, over a blue ceiling. Upstairs is another room with its own bar counter, and each of the sections can seat about 30 guests. A gas heater stands inside and is switched on when it gets chilly. The kitchen is open to the restaurant. In honour of Maria, Cleon has kept two original green-painted doors near the bathroom. Greek music is played continuously, and gave a warm taverna atmosphere, with the restaurant filling up quickly, and the guests expressing their enjoyment to Cleon when they left.
Cleon and I did not stop chatting for the three hours that I was at the restaurant, and he sat down to share his passion for his restaurant and life in general with me. We connected in many different ways, including Camps Bay, having known his mother, Cleon being a restaurant designer, and in having operated in the hospitality industry for a number of years. Cleon was sweetly naive in his question as to whether he should have a website for the restaurant, and Twitter and blogging seemed foreign concepts to him. He also had not seen the recent review that JP Rossouw had written about the restaurant, so positive that Rossouw had written that he wanted to celebrate his birthday there. Maria’s had just listed Beaumont wines two days previously, Rossouw’s wife being the marketing manager of Beaumont.
The menu caused a bit of a problem when I arrived, as it is lengthy, but hung on a wall, and was very high up, so that it is hard to read, with its small writing. As I did not say that I was writing a review, the waitress could not understand why I could not wait to see an e-mail with the full list of menu options and their prices. Cleon solved the problem by bringing down a menu board from upstairs. He probably will have more boards in future. The winelist is also on a board and also hung on the wall, but contains fewer items and therefore was easier to read. The vintages of the wines are not listed, due to space constraints on the board, Cleon said. The wine is served in traditional Greek glass beakers. Nine white wines start from R25/R90 for Glen Carlou Tortoise Hill white blend, and peak at R 145 for De Morgenzon Chardonnay, and Tokara Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Graham Beck is the only sparkling wine served, both its Brut and Brut Rosé costing R160. Eikendal’s red costs R25/R95, and Glen Carlou’s Tortoise Hill 2008 red blend R35/R130. Beaumont Raoul costs R105, and Mooiplaas Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 R180.
The menu contains mainly mezze items, such as roasted almonds (R15); hummus and tzatziki (R25); mucer (a Turkish courgette fritter at R35); dolmades (R30); tiropitakia and spanakopita (R35); keftethes, and fried halloumi (R40). Main courses are vegetable (R55) and lamb moussaka (R70), Patagonian calamari (R65), slow roasted Greek lamb (R135), and hake in beer batter (R70). I had the delicious lightly fried halloumi, pita bread and a wonderfully creamy tzatziki with dill, followed by the grilled calamari, served with a small Greek salad and chips, the calamari being too oily. A separate menu board on the opposite wall listed specials, being calamari stuffed with feta, chilli, rocket and lemon zest (R55), West Coast mussels in a cream sauce (R40/R70), and pasta of the day, which was salmon and créme fraîche (R80) that day. The lamb comes from a butcher at the Neighbourgood Market at the Old Biscuit Mill, and Cleon says that they like to support “the small guys.” The mezze bowls were made by Cleon and Kate at a pottery studio in Hout Bay. Kate is the chef, working with a dedicated team.
I felt absolutely at home at Maria’s, having been a very frequent visitor to Paros and Mykonos for ten years, and also a regular supporter of Maria’s many years ago. I liked the customer responsiveness, in that the restaurant will open on Saturdays for lunch from now on, because I and another group of customers had come from the City Bowl Market on Hope Street to eat at Maria’s, but found it closed for lunch. Cleon and Kate are charming and friendly, and the service was attentive. I loved Cleon’s philosophy of rather having quality than quantity in his guests, and seemed to be in no rush to market the restaurant. I will be back.
Maria’s Greek Restaurant, 31 Barnett Street, Dunkley Square, Gardens. Tel (021) 461-3333. No website. Monday – Saturday lunch and dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage