Restaurant Review: A Tavola not at the table, expensive and poor service


From reviews I had read about A Tavola (‘at the table’ in Italian), it seemed that I had missed a gem by not having eaten at this Italian eaterie in the Southern Suburbs.  After having eaten there earlier this week, I cannot see what they were raving about – the food was average and expensive, and the service was shocking!

I arrived after a tasting of Old Vines’ wines (the Baron von Holdt exceptional) at the home of mother-and-daughter winemakers Irina von Holdt and Fran Botha/Potgieter, at 9.30 pm.  I was not sure whether I would be welcome at that time, especially as the two persons sitting eating at a table nearest the door (turned out to be the manager and a staff member) made no attempt to acknowledge my arrival.  I carried on walking, and was greeted by a waitress, pointing at all the empty tables, to make my choice.

Mike came to present his services as the waiter, and handed me a laminated standard menu, another photocopied menu of “Specialities” (these were defined by him as being on a menu that changes regularly!), as well as a paper winelist (No Diner’s Club Winelist Award for this one).  The menu highlights the ‘rules and regulations’ of this establishment – one may not be there between 4 – 6 pm, nor after 11 pm.  Heaven help you if you are having a good time, and you loose track of time.  No menu ‘changes or variations to any dishes please’, the menu stipulates – all reflecting the Italian ‘flexibilty’ of this restaurant!  All food items on the menu are in Italian, with English descriptions.  Corkage costs R30.

The restaurant is quite large, and I am sure that they can accommodate about 100 guests per sitting, especially as they have outside tables too.   The kitchen is open-plan to the restaurant, with a counter that runs along most of the length of the restaurant.   The walls are a deep-red, with lots of glass doors, which must be ideal for summer dining.  The red colour scheme is carried across to the staff dress, who look smart in uniform red shirts and black pants.  The chairs are unattractive, and make a terrible noise when diners get up and move them on the dark floor tiles.   The tables looked like they were covered with good white table cloths, until I heard the staff scrubbing the plastic (I kid you not!) tablecloths right next to where I was still eating.  There is a tiny deli section as one enters, with Italian products.   Italian music was playing softly.   A holder with Olitalio olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a standard on each table.

I ordered Vitello ai Funghi e Vino Bianco from the Specialities menu, and was disappointed when the “marianted” veal scallops arrived at the table – my plate had more pasta than veal on it, the wine sauce making it look as if there was more meat.  The ‘wild mushrooms’ tasted as if they were out of a tin. The overriding taste was one of extreme saltiness, dominating the promised wine in the sauce.  The dish, with four small veal scallops, cost R115.  I did not think this to be good value.

I asked Mike if I could keep the paper copies of the menu, and he said he had to get permission for this.  I did not get a response to the request.  The same reply came to the request for a copy of the laminated menu.  No reply was received but the Manager Kurt Henderson brought it to the table, being proactive in giving me the new menu effective 2 September.  This was the only interaction I had with him, even though he could see me – no one was interested in how I enjoyed my meal, despite Mike seeing me making notes.  I felt that the manager had little control over his staff – the waiters were huddled in a group, chatting, and I had to request a menu for the dessert, and a bill – nothing came proactively.

I noticed that the prices between the menu of 1 September, and that of the new menu, had decreased for almost all the dishes at A Tavola, with the exception of those for the desserts.  I called the restaurant the following day, and owner GianCarlo Pironi’s ‘buon giorno’ was welcoming and friendly, very different to what I had experienced the evening before in his restaurant.  He confirmed that the price reductions will hold for the time to come, as their supplier of Italian foods has managed to negotiate good deals with their suppliers, and therefore they could reduce their food prices – compliments to the chef for passing this price benefit on to the A Tavola customers!

With the introduction of the new menu, it would appear that the Speciality menu will fall away, as some of the dishes on it have been added to the new menu.  Antipasti dishes have come down in price by around R10 a starter, and start at R42 for Zucchini Fritti, up to R76 for a platter of parma ham, salame, mortadella, coppa, grilled vegetables, olives, brushetta and tomato.  In the Insalata section prices have come down by up to R14 for the calamari salad.  Most salads cost R58.   In the Primi section the pasta dishes have not come down much, and sound expensive in starting from R64 for Penne Arrabiata, Penne Napoli and Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino, up to R92 for seafood pasta Linguine Marinara.   In the Secondi section prices have been reduced by R10, and now cost R 115 for almost all the dishes (mainly veal).  In the Dolci section desserts cost between R38 – R48, and the Tiramisu (an absolute weakness of mine) I ordered was most disappointing – I barely tasted the liqueur, and it seemed terribly dry, with little mascarpone cream.  I did like the chunky chocolate chips at the top of the dessert.  It tasted pre-prepared, without love.   A cheese platter for two costs R78 and gelato costs R38 (number of scoops not indicated).  The cappuccino came as a flat white instead of with froth, and when I questioned Mike about this, he said that this is the way it is made, take it or leave it!

The winelist offers Prosecco at R190, or local Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel at R165.  Food & Wine Guru Michael Olivier recommends Tierhoek Chenin Blanc on the winelist, at R140 a bottle and R46 per glass.  Other white wines include Haute Cabriere, Flagstone Viognier; De Grendel, Iona, and Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc; and Jordan Unoaked and Doolhoof Chardonnay, none more expensive that R165.   Red wines on the list range from Cederberg’s Cape Atlantic Merlot, at R115, to Morgenster Tosca blend at R245.  Five whites and five reds are offered by-the-glass.   Two Italian white and three red wines are offered, at under R 200 each. Certain wines have been crossed off the winelist – as it is a photocopy, it is unforgivable that the list was not revised and issued without corrections.  No vintages are specified nor are the wines described.  The winelist promises that the red wines are ‘cooled’ at 15 C, something I have never seen on a winelist before, but is commendable, says Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira.

When I paid for the meal in cash, R 30 more than the bill, I expected my change to be brought to the table.  I had to ask Mike to bring it to me, lest he thought that I was giving him an ueber-generous tip.   He came to the table sulking, and I asked him why he had not brought the change.  He then let rip at me, saying he had not expected a tip, as I had been ‘impossible’, ‘shutting him out’.  I explained to him that I had found his service to be absolutely reactive, and that he could not make an assumption about a tip, unless told to keep the change.   This was a bad note on which to leave the restaurant – Manager Kurt made no attempt to reprimand the waiter for his rudeness.

I won’t be back at A Tavola, given its rude staff (even though owner GianCarlo sounded really nice over the phone), its prices (even though they have reduced many of their menu items, off a high base), and average food.

POSTSCRIPT 11/4/13:  We received this e-mail today, clarifying that Giancarlo Pironi is not involved in the restaurant, and has not been for a long time: ‘I would like you to cancel the blog associating me with A Tavola restaurant in Claremont.  Yes is true that I started A Tavola Restaurant in december 2009 together with Kurt and David, but I left the partnership few months after the opening.  My Name is still used up to today by A Tavola, but now that I am about to begin a new venture in food I don’t want to confuse my future clients.  Thanking you in advance for your kind understanding I wish you all the best in the future.  Warm regards. Giancarlo Pironi’.

A Tavola, Shop 1, Library Square, Wilderness Road, Claremont (opposite Kingsbury Hospital, off Main Road).  Tel (021) 671-1763.  Lunches Monday – Friday 12h00 – 15h00, Dinners Monday – Saturday 18h00 – 22h00.  Closed on Sundays and public holidays.   On Mondays the pasta dishes in the Primi section of the menu cost half price.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio:

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12 replies on “Restaurant Review: A Tavola not at the table, expensive and poor service”

  1. Good Day,
    I’m writing in response to your recent blog/review of our restaurant a few nights ago. In this you will find a true, informed & educated view of our establishment which I’m very certain you would have received upon a small introduction of yourself & your intentions on your visit. Nevertheless you ‘gnashed your teeth’ throughout your evening at all our staff who found you incredibly rude, cold & disrespectful towards them.
    As a word of advice & as you are an ‘informed’ reviewer, perhaps consider to frequent the establishment when you have sufficient amount of time to get the true experience, rather than a rushed 45mins & ‘pick up sticks’ towards your version of the A Tavola ‘101’ user-sheet!

    A Tavola – Italian food, has been in existence for 18 months. We are restauranteurs originating from Jo’burg that have a home-felt passion in producing food (as done by our ancestors) authentic to the Italian way. We strive to create an environment ‘home away from home’ which is complimented by the open plan lay-out of this restaurant, showing our honesty & truthfulness in what we say we produce. We cook & work together from morning until night, like my Mama did for our family so many days of our lives.

    Yes we can accommodate approximately 100 guests, yes the walls are deep red in colour, yes there are many glass windows which keeps you in touch with the piazza, beautiful green trees & views of Table Mtn in the daytime, yes we have laminated menus with a daily insert of our ‘Specialities’ that are printed on paper & in black & white & yes we have a paper wine list – but when was I wishing to have my wine list ‘diners club’ accredited & when was I longing to be a Michelin star restaurant? Your tone is exceptionally derogatory & one sided with a preemptive view that all restaurants should be striving for these accolades. Chris, through your review, you put undue pressure on many of those restauranteurs wanting to do & enjoy an honest days’ work, for the love of what they are skilled in doing. You give the public a warped view that their much loved local eateries should only be this & only be that.Perhaps draw your attention to Assaggi, one of our former restaurants & you will see that it doesn’t need to be lavish in its furnishings to receive accolades.

    As we have been in operation for the past 16 months, our buying power has increased & after lengthy negotiations with our suppliers, we have managed to decrease our menu prices quite substantially. This has coincided with the launch of our new seasonal menu where we have passed on these discounts to our customers. We haven’t followed the norm of restaurants that generally increase their prices at this time of year.
    Our menu is informative & offers one a clear guildline towards the identity of what this restaurant offers. Our ‘Specialities’ menu will not be ‘falling away’ as that reflects the true seasonality of Italian cooking.

    We, you & I did speak the next day & as you will re-call (like any good owner/operator/manager.. whatever you want to call it) that I assured you I would address your alleged experience with all. Where you got my name to be Giancarlo, my partner in-fact, is what I can say to be another assumption on your part, after not asking me. So thank you for saying I sounded really nice.

    I’ve been informed by many credible people in this industry of you & that you’ve been banned from many restaurants because of your unjustifiable & uneducated takes on their establishments. But, Chris, I won’t be banning you. You’re welcome anytime. Though, if u’r rude to my staff & disrespect this extension of our dining room at home, you’ll be chartering on territory that will bite right back at you. I also believe that you’re an owner of a business yourself, Whale Cottage. After reading the many reviews on your establishment I’ll leave you with one thought….take the log out of your own eye so that you can see clearly before you take the speck out of others…

    Kurt Henderson (Manager/Owner)

  2. Dear Kurt (or is it alias ‘Gordon Cook’, who has been sending rude comments to my blog in the past, giving yourself away by e-mailing me the minute I left the restaurant!?)

    Thank you for making the time to respond. I am surprised that you should respond so personally, rudely and vitriolically, and be dishonest on top of that.

    You and I spoke two sentences on the evening, and I heard your normal South African English accent. I DID NOT speak to you on the phone the next day, as I have just tested your accent again through a telephone call – you cannot mimic Giancarlo’s genuine Italian, and it is he I spoke to.

    For all the attacks on my ability, or lack of, in your opinion, to write restaurant reviews, you seem to lose sight of the fact that a number of things were not up to standard during my visit (the salty food, the exceptionally poor and rude service from Mike the waiter, the cleaning next to me, the poor Tiramisu, the poor coffee, not receiving my change), to which you have not responded at all. There is not one apology in your reply!

    I may have arrived late, but was in no rush to leave. Your closing time is clearly stated as being 11pm on the menu, and I had two courses and a coffee in the period of an hour, an acceptable period to spend on a meal. I think it is your staff who were eager to go home, and wanted to rush serving me, so that they could clean up and go home.

    Of your three waiters, I only interacted with Mike for any length of time during the evening, and I was certainly annoyed that he had the cheek to want to keep my change as his tip. His rudeness to me is documented in the review, about which you did nothing that evening!

    I was clearly writing a review, as I requested copies of the menu, and had a note pad on the table. I also went up to the kitchen counter to take a photograph of the food, with you nearby. You did not ask me who I was or if you could provide any further information, other than proactively providing the new menu, which I acknowledged in my review. In fact, when I arrived, I looked at you eating at the table nearest the door, but you did not acknowledge my arrival as a new customer. You did not check on my satisfaction with the two dishes I had at all – you left the running of the restaurant to your staff, even though you were there.

    As for being banned from restaurants – I have been banned from Opal Lounge, and escorted out of Blonde Oskar Kotze’s Beluga, for no more sinister reason than a Review and a Sour Service Award, respectively. This is a reflection of the arrogance of these two restaurants, and of their inability to face up to customer feedback. I have exposed both restaurants for their short-sightedness in this regard.

    My review was about A Tavola, which I personally visited, ate at and paid for. I welcome any comments you may have about any of my guest houses when you have experienced them personally, and not on hearsay!

  3. I think Kurt would be better off concentrating on his restaurant than replying to reviewers. It does not matter that the reviewer doesn’t announce themselves, as a matter of fact no credible reviewer would tell the restaurant who they were unlike the Irish “newbie food critic” who I had the misfortune to see barging through a restaurant shouting to all and sundry that she was reviewing the restaurant for her blog, not paying for the meal and stuffing the remains of her wine into her handbag before waddling off, classy. It matters not a jot how long someone spent in the restaurant. My own experience (twice) at A Tavola was that the food was ok at best and I am being generous with that praise, very expensive for what you got and the decor was horrific, it was like an old folks home in Seapoint. If you want an example of a great Italian try Magic Aroma in Pinelands the decor there is also tired but boy o boy do they deliver on the plate. Chris, you do seem to rub people up the wrong way sometimes but I do respect you because your one of the only people who calls it like it is and I am also very aware of how many people get your newsletter and blog, more than Food24 and Eatout if my IT person informs me correctly. Restauranteurs need to get real, take reviews on the chin and up their game.

  4. Thanks for your support and compliments Saul.

    You aren’t referring to Clare “Mack” McKeon/McLoughlin of Spill Blog, are you – the one that Tony Jackman called the “Irishwoman with the gift of the gab” (I don’t think it was meant to be a compliment somehow, and did he mean ‘gift of the bag’ maybe, given your feedback?)? It appears that she ate at A Tavola the day after my review was posted, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my Review was discussed during her meal, and such discussion reflected in Kurt’s comments above.

  5. That is the lady in question, it was Maze that where she pocketed the wine, how tacky can you get ? She gives food writers a bad name, maybe she should go back into the beauty salon business, I hear she has quite the past/backround in her hometown in Ireland.

  6. A Tavola is totally over rated, and totally over priced, I would say your review was over generous towards the food.

    On the Irish misbehaving, eg : Clare Mack/McKeon/McLoughlin/Mcidon’treallycareassheisreallyannoyingandloud, I thought it was Australia that took in the crooks not SA, we have enough of our own !

  7. I went to A Tavola last night despite the write-up. The pasta and salad was delicious and tasted truly homemade. The waiter was fabulous…they were attentive and offered us drinks whenever our glasses emptied. The restaurant was packed and buzzing with happy people. I am just an average Capetonian who has eaten in most of the restaurants Chris has reported on. I travel a lot and find Cape Town restaurants of high quality and reasonable. A Tavola was lovely, I hope they do well and remain with us for a long time.

  8. Thank you for your feedback Anso. Great that you had a better evening than I had.


  9. Anso Thorn …… Lol. Clearly you happen to go on same blog . What are the chances. Def friend of Chris

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