I have loved the Grand Café and Rooms from the time it opened in Plettenberg Bay four years ago, and I stayed in it whilst I was having the building renovated that has become my Whale Cottage Plettenberg Bay. It has had its ups and downs over this period, but seems to have lost its edge since it was taken over by new owner Sue Main, and who subsequently added the Camps Bay and Granger Bay branches in Cape Town. We were most disappointed with our last visit a week ago.
But to start at the beginning of The Grand Café and Rooms. Enterprising entrepreneur (Homework clothing) Gail Behr opened this unusual pink-painted 8-bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant in Plett. It was at the time that I travelled to Plett once a month to oversee the renovations to what was to become our newest guest house. The Grand became my home from home for a year of travelling, and I was well looked after by the friendly staff, including Steven, Sydney, Robert and Eric. The room decor is unusual, extravagant in its use of red velvet, extra-ordinarily high beds with bedside stools, and generous baths. But it was the Café part of The Grand that we loved especially, and the music collection played boldly throughout the day via an iPod compiled by Behr’s son Steven Whiteman was amazing – Mozart for breakfast, opera for late morning, light jazz during the day, Sinatra for the early evening, more jazz at night. It gave the restaurant the most wonderful atmosphere at any time of the day, and a character which I have never experienced before. To add to the charm created by the music is the Café deck, with a wonderful view over the Plett lagoon, from which one can see amazing moon rises. In early days The Grand was a meeting point of all Behr’s friends from Cape Town, Johannesburg and other corners of the world. It took a long time to meet Gail, and I was quite intimated by her initially, given quite a stern sounding set of house rules. But she was much nicer than the rules made her sound when we did finally meet.
All good things come to an end, and Behr decided to move into the hotel, and only use the top four rooms for guests, and she lived downstairs. The Café was no longer open to the public, falling into Behr’s private space, and guests were served a very restricted breakfast relative to what we were used to, in a non-view courtyard. The building was painted white, and it lost its charm. Then The Grand Café and Rooms was sold to Main, who built on the success of this brand to open first in Camps Bay (buying the building for about R40 million), and then The Grand on the Beach a year ago. It was odd to see The Grand crockery in other restaurants, such as Nguni, before it was sold to Main. One welcome change Main made was to have the building repainted its landmark pinky colour. Admirably she changed little about the decor, which also reflects Behr’s initial lush red velvet look. Main even used Adam Whiteman, another Behr son, who is an interior decorator, to decorate the Camps Bay restaurant.
One comfortable thing about The Grand Café is that its menu has not changed much over the four years, and that the prices seem to have largely remained the same too. The first problem we encountered with the nice branded maroon menu folder is that the starter and main course/dessert pages were swopped around in it. The menu does not resemble the A3 “newspaper” feel of those in the Cape Town restaurants. Our order was taken, before we were asked if we had been told about the specials by Sybil, who seemed to be in charge and who has been at The Grand from the time it opened. She sent another waiter, but he too struggled to tell us the specials, which will be on the new menu introduced this week, but that had been available to order for the past week already. Before we could not even reconsider our order, given the specials, our food was served!
The tempura prawn starter (R70) is absolutely mouthwatering, and is a signature dish. None of the other The Grand branches can prepare it like the Plett branch can, Camps Bay using shrimps which just do not match the wonderful Plett prawns. The slice of Caesar has also been a standard, costing R60 for the iceberg served with bacon, croutons and parmesan, and R80 with chicken added. The Waldorf salad costs R 55; tuna (R45) and vegetable (R35) spring rolls; salmon naan (R 75); and calamari rings cost R40 as a starter and R65 as a main. One of the problems with a menu is that restaurants take them away when one has placed the order. Only when leaving did I recheck the menu, and realise that our served calamari (crumbed calamari tubes) were not as described on the menu at all – they were not “tender” nor “rings”! Mussels and chips cost R 75, a prego roll R60/R65 for beef chicken/beef fillet. There are only five main courses, including fish and chips (R70); line fish (R95); fillet “Bernaise” (R115); and Durban lamb curry (R115), which my colleagues ordered, with super poppadoms, basmati rice and sambals of yoghurt, bananas, tomato and cucumber, and chutney. Desserts have not changed in five years, being Afagato (R35), Phina Afagato (R45), and Cake of the day (R34).
The new menu was e-mailed to me, and a new addition is pizzas, ranging in price from R70 for the Grand “Margerita” to the blockbuster Grand Seafood Pizza at R220! Sugared Salmon (R100), an old standard, is back. Oysters and cold crayfish (both SQ) have been added as starters.
The winelist has a small selection of wines per variety, but vintages are not specified. The (unspecified) house wines are offered in white, Rosé, red, sparkling, and sparkling Rosé, ranging from R35 per glass/R195 per bottle. Suzette Champagne costs R150 for 375 ml. Sparkling wines cost R 220 for Steenberg 1682, “Pierre Jordaan (sic) Belle Rose NV” R275, and Bramon Brut R265, a local Plettenberg Bay bubbly. Billecart-Salmon Rose costs R900, Moet & Chandon R800 and Dom Perignon R 2800. Sauvignon Blancs range from R95 for Glenwood, to R180 for Springfield Life from Stone. Kevin Arnold Shiraz costs R340.
The Grand Café bubble has burst in Plettenberg Bay. While it is commendable to see it still operating, given how depressed Plettenberg Bay is, the service was shocking, a regular complaint about The Grand on the Beach, but for all the wrong reasons – there were only three of four tables eating in total, and both waiters were very new and poorly trained, and one of them came with attitude too. Our calamari served was completely different to what the menu described. The trademark magical music is gone. Sadly, The Grand Café in Plettenberg Bay is no longer grand!
The Grand Café and Rooms, 27 Main Road, Plettenberg Bay. Tel (044) 533-3301. www.thegrand.co.za (the website is minimalist, quite contrary to the lush interiors, and is shared across the three Grand restaurants. Surprisingly, no menu, winelist, nor any food photographs are in the Gallery of any of the three website sections). Open for lunch and dinner Monday – Sunday for the season.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com