By Johan Liebenberg
Photography C&D Heierli
Like many cities in the world, Cape Town, too, is divided in two. The border between uptown and downtown Cape Town is roughly Adderley Street. Uptown is the more affluent area, and includes the Waterfront, Sea Point, Clifton and Camps Bay, among others. These restaurants, with their fashionable clientele, resemble tear-out pages from fashion magazines. The women are invariably gorgeous, the men good looking. As they stroll along the boulevards, alighting from expensive, shiny cars, you’d swear they don’t have a care in the world. But at times this smoothness and endless sophistication can cause one to long for ordinary things. That’s when you head downtown. Because in downtown Cape Town, things are different.
Up from the Castle, one of the first things you’ll notice is the area is run down. Here people are just standing outside bars, leaning against walls, gazing at the world through jaundiced eyes. First you get Harrington Street, which a few years ago hosted a strip club called “The Cage”, which was closed after a drug bust. Canterbury Street, which runs parallel, borders more or less on where the old District Six used to be. And this is where—on the corner of Canterbury and Caledon Street—you’ll find the Dias Tavern. A Portuguese restaurant much loved by those who have been there. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but as you step into the vestibule on the ground floor, you’ll find a blackboard announcing live music over weekends and warning patrons that booking is essential. This is well advised.
On any day, during peak hours, you’ll be hard pressed to find an empty table. Even the chairs along the bar are occupied by a mixture of blue-collar workers, businessmen, and those wanting a drink and a decent meal at an affordable price. On the wall is pinned a sign stating a R70 minimum cover charge on meals during peak times. In a nod to the waitresses and waiters, a 10 per cent service fee is automatically charged for tables of six people or more.
Speaking of waitresses: they’re probably not beauty pageant material; but if, on a rainy night, you were feeling blue and told them your life story—they would listen, and they might even put an arm around you and be a friend for the evening. They have good hearts, these waitresses. They speak with a noticeable Cape accent, while the men, tall and black and from Angola—one of the two former colonies of Portugal—address you in soft, lilting Portuguese. If you were to ask them to recommend a dish on the menu, they would, without fail, recommend its most famous dish, the Espetada—very tender cubed rump steak on a skewer. It is served with chips below where they can catch all the delicious drippings. Should this not be your thing (it is the dish they are famous for), they might express surprise, but would recommend, instead, chicken or prawns piri-piri, or the fish of the day. “The fish is good,” they’ll say. And so are the mandatory Portuguese sardines.
If you haven’t been to the Dias before, you might find yourself wondering what the fuss is all about. Its strong point is definitely not its décor—tabletops are Formica, and there are plastic chairs. The ceilings are festooned with dozens of little national flags from various countries. Towards the end of the room there is a small stage where at night a one-man band performs songs from the eighties. Sometimes people get onto the dance floor and dance—langarm stuff.
So what, you wonder, is the secret of its success?
Jose Pereira, the co-owner and the ‘face’ of the Dias Tavern, offers me a broad grin when I ask him. He leans forward conspiratorially as, almost in a whisper, he imparts to me the secret of the success of the Dias Tavern: “It’s the Trinchado sauce,” he says. It’s a kind of Holy Grail of sauces, an end in itself, a transcendental experience. He leads me further into its mysteries.
“I don’t make it here,” he says. “I mix the spices at home—away from prying eyes [he chuckles]—then I bring it and finish it off here. Gallons of the stuff.” On the menu it states you can order extra for R20 and a 750ml bottle to take with you for R70.
Jose Pereira arrived with his mother, father and siblings from Madeira in 1966 as a teenager but soon ran away from school, to the dismay of his parents. He went to work in Roodebloem Fisheries, as it was then called, in Woodstock, and then in another fish shop. He became a bit of a drifter. He worked in a diamond business in Salt River polishing diamonds until the place had to close down because of some ‘funny business’. This was followed by a stint at the Vasco da Gama, another popular Portuguese bar in Alfred Street. He left, doing this and that, until finally he started the Dias Tavern with two partners, Dan Faiaf and Jose Hilario. They also owned the Fiesta nightclub, nearby.
“You see,” Jose goes on, “when we started the Dias in 1988, four hundred years after Dias arrived at the Cape in 1588 … we served pizzas and pizzas … and people came. Then, I started to make my Trinchado sauce and then nobody wanted pizzas anymore. But they wanted the Trinchado.”
“So what kinds of people come here?” I ask. According to Jose a lot of Angolans, white and black, because it’s one of the few Portuguese eateries around. As well as businesspeople and people such as Garth le Roux (ex-WP and Proteas fast bowler), François Pienaar (ex-captain of the Springbok rugby team) and Graeme Smith, captain of the Proteas test team.
Of lesser importance, at least to Jose, is that Sir Ian McKellen and his cast used to come here every night after their performance at the Fugard Theatre, just around the corner. That was when they were putting on Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys. They all came here for the Steak Espetada with, of course, the Trinchado sauce.
I mention I cannot recall a single day I’ve been here that Jose wasn’t present, overseeing things, directing a waitress to a table needing service, pointing out little imperfections to his staff here and there.
“I have been working without a break for five years,” he says. “Now, very soon, I am going on a cruise on the Opera. I will be going to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Malaga, Barcelona, Genoa…”
He looks wistful, or as close to wistful as is possible for him. A luxury boat cruise—after running away from school and starting out life by working in a fish shop. Not bad.
As I’m leaving, one of the waitresses, having just answered the phone, turns to another waitress and asks casually, oh-so-casually, “That was Bobby Skinstad. Is his usual table available?”