As South Africans, we want to enjoy ourselves as much as possible when we are able to take a break, especially when we do decide to eat out. Many South Africans are incredibly discerning when it comes to the restaurants they choose to frequent, and it is vital that the experience lives up to our expectations. This is particularly true during the winter season, when restaurants see an uptake in traffic due to our preference to stay indoors against the chill.
According to Pellie Grobler, Head Chef of the acclaimed Pretoria based five-star restaurant The Black Bamboo, there are some basic factors to look out for when seeking out the perfect restaurant during the chilly seasons, which could potentially mean the difference between a dismal or a divine winter evening out.
“Eating out is definitely a treat for most of us, and since many of us have to limit the costs of luxuries like restaurants, the simple fact is that people expect to see real value for their money when they choose to a restaurant – whether upmarket or casual,” says Chef Pellie. “The overall experience needs to live up to expectations. If it doesn’t, people are unlikely to visit the establishment again,” he continues. “These factors are particularly true when dining out on winter. People want a comfortable environment where they can relax and enjoy a cosy yet sophisticated setting.”
“A high standard and quality of the food is obviously the first consideration when choosing a restaurant,” advices Chef Pellie. “Make sure you check out the menu before making a reservation – is it seasonal, and are the dishes suited to the cold weather?” Substantial, savoury, nutritious and wholesome meals are preferable during winter, but Chef Pellie insists that there is no reason why they should not still be world-class in their design, taste and presentation. “South Africans have uniquely mixed and adventurous palettes which celebrate variety, while still appreciating the traditional and accessible flavours that we grew up with. If you are dining with guests, check that there are a suitable variety of options to cater to different preferences.” According to Chef Pellie, some of the most popular winter crowd-pleasers offered at The Black Bamboo include Tempura Mussels, slow-roasted Pork Neck and the sumptuous Valrhona Chocolate Fondant.
Atmosphere is another crucial factor when eating out at a restaurant in winter. “Variables that contribute to the comfort and ambience of a restaurant include the size of a space, furnishings, lighting, temperature and music,” Chef Pellie advises. “Are the seats comfortable, and is the room well appointed? A variety of textures and shapes in the furnishings, as well a mixture of shades in warm and natural tones, complimented with a few interesting highlight colours and interest areas, will contribute to creating a relaxed ant comfortable environment.” Chef Pellie explains that while too heavy and dark furnishings can create too sombre and dark an atmosphere, on the other hand large, high-ceilinged spaces and cool tones can create a cold and cavernous environment. “The trick for restaurants is to strike the aesthetic ‘goldilocks-zone’ balance between fresh simplicity and warm invitingness.”
In terms of lighting, Chef Pellie advises guests to avoid restaurants with harsh fluorescent strip lighting, or indeed too little lighting. “The illumination of a space can make a remarkable impact on the atmosphere, and a soft yellow tone of light is always preferable.” Chef Pellie adds that many people find it frustrating trying to eat in a dimly-lit room, so it is also important that there is a sufficient level of light spread throughout the seating area. “The light from gas lamps and candles can also significantly improve the warmth and quality of light in a room,” he continues. “And of course, nothing quite beats the combination of merry lighting and warmth that a large crackling log fire adds to a room on a cold winter evening. A working fireplace most definitely adds to the desirability of a restaurant in winter.”
Another important consideration recommended by Chef Pellie is the restaurant’s wine, spirits and general drinks list. “To most discerning diners, the wine list forms a vital part of the offerings at a restaurant, and I would recommend guests have a look to make sure the list of drinks on offer are suitable, and that there are winter-warmer options available as well, such as hot drinks and after dinner liqueurs.”
Another crucial benefit a restaurant can offer guests during winter in underground parking, which means diners are able to avoid any walking through bitterly cold streets or parking lots in the evening. “It is quite rare for stand-alone, reputable restaurants to offer protected and covered parking to their guests, and we’ve certainly seen ours act as an important benefit at The Black Bamboo,” says Chef Pellie. “Parking also falls into the ever-important arena of accessibility, along with factors like location and easy highway access.”
For the ultimate winter-time treat, Chef Pellie recommends choosing a world-class restaurant that is close to or connected with an equally sumptuous hotel or lodge. “Being located inside the five-star Menlyn Boutique Hotel, we often see dinner guests going the extra mile and treating themselves and their guests to our luxurious accommodation for the evening as well,” says Chef Pellie. “This is not only a delightful way to finish off an evening, but is also quite convenient for those who would prefer not to drive home late at night after dinner.”