Stellenbosch has always been top of the pops as far as its wine selection and quality goes (i.e. wines winning awards), but has played poor cousin to Franschhoek for many years when it comes to its restaurant status, that is until recently, when the Eat Out Top 10 restaurant list included more Top 10 restaurants in Stellenbosch (Rust en Vrede, Overture and Terroir) than in Franschhoek (The Tasting Room and The Restaurant at Grande Provence).  Stellenbosch has always been the best marketed collective wine region, and was the first to introduce the Wine Route concept, which has been adopted by most wine-growing regions now.

My visit to Stellenbosch last week, to experience recently opened restaurants, confirmed my view that Stellenbosch by rights now should be called the Gourmet Capital of South Africa, not only due to the Eat Out Top 10 listings, but also in terms of the newer restaurants bubbling under.  I believe that the tourism authority should be ahead of the game, and introduce a Restaurant Route for Stellenbosch, given the wealth of its creative and gourmet talent.   It is easy to see that opening good quality restaurants on wine estates is a growing trend in Stellenbosch, and is good for business, as Werner Els told me at Haskell Vineyards, its Long Table restaurant leading to wine sales from restaurant patrons.

My recommendation for the Stellenbosch Restaurant Route is the following, based on own experience and recommendations.  It is not comprehensive.  I have added links to the restaurant listings that I have reviewed, and reviews of the newer restaurants will be published shortly.

Rust en Vrede - probably the best restaurant in the town currently, a slick operation, run by modest but talented chef David Higgs, on the Rust en Vrede wine estate.  Featured on the Eat Out Top 10 list 2009 and 2010, number 74 on 50 Best Restaurants in the World 2010 list, and Top vineyard restaurant of 2010 Great Wine Capitals in the World - read the review here.  Tel (021) 881-3881  CHEF DAVID HIGGS LEFT THE RESTAURANT ON 25 JUNE, NOW WORKING AT RADISSON’S BLU GAUTRAIN HOTEL IN JOHANNESBURG. 

*   Overture – Chef Bertus Basson is a hard-working re-inventor of his menu and operation, always looking to improve his complete package.   On the Eat Out Top 10 restaurant list for 2009 and 2010.  Fantastic views from the location on the Hidden Valley wine estate – read the review here.  Tel (021) 880-2721

*   Terroir does nothing for me, I must admit, and therefore I do not understand that it is a perennial on the Eat Out Top 10 list (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 – the Terroir website does not list the awards after 2006, so some awards may have been left out!).  I have been there a number of times, and have not been excited about its menu, restaurant interior, and service.  The outside seating on the De Kleine Zalze wine and golf estate is great for a warm day.  Tel (021) 880-8167

*   Restaurant Christophe - Die Skuinshuis is the setting for this exceptional restaurant, Chef Christophe Dehosse being the hands-on owner and chef, who talks to his customers in his charming French accent, a rare treat in restaurants.  The foie gras, served with toasted brioche, is to die for – read the review here.  Tel. (021) 886-8763. THE RESTAURANT CLOSED DOWN ON 24 JUNE.

*   Delaire at Delaire Graff -  no money was spared in building and decorating this restaurant and winery building, and it houses a most impressive art collection.   Chef Christian Campbell is doing outstanding work, and his crayfish lasagne is exceptional.  Turnover of staff has reduced the quality of service  - read our latest review     Tel (021) 885-8160

*   Indochine at Delaire Graff – this is the newest Stellenbosch restaurant, and is relatively less opulent in its interior design compared to its sister restaurant.   Young chef Jonathan Heath is a star to watch, and his Asian fusion menu is sure to attract the attention of the Eat Out Top 10 judges.   He explains the menu, and the dishes when he serves them personally.  The two course special at R225 sounds expensive, but it does not reflect the amuse bouche, sorbet and sweet treats (with cappuccino) one receives at no extra charge.  The Tikka Duck Marsala starter is excellent -  read our review.  Tel (021) 885-8160

Restaurant at Majeka House -the restaurant is overshadowed by the Boutique Hotel in terms of its branding, and is not known to most foodlovers, a hidden gem in Paradyskloof, a suburb opposite the Stellenbosch Golf Course.   Its young Chef Anri Diener trained at Tokara and Delaire, and is a rising star, presenting exciting French cuisine.  The Millefeuille of chocolate mousse served with coffee meringue bars is to die for – Read the review.  Tel (021) 880-1512

*   Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine -  a mouthful of a brand name but also a mouthful in value and excellent quality, a far cry from Jardine, which he co-owns in Cape Town, but rarely still cooks at.  It is set at the end of a long road, on the Jordan wine estate, overlooks a big pond and the beautiful Stellenbosch mountains in the far distance, teeming with birdlife.  Interior functional, as in Cape Town.  Most beautiful and unique ”bread” plate ever seen.   Read the review.  Tel (021) 881-3612

*   The Long Table Restaurant and Cafe - set at the end of a long road up a hill, above Rust en Vrede, on the Haskell Vineyards (marketers of Haskell and Dombeya wines), the food of Chef Corli Els is a wonderful surprise.  The restaurant interior and waiter service do not match the excellence of her food or the quality of the Haskell wines. The Papaya and Avo salad stands out as one of the special treats I enjoyed last week.   Read the Review.  Tel (021) 881-3746

*   The Big Easy - set on Dorp Street with some parking, and owned by Ernie Els and Johan Rupert, the restaurant is large, but divided into different rooms, allowing private functions.  Average food, below average service generally.  Sweet Service Award.  tel (021) 887-3462

*   Warwick wine estate – owner Mike Ratcliffe is a good marketer, and his gourmet picnics, designed by Chef Bruce Robertson, and prepared by their chef Bruce, are a great hit in summer.  Winter warmer foods available too – read the picnic review here.  Tel (021) 884-3144

*   Nook Eatery - has been operating for a year, and has developed a reputation for good value, healthy (organic where possible) and wholesome food.  Restaurant location in ‘League of Glory’ TV series, and next door to Restaurant Christophe.  Good value buffet lunch, Wednesday pizza evenings, and sweet treats throughout the day.  Hands-on owners Luke and passionate Chef Jess do not open the Eatery if they are not there themselves.  Read the review here.  tel (021) 887-7703  

*   Tokara DeliCATessen – has a buffet lunch too, very large restaurant space combined with a deli, but service poor and food quality average – read the review here.   Tel (021) 808-5950

*   Eight at Spier – the menu was designed by Judy Badenhorst, ex-River Cafe, and now running the Casa Labia Cafe in Muizenberg.  Have not read much about it, and not experienced yet.   Tel (021) 809-1188

*   Melissa’s on Dorp Street – a perennial favourite, with a limited menu and standardised across all the branches.  Fresh and wholesome foods, service not always great.  Sour Service Award Tel (021) 887-0000

Wild Peacock Food Emporium on Piet Retief Street (ex Okasie) – this is the newest eatery to open, belongs to Sue Baker and is managed by ex-Rust en Vrede front of house manager and daughter Sarah, selling deli items, a range of cold meats, imported French and local cheese, fresh breads, and has a sit-down menu as well.    Review to follow.  Tel 082 697 0870

*   Mila, The Cake Shop- this must be the tiniest eatery interior in Stellenbosch, next door to The Big Easy, but it is crammed full of the most delectable cakes and pastries.  Service not great when sitting outside.  Review to follow.  Tel 074 354 2142.

*   Cupcake - serves a range of cupcakes, but not as wide a variety as one would expect.  Good sandwiches and cappuccino, pretty square with water feature in which to sit.  No review written.  Tel (021) 886-6376

*   Umami - set in the Black Horse Centre on Dorp Street, this restaurant had not wowed me, but serves satisfactory lunches and dinners.   No review written, and I rarely hear anyone talk about it.  Tel (021) 887-5204

*   Wijnhuis - located on Andringa Street, in the vicinity of tourism outlets.  Given its name, it should be very popular in this town, and given the connection to its namesake in Newlands, and its parental link to La Perla, it should offer a lot better food quality and service than it does.  Not reviewed, and would not recommend.  Tel (021) 887-5844

  Pane E Vino - this food and wine bar is hidden to those who do not come to Bosman’s Crossing.  Owned by Elena Dalla Cia, husband George and father-in-law Giorgio do wine and grappa tastings in the restaurant too.  Good Italian fare. Not reviewed yet.  Tel (021) 883-8312 

*   Cafe Dijon - French-style bistro on Plein Street.  One experience not satisfactory due to owner not being there.  Rated by JP Rossouw of Rossouw’s Restaurants.  Tel (021) 886-7023

*   Bodega @Dornier - I have not been to this restaurant on the Dornier wine estate, and have not read any reviews yet.  Tel (021) 880-0557

*   Cuvee Restaurant, Simonsig – Interesting Cape Dutch modernist interior curation by Neil Stemmet. Excellent quality food, Simonsig wines, napery, cutlery, tableware, stemware, and service.  Read the Review Tel (021) 888-4932

*   De Oude Bank Bakkerij, Church Street – newly opened, opposite Vida e Caffe, this artisan bakery and cafe allows one to order from a list of cold meats, cheese and preserves what one wants to eat with the breads they sell.  Read the review.  Tel (021) 883- 2188  

*   Tokara - Etienne Bonthuys has left Tokara, and Richard Carstens is said to be stepping in his shoes, when his contract with Chez d’Or in Franschhoek finishes in September (he left in July already). Tokara denied that Carstens is taking over the restaurant lease.   It has now (30/7) been confirmed that Jardine’s Wilhelm Kuehn is taking over Tokara, and that Richard Carstens will be the Executive Chef.  Opened on 19/10.  Read the review. Tel (021) 808-5959.

*   Towerbosch Earth Kitchen on the Knorhoek wine estate. Lovely fairy-like setting, fantastic Boerekos feast served in bowls rather than dishing up per plate.  Read the review.   Tel (021) 865-2114.

*   Stellenbosch Slow Food Market, Oude Libertas – previously the Bosman’s Crossing Market, it moved to Oude Libertas late last year.    Good quality and often organic foods, not quite as top level and exciting as in its previous location, only open on Saturdays

*   Casparus is the name of Etienne Bonthuys’ new restaurant on Dorp Street, an amazing marriage between the cuisine creativity of Bonthuys and the interior design creativity of partner Strijdom van der Merwe.  There is no restaurant like this in South Africa!   Read the review.   Tel (021) 882-8124.

*   Johan’s at Longridge is a refreshing new restaurant on Longridge Winery, with a focus on fresh vegetables from its large vegetable garden alongside the restaurant.  Co-owner Chef Johan comes from a Michelin two-star restaurant in Holland, as does Chef Marissa.  Attentive service led by Chris Olivier, excellent food, great wines.  Read the review.   Tel (021) 855-2004 

*  de Huguenot, on De Huguenot Estate in Johannesdal, Pniel, is a superb fine-dining restaurant which opens in July, headed up by Chef Tanja Kruger, a member of the South African Culinary Olympic team.  Beautiful view onto Groot Drakenstein mountains.  Read the review.

POSTSCRIPT 17/10:  The Top 20 finalists for the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards were announced at the end of last month, and the list contains five Stellenbosch restaurants (compared to only two from Franschhoek):  Rust en Vrede, Overture, Terroir, Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine, and Restaurant Christophe.   The Top 10 winners will be announced on 28 November.

POSTSCRIPT 29/11:  Stellenbosch now wears the Gourmet Capital crown, with four Eat Out Top 10 restaurants:  Overture, Rust & Vrede (now South Africa’s number one restaurant and top chef David Higgs), Terroir, and Jordan Restaurant with George Jardine.

POSTSCRIPT 15/4:  It has been announced that David Higgs has resigned, and will leave Rust en Vrede mid-June.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com