The greatest restaurant in the world

IMG_0490Dorego’s, there’s nowhere quite like it. Never has been, I dare say. One of a kind, a sort of a bar, a sort of a restaurant, seedy, louche, easy-paced, open-hearted, democratic, with the beauty of the truly idiosyncratic, sui generis, although that’s not a phrase that you’re likely to hear in Dorego’s. It looks out over where the Keiskamma River meets the Indian Ocean, one of the great views of the world. Well, for me, anyway. A place out of time, of dreams, memories, reflections and a solitary pelican.

There’s a sign on the left hand side of main tarmac-ed road about an hour out of East London in the Eastern Cape of South Africa as you head north towards Port Alfred. The sign is chipped and faded, a bit battered by time, weather and human usage. It reads ‘Hamburg’. Usually there are a few goats tugging at the scrub with absent-minded madness on the verge, and one or two people waiting patiently for a somewhat unpredictable local taxi’. Follow the sign and turn off onto the dirt track that lollops in a leisurely fashion across land undulating in voluptuous curves on either side, bare grass, smooth, stitched from time to time by fences of wire or scrub, pocked here and there by squares of tilled earth. You pass clusters of huts, some thatched, some topped with corrugated iron, all painted in the vivid pastel blues, yellows, pinks and greens and bold geometrical patterns favoured by the local Xhosas.

Go slowly, with a certain amount of trepidation, partly out of respect for the uncertain surface of the road, and partly because from time to time rangy cattle may move with elegant nonchalance across your path, taking no heed of your impatience. Or there are goats to scatter, or groups of people to edge round. A buckie – pick up truck – passes at speed in the other direction. The dust thrown up by its wheels hangs like a plume of smoke in the hot air. The brilliant sun shines through it in a golden haze.

Presently, down to your left, a kilometre or so away, a river, the river, the Keiskamma, comes into sight. Keiskamma means puff adder in Xhosa because the sinuous curves of the river mimic those of the snake. You can see how the river uncoils across the flat base of the valley, land on either side of the river, green and fertile, squared up into fields, before rising quite sharply to escarpments on either side, along one of which you are driving. The river is broad, half a kilometre across, perhaps, as brown as the tilled earth in the fields, glossy and smooth.

And then, up ahead, suddenly the rough track disappears beneath tarmac and you can see houses on the near river bank, a bit retro, suburban, painted white for the most part, a warning that Hamburg is just round the next bend.

Not that there’s much to the town, really. This part of South Africa was part of the Siskei, one of the ‘independent’ homelands set up at the height of the apartheid years following the doctrine of separate development established by Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, President 1958-1966. Except the Siskei was never remodelled in the way the rest of South Africa was, and Hamburg was never developed at all, not like the more famous, white, seaside towns, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Cape St Francis, did.

For which I, for one, am supremely happy. It has kept the place unspoiled by crass commercialisation and contemporary vulgarities. Hamburg is a time capsule of white vernacular architecture of sixty years ago, modest, kindly, unshowy by today’s standards, a bit tight-arsed if truth be told. True, in recent years one or two brave souls have built more modern houses and painted them myriad hued, picking up the colour sense of the huts speckling the surrounding land, respecting the spirit of the place.

Anyway, pass through the straggling town, past Mrs May’s Hole in the Wall For Fresh general store, and the ramshackle hotel, the town’s only one. Suddenly the road, having hugged the river bank, swoops up to your right, and away from the river.

But on your left is a dirt track that continues to keep faith with the river, broad and flat. Bounce along this and it leads you out towards the estuary proper, passed a sparsely occupied camping site spread out below a line of thick, dark green coastal scrub, to Dorego’s.

In a sense Dorego’s is more impressive at a distance than it is close to. It’s a large, solid, square, single-story wooden building on stilts as massive as a rugby prop-forward’s thighs beneath a classic thatched roof. A stoep – veranda – runs around the front and sides, with wooden steps leading up to it.

Assuming it’s open – not always a safe assumption with Dorego’s; opening hours tend to follow a whim of particular individuality – go in through the door into a broad open space, dark after the brilliant glare of the outside. In front of you there’s a pool table, in a remarkable state of preservation, giving the battering it gets nightly from Dorego’s well-oiled if not well-healed clientele, although you do need to lift one end if you want the balls back at the end of your allotted time. To your right is a small bar manned by Leslie.

Leslie, in some ways, is the heart and soul of Dorego’s. The place is owned by Dorego – I never knew his Christian name – a `Portguese refugee from Mozambique. Or rather it was owned by him until last year, when too many years of sitting in his sweat-sodden singlet and grubby shorts, his massive paunch resting on his thighs, guzzling Castle beers throughout the day, and sharing news, views and tales of the old days with his oddly assorted customers, finally caught up with him, and laid him in his coffin, leaving the diminutive Mrs Dorego and Leslie to look after the place as best they could.

Anyway, Leslie. Leslie is a large man with a moon face, which is some times hard to make out in the crepuscular gloom. He always moves at his own pace, which is deliberate in the most deliberate sense of the word. I have never seen Leslie hurry, even when the customers ate five deep and clamouring for their first, or hundred and first, drink of the day. Beer is the preferred tipple, cans of Castle mostly, kept chilled in an antiquated ice cream freezer behind the bar. There’s a small supply of Amstels for the better class of toper, a curious range of spirits to mix with Coke, and wine, in place of which you would be advised to drink aftershave. And these Leslie dispenses with placid benediction, never hurried, never flustered, never quicker, never slower.

There are a few ramshackle tables with ramshackle chairs ranged around the single space that serves as bar, pool hall, talking shop and, when the occasion demands, restaurant. Or you can take you drink out onto the stoep, and lean against the railings and look out over the river.

It’s later afternoon, mid-tide. The wide sand flats look like unrefined caster sugar, pale amber-gold. The blue-brown-slate water wanders, apparently as leisurely as Leslie, scrolling this way and that in a series of generous curves between the sand banks. Black stick figures punctuate different points of the riverscape, fishermen out after cobb and grunter. There are a couple of business like boats moored midstream. More fishermen. Away to the right, the river speeds through a narrow channel and then spreads out into a broad front, a quiet insistence confronting the booming, bullish, cream-capped rollers of the Indian Ocean, creating a great churning mass of conflicting currents.

And somewhere, on one of the sandbanks, is the solitary pelican. Now, pelicans are gregarious birds. Normally, they move in twos or more, formations of pelicans skimming just above the waves like squadrons of avian Pegasus flying boats. But not this one. Oddly, he’s never been given a name. He turned up on his tod years ago, and has remained here ever since. There have been the occasional rumours that he had found a mate at last, but these rumours have always proved chimeric. I don’t think Hamburg’s solitary pelican is gay. Like some humans, he just prefers his own company. He is what used to be described as a confirmed bachelor, and as such, he has become the mascot of Hamburg. If Hamburg had a crest, a solitary pelican would be on it.

And, suddenly, there he is, gliding effortlessly down onto the river, ruffling the smooth surface briefly, waddling up a sand bank, stretching his wings and shaking his feathers before sinking down onto his tummy and tucking his great bill back along his body and dozing off. He seems to have eaten well.

And so should we. The sharply sinking sun, and the violent African sunset with its concatenation of colour, have turned the river to the purest, rippling, liquid gold. In a few minutes it will be dark and the sky will be silvered with stars and the velvety blackness pricked with lights from the houses and the brightness thrown by Dorego’s will throw shadows across the grass around.

The menu at Dorego’s is even less extensive than the drinks at the bar. There are fresh oysters, from just along the coast. And then there’s a choice of piri-piri chicken or piri-piri fish or steak, the unique feature of which is a fried egg on top, Hamburg’s plebeian version of escalope de veau Holstein, if you like. And chips and salad and ice cream. That’s it, although if you ask ahead, you can get spicy Portuguese sausages and bacalhau, salt cod.

But food isn’t really about frills and fancy gear and plate poetry. Food is really about time and place and people and memory; people and memory most of all. That isn’t to say that the food at Dorego’s isn’t top notch – of its kind. Mrs Dorego, diminutive and neat as her husband was the reverse, masterminds the kitchen, and the oysters are silvery, slippery, saline, shot through with iodine. Now try the chicken. It’s pert and singing with spice, and as your teeth break the skin with a crisp rustle, you find there’s the sweet, earthy harmony of a bird that has lived a brisk, outdoor existence.

Not the chicken? Well, the fish, cobb or grunter depending on the day’s catch, has the muscular firmness and sparkle of something that, just a few hours before, was finning its way through ocean or river currents. And if the steaks aren’t exactly buttery tender, then as you chew, the amiable, musky, meaty juices pressed from the fibres of the meat make you realise that, when it comes to flavour, you may have to work at it, but I’ll take a touch of toughness over tenderness every time.

And so we gather, John and El and Lindsay and Lois and, in no particular order, Sarah, Emma, Lulu and Dana, and John Kincaid and his brother Morkel and anyone else who happens to be staying or shows up, and me. Someone chivies Leslie about the drinks, and the arguments and laughter and conversations and teasing and all the other hullballoo of family life start up again, and food arrives, two plates of oysters, gone in a twinkling, the shells stacked up in tottering towers, and tonight someone had the good sense to order up those sausages and bacalhau. You can tell there’s a fine sensibility at work in the kitchen, a cook who knows the pleasures of robust flavours and big textures and generous spirit. And the for those who can’t quite get their minds through the fiery heat of the sausages or the rich, rank, boiled-wool perfume of the salt cod or its macho saltiness, there are the piri-piri chicken and the steaks and the fish and chips, characteristically pale and soggy, and the excuse of a salad, but who cares because the warmth is there and the humour and the sense of well-being and affection and love, and you know, I know, just know, that this is a time and a place and a people who I will remember for ever, and that one day I will call it all to mind and write it down just as I remember it.

Dorego’s, River Road, Hamburg, Eastern Cape, South Africa


I wrote this a few years back to go into A Movable Feast, a compilation of essays about food and travel published by Lonely Planet. Since then, sadly, time has not dealt kindly with Dorego’s. It has changed hands, Leslie has gone. I’m told the food is a shadow of it’s former delight. Worse, that louche, accommodating, easy-going, agreeable spirit of place has slipped out of the door and away. But as I say, food is about time and place and memory, and as such Dorego’s stood, stands, in my canon as the Greatest Restaurant in the World.

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