There is a restaurant that is my friend Lara’s favorite restaurant (I stand to be corrected on this) called Harlequin Restaurant. By the way she also took the pictures in this post ( thanks La). This place has been around since 1965, and is till run by one of the founders. I think that fact makes Harlequin rather unique on the Cape Town scene. Last week we had dinner there, and were sitting in the upstairs bar area where Angelo the owner was having dinner. He regaled us with tales from the restaurants glory days when famous boxers and movie stars would dine there. The place looks rather kitsch these days, as the décor has not changed since 1978.
Upon entering the restaurant you arrive on the upper level, which houses the bar and is also the smoking area. If you continue down the steps, you come to a lower level piazza. The area is decked out as a pseudo-Italian boulevard, with painted murals and faux balconies shaded by kitsch tiled roofs. The effect, gives one a sense of stepping back in time; of going into an authentic Italian restaurant from a bygone era. Cue the Godfather soundtrack; this is exactly the place where you can imagine Don Corleone ordering lasagna with a gruff command.
Indeed Harlequin used to be much bigger than it is today, with a deli and confectionary shop, a bakery which used to supply all the cakes for Pick n Pay in the area, as well as a drive through. Angelo remembers when he had in excess of fifty employees. One of his employees served him for nearly fifty years, and his current longest serving staff member has been there for over forty years. It for this reason that I would listen to the staffs recommendations, they know exactly what is good at the moment.
The service is good, if a bit slow as everything is made to order, so you need to allow at least twenty minutes for the lasagna to cook for instance. Never fear though, while you wait you can enjoy a bottle of wine, and hot dinner rolls are served – the type of soft, old fashioned restaurant roll that I could make a meal out of. You can also order a salad to pick at; no designer leaves here, just iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and onion, with lashings of vinegary dressing. The menu at Harlequin consists of classic Italian dishes. They don’t serve pizza though which makes some people question their credentials! However they serve simple dishes that are unadorned. Recently they updated their repertoire and there are now several new dishes on the menu based around lobster, which looked good, but I was swayed by my usual choice – the veal. If you look at the wall in the bar, you can find a copy of a menu from when they opened in 1965 and you will see how little it has changed, except for the prices which have gone up by a hundred times! Spaghetti Bolognese for 30c? Yes please, I’ll pay 1965 prices!
The minestrone soup changes depending on the season and what vegetables are available. You can order crumbed mushrooms or a bean and pasta soup, though to be honest we usually only have their delightful bread and a salad. For mains, you have a choice of pasta, seafood or meat dishes. The meat dishes are reasonably priced between R 80 and R110. The veal here is excellent; though I find the veal saltimbocca has a bit too much sauce. We often ask for a veal dish that is not on the menu, veal limone, and they always oblige us with a dish of delicious veal, coated in a light acidic sauce. The lasagna is good, with many layers of pasta, but should come with a health warning a sit is usually scathingly hot. Their chicken schnitzel is always huge, crispy and delicious and comes with a choice of pasta or chips. The oxtail is rich and gelatinous, just the kind of thing that you want to stick to your ribs on a cold winter evening.
If you have any space left after their generous main courses, for dessert there is a choice of traditional Italian favorites such as Cassata, Italian Kisses or ice cream and chocolate sauce. Their tiramisu is a decadent boozy finish to the meal.
The vibe in the restaurant is old school; this is not a restaurant trying to compete for trendiest spot of the month. It could use a lick of paint in places, but the food is good and this is why we keep returning. In a town where restaurants come and go, I trust an establishment that is still in business after 45 years.
Harlequin Restaurant is situated at 281 Voortrekker Road, in Parow, Cape Town. They can be contacted on 021 939 1993.