Caffeine (Riebeek Street Branch)
Cape Town, South Africa
A Vegetarian Dining Review

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 27 October 2006

This is what happens when people from opposite sides of the globe have a disagreement concerning what constitutes bad service - cultures clash, emails fly around, a certain individual experiences great angst, and it takes ages for a review to be posted. Here, finally, is Mandy J Watson's review of Caffeine in Riebeek Street, Cape Town.

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Caffeine, Riebeek Street, Cape Town, South AfricaSandwiched (har har) between adult-entertainment establishments Moulin Rouge and Adult World in Riebeek Street, Cape Town, is a little grey and white building with an unobtrusive sign that reads "Caffeine" above the door. This, the original branch of Caffeine (which is now also situated in two other locations in and around Cape Town), is a highly-regarded coffee shop and restaurant that is open on weekdays from 07:00 to 17:00 to serve breakfasts and lunches.

Amusingly, and to Caffeine's credit, the chalkboard standing outside the restaurant next to its entrance reads "taste teasers", with an arrow pointing to Caffeine's entrance, and "strip teasers", with an arrow pointing to the left, in the direction of Moulin Rouge. This statement beautifully captures both the surreal absurdity of the location of the restaurant and the sense of humour of your typical Capetonian, and sets the tone as you enter the establishment.

We decided to go to the restaurant just after lunch, at around 14:00, in order to avoid potential crowds (of which I am no fan), as it is my understanding that Caffeine is a popular breakfast and lunch venue. Our plan paid off as the restaurant was almost empty when we visited so I was particularly surprised at the inattentive service that we received, as there was no pressure to serve a hoard of hungry office workers desperate to eat quickly so that they could return to the office timeously (theoretically - it was a Friday and usually the city empties earlier on a Friday).

Some restaurants like to seat you, while others are happy for you to seat yourself. Not knowing what we were walking in to, both my friend and I stopped, hovering mid-restaurant, to wait for the waitress to indicate to us what we should do. The waitress was in the process of seating someone that had entered just before us but, although she was well aware that we had entered, and we were well aware that she was aware of our presence, she completely ignored us, not even bothering to acknowledge that we were in the room, and continued to have a full-on conversation with the other customer, which went on for over a minute while we stood around feeling increasingly uncomfortable and eventually exchanged a "should we get out of here and go somewhere else?" glance. Meanwhile, a second employee, who was standing towards the back of the restaurant behind the counter, was very occupied with sending an SMS on her phone and didn't even glance up to see if we were being seen to or if she could assist us.

Caffeine InteriorAfter being left to wait for what felt like a rather excrutiating amount of time the waitress finally wrapped up her chat with the customer and turned her attention to us, indicating that we could sit anywhere. From then on the service was, for the most part, pleasant and efficient, although still not particularly attentive as the waitress had a habit of interrupting us mid sentence, rather than waiting for a natural lull in conversation, to take our orders and later ask us if we needed anything else.

Being a vegetarian I like to research a restaurant's menu, if possible, before I visit it so that I am prepared for what may be on offer. Many places only have one or two vegetarian dishes and it is not pleasant ending up eating something that you weren't particularly in the mood for simply because a restaurant chooses not to cater very well for a dietary preference.

Caffeine offers "gourmet food at cafe prices" (more on the prices later) and, in this case, the reason I wanted to try lunch there was its primary vegetarian offering, the Tree Hugger Special (R30 [?]). I was sold on the description of the ciabatta with roast vegetables on the web site's online menu, which I saw a few days before visiting the restaurant, and had been daydreaming about it ever since.

Before I continue, a quick note about the online menu: the prices are out of date. The drink prices are still the same, but the other offerings on the menu have gone up. The lunch Tree Hugger Special is quoted as being R26 on the online menu but the menu we received in the restaurant, as well as the menu that was written on the chalkboard, listed it as R30. On average most of the lunch-menu items seem to have gone up by about R4 since the online version was uploaded. Hopefully they will update it soon. [View page 1 and page 2 of the menu.]

Back to the Tree Hugger Special. It comprises roast vegetables (which turned out to be mushrooms, red pepper, and onion), feta, avocado, hummus, and salad (a selection of lettuces that didn't seem to have been too well washed) on a warm ciabatta. Both my friend and I ordered it, as well as a cappuccino [visit the Cappuccino Quest entry for more information]. According to the chalkboard it comes with either a side salad or potato salad, but we weren't offered a choice. I didn't realise that we had the option until after we left the restaurant and I was reviewing my photograph of the board.

Caffeine InteriorTo my dismay, and as you can see from the photograph, the portion is rather tiny (and the side salad - three slices of tomato, two slices of cucumber, and two tiny pieces of feta - is pitiful, and certainly more decorative than filling). After finishing it I was still quite hungry. I also must admit that I felt a little ripped off at having to pay R30 for such a small meal, especially since I could easily have eaten a second ciabatta. While R25 would have been pushing the boundaries of an acceptable price for this dish, to me, R30 is just excessive. Worse, the restaurant doesn't have a dessert menu, as a few scoops of ice cream would have rounded off the light lunch quite well and filled me up, so if I return to Caffeine I will probably order the Greek salad (olive and feta; R24 [?]) along with the Tree Hugger Special, although this then amounts to a rather pricey lunch.

On the plus side, the Tree Hugger Special certainly lives up to the "gourmet food" claim. It is spectacular, and I loved every bite, although I couldn't taste the hummus. My dining companion, who is not a vegetarian and therefore usually not particularly interested in vegetarian menu options, was equally complimentary of the dish.

As for other dishes, the lunch menu primarily comprises gourmet sandwiches as well as salad and main-course chicken dishes, such as the Clifton Beach "Topless" - "a chicken breast openly presented on toasted rye with avo & [mustard] dressing" (R30) - although there is also a turkey and beef offering (the name "Clifton", by the way, is a reference to a popular series of beaches along the west coast of Cape Town just a few kilometres from the CBD to which the rich and quasi famous flock in order to be seen). Be sure, also, to glance at the chalkboard to check the specials of the day.

Caffeine: ChalkboardThe breakfast menu includes muffins (R8 [?]), croissants (R9 [?]), Smoked Alaskan (croissant, salmon, eggs, and cream cheese; R28 [?]), Morning Detox (muesli, honey, fruit, and yoghurt; R22 [?]), and another Tree Hugger Special (eggs, roast vegetables, and cream cheese served with tortillas; R30 [?]).

The drinks menu comprises your normal selections of coffee (ranging in price from R8 [?] for a regular espresso to R15 [?] for the Sandy Bay Bottomless coffee option (the name is a reference to another Cape Town beach, this one being primarily for nudists), as well as items such as tea (R7 [?]) and iced tea (R12 [?]).

As for the décor, it is hard to describe - perhaps "deli meets smart African beach café" is apt. The colour scheme is warm and inviting, with bright tablecloths and a vase of fresh flowers on each table, which contributed significantly to the relaxed, pleasant atmosphere of the restaurant.

The restaurant sells a selection of bagged pasta, condiments, pestos, and Caffeine-branded water, and these items are all on display on shelves against one wall. Unfortunately, what you can't see clearly in the photographs is that there is a large selection of contemporary African art hanging on the walls. I wish I had had more time to linger and actually look at the art, but what I did notice I liked very much. I intend to go back sometime in order to give the art my full attention.

While I do have some criticisms of my visit to Caffeine, other patrons may not have had the same problems that we experienced and, even so, my overall experience was still rather pleasant. I think I will probably visit again - I will just have to prepare myself mentally for a rather large lunch bill. Comments Opinion
Key Facts
Restaurant: Caffeine (Riebeek Street Branch)
Cuisine Style: Deli style
38 Riebeek Street,
Cape Town,
South Africa
Phone: +27 21 421 0633
  • Monday to Friday: 07:00-17:00
Price Range:
  • Breakfast: R6-R30 [?]
  • Salads: R30 (approx) [?]
  • Lunch: R26-R30 [?]
  • Drinks: R7-R15 [?]
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Vegan Options: None
Smoking Section: Unknown
Child Friendly: Yes
Dress: Casual
Reservations: Not necessary, except perhaps at peak times
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