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When travelling, dining out is often that unexpected left hook that decimates your budget. But eating well when you’re away from home needn’t be accompanied by massive debt. Keith Bain hunts down a few urban eateries that are punching above their weight in the wallet-friendly division.

Dining out tips for travellers
When travelling, chances are you’re eating out a lot. Nobody wants to be stuck in hotels all the time. You want to try new places and discover local tastes. Don’t let scary prices at tourist haunts put you off. You’re spending money on accommodation, you’re sightseeing, you’re racking up once-in-a-lifetime experiences – dining out is part of the local culture. But rather than opting for fancy-shmancy, get a handle on where locals hang out, hopefully tapping into their inflation-dodging insider knowledge.
Don’t be shy: Pop your head in, scan the menu, scope the crowd, even grab a table—if you’re not feeling the love by the time your waiter tries to take your order, you’re free to walk out and find a place that’s a better fit. Never feel obligated to eat somewhere just because you’ve stepped inside.

Key ingredients to look out for before you’ve sampled the food: Décor that’s thoughtful and keeps you stimulated (if it looks and feels like a dozen restaurants back home, then what’s the point?); intelligent staff with good looks and charm (tattoos aren’t requisite, but definitely add character – frankly, I’d rather have character than efficiency); and, since you’re here to experience new things, you probably want to be in a place that affords quality people-watching – dining isn’t a spectator sport, but nobody eats with their eyes shut.

JO’BURG
The name is ironic, since the menu is packed with temptation. Still, Salvationcafé (011 482 7795, www.salvationcafe.co.za) really does feel like the kind of relaxed, healthful spot where your calorie indiscretions might be forgiven. Start with whisky-soaked oats or American-style pancakes for breakfast and move onto guacamole-topped gourmet burgers for lunch, absolve your sins by sticking to the hunger-busting salads or a garden wrap stuffed with sundried tomato pesto, haloumi, olives and avo. The crowd scattered around the sun-dappled courtyard is a big-sunglasses mix of ladies who lunch, media types and students, and you can round off your meal with a solid walk between the boutiques and galleries here – tucked away at the heart of 44 Stanley in Milpark, it’s a genuine oasis.

Over on Jan Smuts Avenue, once you’ve elbowed your way into The Grazing Room (Dunkeld West Shopping Centre, 011 341 0663), your taste buds soon find out what all the fuss is about. The global craze for downsized tasting has taken hold in Jo’burg and inspired chef Marthinus Ferreira to launch this little tapas joint alongside DW-Eleven 13 (his other restaurant, considered one of the country’s 10 best). The new project provides opportunity to forgo full-blown fine dining and instead sample lots of different flavours. Marthinus likes to play and experiment with ingredients, from fried risotto balls with truffle mayo, to fried duck eggs on Parma ham with pecorino shavings, to miniscule Yorkshire puddings topped with bone marrow, oxtail meat, caramelised onions and horseradish cream. Tapas are the affordable answer to pricey tasting menus, so you get to sample delicious inventions without breaking the bank.

Current upstart on the Jo’burg culinary landscape is reluctant restaurateur Andrea Burgener’s The Leopard (011 447 6012). Aiming at über-simple cuisine, it’s the latest arrival on the Parkhurst restaurant strip, offering casual dining with a bit of a nostalgic twist in the décor and a retro feel in the global-influence menu. The food is a mashup: something old, something new, and a couple of real shoo-wow innovations. The macadamia-stuffed quail is simply sublime. Some dishes sound pretty leftfield (lamb merguez sausage on butter-bean stew!), but there’s also the simplicity of Saldanha Bay mussels with wine, cream, ginger, lime and confit tomato; and their all-day breakfasts are spectacularly thoughtful. It’s a restaurant for lingering and lazing, and the food is as guilt-free as possible – small local producers, grass-fed, free-range and sustainable. It has the makings of a cult.

DURBAN
Durban curries have a distinctive flavour, and no-one should go home without sampling the real deal. There are a couple of secret insider haunts – real rough-cut diamonds that are worth seeking out if you don’t mind dipping into the underbelly. Die-hard Durbanites swear by the bunny chow at legendary Gounden’s, a humourless diner tucked into a room at the back of a panel beater’s on Eaton Road. There’s good reason it’s always packed. On the other side of town, in the shadow of a highway flyover on a semi-industrial stretch of Umgeni Road, stands Durban’s oldest inn, Hotel Britannia (031 303 2266). It’s a real Durban institution, where you go for finger-licking curries, filling bunnies and a chance to meet locals.

If you’re after a more up-to-date, flavour-of-the-moment kind of place, nothing beats Unity Brasserie & Bar (Silvervause Centre, Musgrave, 031 201 3470), where Guy Wood (formerly of Beanbag Bohemia) oversees a decidedly cool, visually appetising retreat from the city. Farmyard animals are silhouetted against the walls and windows – a hint that there’s strong focus on the provenance of ingredients, sourced from ethical, local farms. And while they sure know how to handle a cut of beef (churning out brilliant burgers and juicy boerewors platters too), vegetarians are also properly catered for (perfect lentil-butternut bobotie). Beer drinkers take note: Don’t miss a mug of Cowbell, their on-tap craft pilsner—made especially for Unity by Shongweni Brewery.

CAPE TOWN
The Mother City can be pretty tribal; everyone has favoured haunts. But open something new and the mob comes running. From the outside, Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room (021 424 7648), the new darling of Bree Street, looks a bit like it belongs in a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. Step inside and it’s brimming with life and design detail that hooks you instantly. Lots of tiny pot plants are lined up on shelves against the walls and windows, lampless light bulbs dangle ornamentally and there are all these weirdly attractive people. Who knew models ate fried food? Whatever your people-watching predilections, you come here for seriously tasty, hangover-blitzing food, so pray that their all-day breakfasts are in fact available all day (when ingredients run out, the show’s over). Burgers are sensational, salads so-so, and their fries (served with aioli) are a meal in themselves. The dish of choice has to be their hash browns, diced with green asparagus, poached eggs and cauliflower, and optional haddock. For dessert, it’s a toss-up between their artisanal ice cream (in fantastic flavours like peanut butter or cardamom), or sinking your teeth into one of the other diners (equally yummy, if you don’t mind chewing on hipster flesh).
Much farther up Bree Street (beyond Jason, that hipper-than-holy bread and beer hangout), is one of the city’s true godsends: Sababa (231 Bree Street, 021 424 7480). This is an unpretentious, deli-style takeaway or sit-down kitchen laying out the most incredible Middle Eastern and Mediterranean buffet spread you ever laid eyes on. R50 gets you a large lunch plate brimming with flavours and loads of healthy salads to compensate for the irresistible dessert table. And I dare you to find a better lasagne, anywhere.

You cannot swing a cat on Long Street without hitting a sandwich board advertising another disgusting drinks special; finding a quality meal here is more trying. Which is why it’s worth hunting down the South China Dim Sum Bar (289 Long Street; 078 846 3656), a tiny, no-frills newcomer specialising in Southeast Asian street food. You order at the counter using the blackboard menu to decide (if available, try laksa lemak, a spicy coconut noodle broth bulked up with egg, bean sprouts, steamed greens, and a prawn) and then prepare for an already legendary wait. There’s no liquor licence either, so bring a few bottles to help pass the time. Another tiny space serving great-value ethnic cuisine is Little Ethiopia (76 Shortmarket Street; 021/424-8254), serving traditional dishes prepared in a kitchen smaller than the one you have at home. Delicious and affordable, you use your fingers to eat various combinations of injera (spongy flatbread made from teff flour) and different types of wot (stew).

For another chance to forgo cutlery, head east—admittedly to a side of the city too few visitors touch. Here, The Dog’s Bollocks at the Yard gets the prize for Cape Town’s most unusual ‘restaurant’. It’s not even a restaurant, in fact, just a one-man burger joint wedged into the space between two buildings on Roodehek Street (off Buitenkant). Former London restaurateur Nigel Wood makes the patties, concocts the sauces, and doles out these whopping big burgers, overflowing with flavour and served in newsprint. He makes a limited number per night, and nothing else (except wine in a cardboard U-tube) is available, not even plates or utensils. You’ll leave with the culinary equivalent of a war story for the folks back home – having wiped Mexican chocolate mole dripping from your chin, you’ll will be able to boast about the tastiest burger you’ve ever eaten.

MANGAUNG (BLOEMFONTEIN)
The dead centre of South Africa isn’t a culinary destination, which is why discovering a special meal here can feel like such a thrill. Ask anyone where the best eateries are, and they’ll point you towards Westdene, a suburb with a bit of renegade spirit. Definitely worth discovering here is Kim Brakenridge’s Seven on Kellner (051 447 7928), where you dine in a beautifully decorated Victorian mansion. Kim has come up with some funky dishes to match the quirky, eccentric décor; her influence is largely Mediterranean and Moroccan, but there are well-spiced Indian curries and wood-fired pizzas, too.

TSHWANE (PRETORIA)
Although the Mastrantonio brand has grown into a bit of a countrywide chain, it’s still a family business, and Fumo Mastrantonio (Groenkloof Plaza, 012 346 0916) specialises in such spot-on classic northern-Italian fare that you wish they’d open a branch near you immediately. From calf liver, to perfect home-made pasta, to zucchini fritters and fillet parmesan with rocket, the focus is on authenticity rather than innovation, so don’t expect deviations from recipes they claim have always been in the family. And no, this isn’t a pizza joint, so don’t even dare asking. It’s a big-boned contemporary space that’s perfect for a business lunch in the capital city—or a languid one on the al fresco terrace.

Alternatively, for a range of dining options, head to Lynnwood Bridge (Daventry Street, Lynnwood Manor), where there’s everything from the artisanal breads and scrummy sandwiches at fabulous Vovo Telo (yes, another small, guilt-free, steadily-evolving local chain: 071 689 3081) to the abundant fresh seafood at The Famous Fish Hoek Co. (012 348 5431). Also here, Café Beyritz (012 348 2000) is fast becoming the most popular bistro in the city. They offer scrumptious rib-eye steaks and brilliant slow-roasted duck, but also very good breakfasts, all served with gusto.