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Svelte Sophisticates at Willoughby’s

The svelte sophisticates of Cape Town love, just love, eating at Willoughby & Co.  There, on the menu, you will find the best sushi in town and food in that orbit, served in a very hip and upmarket atmosphere.  Willoughby’s is not your corner sushi bar staffed with Orientals from the lower GDP countries of the East, fresh off the plane to warble in pidgin Filipino at you from behind the sushi go-round.  No.  Willoughby’s is an aspiring brand.

Willoughby’s Sushi Photo c/o TripAdvisor

There’s a lively buzz to the place, not rowdy but hushed.  At Willoughby’s you can, if not exactly mingle, be in the company of ‘internationals’ who flock there while in town.  You can order trending wines to go with your cool fare, the wines labelled on the list as such for your edification.  This is so you know that by imbibing them, people will know, and the waitress in her swift follow-ups to your table will know, that you have arrived, and that you, like the trending wines, are on an uptrend – up there with the very latest expressions on social media, cool and with-it, about to gain another hundred friends on Facebook and therefore desirable.  It’s not my sort of place, not at all, but I’m here on an educational mission.

My gorgeous niece Antoinette, who is a svelte sophisticate, but a sweet svelte sophisticate from the country barely past her ingénue stage, lacks the go-getter cutting bite of the svelte Cape Town sophisticates so craved by social masochists.1  This in no way means she lacks comparative sophistication, it’s just that a basic niceness is deemed too demeaning among the Cape Town in-crowd.  It’s not aloof enough.  To count, you have to evince a general disinterest in the world and not engage, unless you’re specifically sought.  I thought this a chink in Antoinette’s personal arsenal, so to sharpen her edge I took her to Willoughby’s.  Antoinette has a fetching Afrikaans accent which endears, and an indolent cadence that tends to fall too early at the end of her sentences.  It’s charm itself.  There’s also the way she inserts ‘hey?’ at the end of statements, turning them into questions.  And the way she addresses me.  ‘Uncle A-l-e-e-e-e-e-x’ is her killer blandishment.  Said with just the right uncle-melting inflection, she’ll get anything out of me.  Of course, I know that among her siblings and behind my back, I’m referred to as ‘Dirty Uncle Alex’ but it’s a collective sin I choose to overlook.  You’ve just got to love her.  But somehow, this personal package doesn’t cut it among the Cape Town set, among whom Southern Suburbs attitudes in Westerford English have more cachet.

Upon meeting at Willougby’s, Antoinette and I commit our first social faux pas, embracing and kissing in our clumsy provincial way, smiling and laughing and falling unconsciously  over each other with no regard for anyone.  The right way to meet within a radius of two hundred metres from Willoughby & Co, is:  Attitude One:  Conscious cool first, always and at all times.  How do I look to others?  How do I appear to them?  What will they think of me?  Attitude Two: Dampen glee, adopt a knowing if not slightly jaded expression with everything as if saying – ‘oh no, not here again’, then unsmilingly double cheek-kiss your lunch partner, all the while scanning the scene for a waitron and potential socialites.

After an interminable wait in a queue – the place is very ‘current’ – we get shown to one of the tall long tables inside the restaurant.  After my fall, I’m still in a body brace and cannot sit, so the high tables where I can stand and eat are ideal for us.  There are only seats in the middle of the table though, but diners at the extremity of the table are preparing to leave.  I eye that position as I think I’ll be more comfortable there, and ask the waitress whether we can move to it.  “As soon as the present incumbents leave, we’ll move you and you’ll be less encumbered, sir,” she says.  Notice that she’s serving in a restaurant and uses ‘incumbents’ and ‘encumbered’, not ‘cucumber’, dear friends.  She’s clearly passed Literature 101.  Upper quartile of the class.  I have half a mind to ask her what school she attended, then decide not to bother.  Clearly Westerford.  Everything about her is very Cape Town Southern Suburbs.  They obviously screen them well at this establishment.  Aspiring waitrons have to get over 90 in the SAT Top 100 Words test to serve sushi at Willougby’s.  I’m hoping Antoinette will look and learn.

The good thing about a Westerford education is that the waitrons don’t fawn.  This is total relief.  There’s none of that ‘customer is king’ or ‘anything-you-want-goes’ American-type service ethic here.  The service is professional, almost orientally clipped.  She was not trying to be my friend, but was there to help out and suggest.  This is just as well as I know nothing about sushi and still struggle with chopsticks.  I grew up in the Free State where eating rice with a knife and fork was considered the right road to advancement.

We scan the menu.  What to eat?  Not sushi.  Rice is a carbohydrate and carbohydrates are fattening, ask Professor Noakes of banting fame.  Yes I know Japanese people, sumo apart, aren’t fat and all they eat is sushi.  Yet the name Noakes has tremendous kudos among the Cape Town in-crowd despite having survived a few lawsuits.  So some sushi we must have.  I catch Westerford’s eye and beckon her over.  “As non-sushi type people, what would you suggest we have?”  “Well perhaps as an introduction you can have the 4*4 tuna and salmon combo, sir.”  “4*4?  I thought that was a type of car??”  This is utterly ignored.  “Alternatively,” she says gliding on, “if you’re feeling adventurous, I’d suggest the eel hand roll, if less so, the seared beef tataki.  Yes we can serve vegetables.” (Subtle roll of eyes).  And so the suggestions continue.  I decide to squirm a little.  “I see you have the fashion sandwich and even the fashion sandwich reloaded on the menu.  Which do you suggest would make me more of a fashionista?”  This, again, is ignored.  It’s all very confusing though, so we resort to asking Westerford what dishes are being served as waitrons pass our table with them.  “Oooo that looks nice, I’ll have that,” I say pointing to someone’s dish, but then rethink my choice and veer towards face-saving chopstick-free entries.  It’s not core Willoughby’s fare but better not make a total fool of oneself.

Time to train Antoinette.  “Antoinette darling, are you catching on?  Have you noticed how the waitress said ‘sushi combo’ for ‘combination’ but not ‘veggies’ for ‘vegetables’?  It’s very selective.  ‘Combo’ sounds like ‘condo’ which elevates one to a ‘condominium’ in a hip suburb, whereas ‘veggies’ descends you to a packer at Fruit and Veg City.  How you abbreviate, let alone speak, already marks you…”

At these and other tips I give her, Antoinette shrugs and smiles, thereby further endearing herself to me.  This city fakery is not for her.  I try to look around for more social pointers to mention but give up under her testing, smiling gaze.  She’s too nice for all of this, so we soon retreat to our loving ways, laughing from the belly and being all casual and unselfconscious.  At Willoughby & Co!  What the heck.

But Antoinette shouldn’t care about any of this.  She is soon to marry a wonderful guy, also a country lad, who loves her and for whom the country variety of svelte sophisticate is good enough.  How time flies.  Yes, Toni, whom I saw on the day she was born, and who as a little girl used to ask me to give her special hugs, is about to get married.  It seems only yesterday when she would plead:  ‘Uncle Aleeeeexth, when are you going to squeeze me to a quivering pulp?  Squeeze me to a quivering pulp now!’2  Antoinette, the little girl who loved being hugged tightly, is about to get married.

Life moves on.  Quickly.

Squeeze me to a quivering pulp!

Antoinette and Uncle Al-e-e-e-e-e-x



  1. For my friends whose first language isn’t English: The expression ‘from the country’, in this context, does not mean from a particular political country, but from ‘an area outside cities and towns; a rural area, from a farm, say.”  I tried to Google the expression and found it difficult to come by!
  2. An expression Antoinette learnt from me at age three and immediately latched on to!