The Garden Route is a popular tourist trail that combines easy driving with big scenery, flowing east from South Africa’s Western Cape and skirting one of the country’s most beautiful coastlines.
Visitors on self-drive holidays - many of whom are British - follow the wide and ever-changing N2 highway that cuts down through the striped fields of the Cape’s verdant winelands to run alongside golden beaches with enticing names such as Wilderness and Nature’s Valley, into the thick forested hills and whiskey-coloured rivers of Tsitsikamma National Park.
Those who want to travel along the Garden Route but do a loop back to Cape Town, take the R62 which diverts inland, to ostrich farming country and the peaceful bushland of the Klein Karoo. The round-trip is well worth it but these parts of the interior are not included in restaurant highlights below, as we have chosen to stick strictly to the Garden Route between Mossel Bay and Storms River.
Along with dramatic scenery and affordable, yet world-class accommodation, the Garden Route’s other great USP is its food.
From the craft ale stall that peaks out from a pretty woodland glade at the roadside, (try The Heath, a bohemian stall between Plettenberg Bay and Knysna) to a tiny, independent chocolatier you might stumble across when buying a coffee (get your hands on a bar of something rich and heavenly from the cafe at Caroline’s Chocolate Haven, Milkwood Village, Wilderness), locals along the Garden Route love to eat and drink well. Visitors would do well to forget their figures and sample as much as they can.
Here, we pick our favourite restaurants along the Garden Route, guaranteed to be worth a stop for lunch, dinner, or just to break up the drive.
The best restaurants on the Garden Route (running west to east)
Open every day, from 7am to 10pm
44 691 1885; oldposttree.co.za/cafe-gannet
Serving, put simply, the best sushi on the Garden Route, Cafe Gannet is a smart spot just behind the Dias Museum, which commemorates maritime exploration around the Cape. It is attached to the Protea Hotel, which boasts a pleasant lawned garden that offers a view of the sea.
The sushi rolls are generous and impeccable - try the spicy tuna dynamite, and red dragon rolls. The restaurant’s seafood dishes are also worth a look, especially the tuna and salmon duo on noodles. With such an exciting menu, it seems a shame to settle for pizza, though they look good too.
6.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays
044 877 0433; serendipitywilderness.com
This award-winning riverside restaurant (most recently a recipient of the 2016 World Luxury Restaurant Awards) serves a five-course fine dining menu that twists local ingredients into classic dishes in unique ways (eg roasted vegetables are here served in a mieliepap basket on tomato seshebo; traditional milk tart is here infused with saffron). It’s a very personal experience: chef Lizelle Stolze produces her magic in the kitchen while her husband Rudolf is the front-of-house showman who provides an edifying introduction to every course and wonderful wine recommendations.
Open for dinner daily
27 73 347 8896; facebook.com/pages/Joplins/138088062968761
We love the simplicity of this local institution: a tiny log cabin lit up with twinkling fairy lights, locals and tourists seated on mismatched chairs, soft 80s retro music playing in the background and the mouthwatering smell of bbq meat. The menu is even simpler: choose between steak (a variety of cuts, cooked to order) topped with a fried egg and perfectly cooked chips, or three generous lamb chops. At the end of the meal you’re provided with a complimentary ‘milk tart’ - vodka and condensed milk.
East Head Cafe
11.30am - 5.30pm
044 384 0933; Eastheadcafe.co.za
Just after the junction for Knysna on the N2 from Cape Town, turn off for the Eastern Head, a tall bluff with views of the lagoon and Knysna marina. Down by the water’s edge, the East Head Cafe has tables for breakfast and lunch and piles of striped blankets for those wanting to watch kayakers explore the nature reserve. Inside has a jolly, yacht-club feel, attracting plenty of retired locals. The menu attracts a younger crowd too, though, with trend-ticking prawn and pork burgers (the Po’ Boy, from New Orleans), fortifying breakfasts and indulgent truffled chips.
Thurs-Sat nights only
Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night Brett Garvie transforms his tiny cottage - located in a pecan nut orchard on the outskirts of Knysna - into the most delightful romantically-lit restaurant, in which he personally prepares (much of it in his Defy Jewel woodstove) and serves his labour-intensive four-course vegetarian menu for a maximum of five or six tables. It’s a heartfelt authentic dining experience that is far more memorable than many of the haute cuisine experiences offered in the feted Winelands. BYO wine (no corkage charged). Set price of R400pp (£25.65) for four course menu with coffee/tea.
Emily’s Restaurant at Emily Moon
December to January daily 6 to 10pm and Tues 12 to 2.30pm; Feb to Nov 6 to 9pm, Sunday lunch only. Simon’s Bar closed Mondays.
044 501 2500; emilymoon.co.za/dining-at-emilys/
Emily Moon is loved as much for its setting - an eclectically furnished richly textured restaurant and elevated deck overlooking the Bitou river and wetlands - as the food. It’s not haute but rather sophisticated home-style grub that’s well presented and much of it sourced from its own garden. Karoo rack of lamb, served with tomato & butter bean bredie and orange beetroot puree is a popular choice as are the butter chicken samosas served with fresh coriander and pineapple chutney. Upstairs, good thin-based pizzas are served in Simon’s Bar - a most convivial place for sundowners.
Bramon Wine Estate
11am - 4pm every day
073 833 8183; bramonwines.co.za
The food is as fresh and tasty at this vineyard by the side of the N2 as the estate's boutique white wines themselves. Staff are incredibly knowledgeable and the tapas menu perfect for a varied lunch. Find it on the way to Monkeyland in The Crags - an area named after a scenic range of hills, where if you are lucky you can spot the bright green and red Knysna turaco bird.
11am - 10pm Mon - Fri, 6pm - 10pm Saturday
44 533 6710; nguni-restaurant.co.za
Nguni has a charming courtyard and contemporary stylings in which to sample traditional South African fare such as cold cuts from Bushveld game, steaks, bobotie (like a cottage pie with egg) and seafood soup. Located in front of the handsome White House theatre in the centre of Plettenberg, the food here is excellent value.
Closed on Monday
44 535 9818; enricorestaurant.co.za
This perennially popular, informal Italian restaurant pairs heaps of garlicky comfort food with matchless views of the long golden beach of Keurboomstrand. Set on the rocks between two stretches of sand, its outdoor tables are the place to be on a sunny day. Lunch is the best time to visit, mainly because you can walk off the platters of breaded calamari and perfectly grilled seafood, large pizzas and rich pasta sauces, afterwards. Our tip is to head down to Arch Rock, located at the eastern end of the beach. Time your stroll right and at low tide a string of wild, empty coves will be yours and yours alone.
When were campsite restaurants ever this good? Campers in the lodges and tents at the Storms River rest camp have untrammelled access to the sea and river mouth in this wild section of the Tsitsikamma national park. They are also fortunate to be able to eat out at the camp restaurant, should a night around the stove not appeal.
Set in an idyllic position in front of crashing waves and darting dassies (small furry mammals), the restaurant here unfortunately suffered a fire last December. A temporary restaurant now stands in its place but the location still makes this place a winner. Sit outside and enjoy oysters and steak, washed down with a good South African wine. Also serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks.