In a city where restaurants are constantly opening (and closing) and crowds flock toward the Next Big Thing, the stalwarts can often be overlooked. However, Café del Sol seems to have been busy since it first opened its doors 12 years ago in Olivedale. The original restaurant, now called Café del Sol Classico, has been a fixture on foodies’ maps thanks to its offering of refined North Italian cuisine, cooked with seasonal ingredients and honest simplicity. Headed up by siblings Chiara and Ryan Viljoen, together with their mother Luciana, the restaurant showcases their family’s legacy of cooking, entertainment and hospitality: “Entertaining was always central to our lives,” says Chiara.
They opened a second restaurant, Café del Sol Botanico (pictured above), in Bryanston a few years ago, with The Landmark bar adjoining the space. While Classico takes its cue from the North, Botanico offers a sunnier Southern Italy-inspired menu. The space is light and lush, with heaps of greenery and botanical art decking the walls. You’ll still find some Classico favourites on the menu, but most dishes are new interpretations, designed to satisfy its new audience. There’s more fish options and salads on offer, coloured pastas and pizza straight from the pizza oven, as well as a sublime seafood risotto that’s pure sunshine in a bowl.
We chatted with Chiara about why they opened a second Café del Sol restaurant, how they empower their team, and how they’ve been consistently successful since day one.
With such a beloved original restaurant, why did you decide to expand the Café del Sol brand? When we started, we were always running queues at Classico and some clients used to get really upset if they couldn’t get in. The demand for a second restaurant was there, however it was a tough decision as to whether we should grow. In the end, after much deliberation and a great offer from Bryanston shopping centre, we decided to open Botanico. It represents growth, which is very important for a brand and it was a big and bold step for us, and it’s taken 5 years of TLC to build. We designed Botanico with The Landmark so people didn’t have to wait in queues anymore – they can now sit and have a drink and snack until they get a table.
How do you balance having the two restaurants – what sort of systems and training are in place to keep consistency? Luckily there are three of us owners that move between the two shops. We have a very strong team in both stores including staff that have been with us since inception. Some of the ways we keep our team strong and motivated includes cultural training, keeping our meetings regular and interesting, and constantly holding food, hygiene and service audits. We believe in promoting internally and train staff from scullery to chefs, from scullers to hostesses. We do wine, menu, and new dish training, and recently had Chef Wandile Mabaso, a Michelin star trained chef, in to help us perfect the basics. We also do supplier training to make sure that everyone is up to date with product knowledge.
Have there been any notable challenges along the way, and how did you overcome them? There are daily challenges in this business, but one needs to have foresight and emotional intelligence to be ahead of challenges. When a challenge occurs one needs to have the courage to show up. There are also some advantages to challenges, such as becoming more sustainable and transparent, and moving into a digital age which makes for easier ordering and effective live feedback.
So many restaurants in SA (and around the world) have really struggled in recent years – when we visited, it was packed! What would you put your success down to? At Café del Sol, we keep our standards high. We only use the best ingredients to cook honest, homely food and have created a space where people want to spend time. We are avid believers in making sure the customer feels like king and value for money is very important to us. However, it’s not just the food – it’s the quality, people, environment and experience we offer.
What do you love about being in the restaurant industry? Wow, it really gets deep into your veins. It’s addictive. As an owner/manager, the day is totally dynamic. One wears many hats in this industry. You can move from HR to admin to finance to coach to customer service, all at once. We also get to meet the most interesting people. We plan a cooking lesson once a month and that’s also wonderful as we create a like-minded society of people that love food, wine and great company. We get to create and play and constantly work on perfecting our craft. Kaizen – constant and never-ending improvement – that is our principle.
Are there any interesting plans for Café del Sol in the future? A facelift to our landmark bar. A food and travel company. A pasta factory. A little bit of diversification, but all in good time. Maybe Mauritius in a couple of years too…
Little Black Book:
We usually select suppliers by doing a site visit and understanding where the product comes from, tasting the product and developing relationships with our suppliers. We also keep a constant watch on goods received and always ask for feedback from the clients.
Pico-Gro: Baby root veg and edible herbs and flowers
Cremalat, Rialto, Gala and Adriatic: Italian food
Bandini: Salt, butter and milk
Bull and Bush: Meats