It is a rare indulgence to find a great café in a small town. A place to take your dog-eared book, be greeted by familiar faces before you order a hot coffee, sit back and relax. And sometimes, one has to travel a little out of the way to find it.
Text and Photographs Nina van Zyl
Across the road from the Port of Lüderitz is an unassuming door set in a high grey wall. As I step through it, it is as if I am Mary Lennox discovering her secret garden all over again.
During my first visit to the Garden Café I was blown away. It was hardly an expected experience in a town where the majority of restaurants cater either to cruise ship masses or complacent fast-food diners. Garden Café is a fresh alternative to the norm, with its unpretentious charm and warm interior. But no restaurant or café could last long on atmosphere alone. Owners Lea and Pauli Schroeter have created something that few mom-and-pop establishments manage to do. As is attested by its rave reviews (it is rated number one in Lüderitz on TripAdvisor), the Garden Café is much more than just personality. For one, there’s the food.
Oh boy, you can’t forget the food.
The couple had discussed opening a coffee shop for a long time but took the plunge only after Pauli sustained an injury that kept him from his day job. And then, serendipitously, the town’s one lone coffee shop closed, seemingly overnight. Serendipity seems to be a theme with the Schroeters who not only share a surname (with a slight variation: Schroeder versus Schroeter), but also a few family birthdays. And even though both were born in the same hospital and grew up in the same town, it was only as adults that they happened to meet one day on a Lüderitz sidewalk.
Chef Tafara Mutangi pops his head out from the kitchen as I walk by and gives me a big, bright smile – the toothpaste commercials type of smile. He looks like your younger brother’s mischievous friend, but my, can he cook. And what is even more unusual is that most of the ingredients used in his dishes come straight from the garden at the back. The Schroeters both have a hand in the baking at the café, from the typical German-style brötchens and gateaux to cheesecakes, lemon meringues and melkterts. Before they found Tafara, they even did the cooking.
“Everywhere one looks, there are little gems. The result is a wabi-sabi interior that has the hushed tones of a museum combined with the familiar comfort of grandma’s house.”
Right next to the entrance is a complicated-looking setup that turns out to be a hydroponic system for growing vegetables and herbs. I’m told by Lea that it’s her husband’s handiwork. So is all the handworked wooden furniture inside: the counter, the tables and chairs; the quirky mini green-house outside made of reused window frames; the weathered wooden doors used as room dividers. The doors are from the old Kapps Hotel; some were found half-buried in the sand along the beach; some might even be from Kolmanskop. Turns out Lea’s grandfather was a bit of a collector, with many of his finds ending up with Lea.
Everywhere one looks, there are little gems. In one room hang black and white photographs which might easily be overlooked. On closer inspection they are snapshots of Lüderitz life at the turn of the last century. These unpublished historic images were the handiwork of a prospector who rented a room in Lea’s grandfather’s house, where eventually he passed away. It’s no surprise that his abandoned albums were added to the family’s collection. Every object in the café, from the cutlery to the cups, was the couple’s personal possession before finding its way to its designated spot in the café. Some were handed down from relatives, some were wedding gifts. The result is a wabi-sabi interior that has the hushed tones of a museum combined with the familiar comfort of grandma’s house.
Outside, in the café’s garden, with the dappled sunlight warming me, I watch the pet tortoise creep out from under a strawberry bush, its face inches from one of the vibrant red oblongs. I resist the urge to put out a hand and pet it. Or to pick the strawberry, if I’m honest. The other patrons wouldn’t notice; they’re too absorbed with their slices of fresh cake; their plates of brötchen with home-made mustard sauce. Instead, I sit back in the white rattan chair and sip my steaming cup of coffee, feeling as content as the statuesque salamander sunbathing on the garden wall.