There’s a cool painting in Empire Cafe of the owner, Dave Jones, with one of those magnetic knife thingies loaded with knives on the wall. I ask Dave if I can take a pic of him standing next to it, pretending to stab his own pic with a knife. ‘Can I do it naked?’ he asks. That’s Dave for you. He takes your odd request, and one-ups it by being even stranger. The pic was never taken. Shiver.
Dave’s relaxed ‘more than just a coffee shop’ spot, which opened nearly nine years ago, has become a daily stopover for many locals, and, during the three hours I spent there on a Friday morning, I got to meet Danieka the photographer, Hugh the business coach, Guy the guy who made Empire Café’s awesome pastry display cabinet, Dave’s brother, mother, father, housemate, a former political activist, two other regulars… and their dogs. He admits that his favourite regulars are ‘ones with boobs’ (dead-honest dude, what can I say?), but then pauses and gets a bit mushy and says it’s actually his five-year-old nephew. He also loves it when this one British couple comes round at the end of every year. They started coming to Empire Café while still dating; now they come on holiday with their kids.
That’s the kind of place Dave’s got going. ‘It’s a lifestyle,’ he explains of his reason for opening his business. As a surfer, the waves are just across the railway line from the café, and living around the block means a few steps and he’s moved from his bed to his office. ‘It’s also a social thing. I’m more likely to tell you to fuck off in real life and I’d have no social life if it weren’t for this,’ he says. ‘People only like me because I make good coffee.’ This being Tribe’s Fairtrade, organic coffee.
To go with these expertly made cuppas, are Empire’s homemade croissants – take your pick from plain and chocolate to almond, cinammon or apple and custard. For the hungry, the breakfast board is ever changing, but that Friday’s offering included a mushroom, Peppadew and rocket omelette, fruesli (homemade muesli and fruitsalad with Greek yoghurt and honey), and an almond special, which is an almond croissant filled with bacon, scrambled eggs, camembert and chilli jam (is it breakfast time yet?).
‘This is a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what I can do,’ says oh-so-humble Dave of the menu options at Empire Café. He’s a professionally trained chef with years of experience in the hospitality industry. So, despite his pronouncement that he’s unsociable, his job obviously has other plans for him. ‘I guess I’m in this for a reason,’ he admits, explaining how Empire Café has become a social hub where people pop in to see who they’ll bump into, ‘talk shit’ and get connected with someone new. ‘Because of the free WiFi, some people spend hours here, or hold meetings around one of the tables. It’s become the informal offices for a lot of agents in the surfing industry. All it costs is a coffee – versus paying for office rental.’
What’s your relationship to Muizenberg?
I was born here. We moved away for a while, but returned when I was 13. That’s when I started surfing. So I’ve been surfing for 32 years now! My parents still live here too, so they come here for coffee everyday.
What is it that you love about this area?
I love the definite weather here, and that you can hear the sea all the time. Muizenberg is also great for photography. I love our sunrises and sunsets, so I’m always photographing them, playing around with exposures. The huge beach also makes for good photographs, as well as the old buildings with their great textures. You’ve also got the combination of mountains and beach, and the option of shooting from Boyes Drive. It’s also great to skateboard around here in the evenings. I got home five minutes before my brother who was driving the other night – despite being drunk on my skateboard!
What’s the history of this building?
It was built as a butchery. We have a photo taken by my grandfather in the 40s of what it looked like then. Before me, though, it was a photography studio. It had canary yellow walls when I moved in. In that year, there were different stores across the road: a tattoo shop, a hardware store, ABSA bank and Fullstop coffee shop.
What’s your food philosophy?
Simple, bright and tasty – like myself! I was at Constantia Uitsig for years, and there I learned that you can do beautiful presentation without having to garnish. You don’t need to put on ribbons and fake it. At Empire Café, I offer people big, healthy portions.
What’s your current favourite item on the menu?
The Café Sandwich. It’s a massive sandwich of hummus, roasted aubergine, roasted vegetables, roasted olives, pecorino shavings, white cheddar, mozzarella, camembert, gypsy ham, sandwich ham, Parma ham, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and my special cocktail tomato relish – all layered on our freshly made ciabatta. Some people take photos of their girlfriends; I take photos of my food.
11 York Road; 021-7881250
Monday-Saturday 7am-4pm; Sundays and public holidays 8am-4pm
A big shout out to Danieka Erasmus for her awesome photos. Danieka is another Muizenberg local, and takes photos of a variety of subjects, including weddings and children’s pics. Find her on www.picturist.co.za