Back in 2007, ‘Bree wasn’t even on the map of cool streets’, but several artisanal stores have since opened.  THE TIMES
Back in 2007, ‘Bree wasn’t even on the map of cool streets’, but several artisanal stores have since opened. THE TIMES

CAPE Town, Bree Street, crammed at the portside since the colonial days, with seedy dive bars and brothels frequented by sailors, and a mere hundred metres from the sea at the time, is back en vogue. Derived from the Dutch word "breed", meaning broad, it’s built on a reference to the width of the street on which farmers’ ox-drawn wagons swiftly performed U-turns to line up in the lot used today for a similar purpose: parking.

Where once the wagons would offer produce for sale and the 18th century Heritage Square stores later sold gentlemen hand-rolled cigarettes, snuff boxes, and guns, a burgeoning food and bar scene has emerged.

Today, bawdy sailors may be few, but in the past six years, tattooed "yuccies" (young urban creatives) roam the length of Bree Street in packs, skateboards and laptops tucked under their arms.

You could say the farmers and tobacco-sellers have been replaced by creative minds and hands from London to Durban, many reviving the older trades and painstaking traditions of carefully handmade products: butchers, bakers, and all but the candlestick maker.

Inside the sunflower-yellow building at number 215, you will find an artisanal cheese maker, completing the trio of pantry staples on Bree.

Husband-and-wife team Luke Williams and Jessica Merton opened Culture Club, a restaurant and deli, last year, selling 80% local cheese, some of it made in-house. Their aim? To transform the city into SA’s cheese capital.

"We wanted to be near a butcher and a baker: Frankie Fenner (a meat merchant) down the road, and Jason (the city’s most popular bakery)," Merton says, adding that purchasing quality cheese is still relatively new in SA.

Williams has produced cheese across England and worked with some of the world’s best cheese makers and brands in London’s popular La Fromagerie, a cheese emporium and restaurant.

"We spent 2014 travelling SA to meet the makers," he says. "We only sell the best of SA’s handmade cheeses from grass-fed, happy animals."

Working with suppliers who are invested in the quality, integrity and provenance of the final product is a philosophy shared by many of the business owners on Bree Street.

For the industry’s "king of bacon", Richard Bosman and his wife, Justine Seymour, Bree Street proved the perfect location for Bacon on Bree, a restaurant and deli opened last April using Bosman’s brand of high-quality charcuterie.

He’s been honing his skill since 2009. "The street is full of unique, high-quality outlets that are making Cape Town one of the food capitals of the world. Hardly a month goes by without a new concept opening in Bree Street, and our extended neighbours are great to work with, and just have fun," Bosman says.

After selling imported charcuterie at a Hermanus location, Bosman launched wholeheartedly into learning how to make prosciutto, coppa, bresaola, salami, bacon and chorizo using domestic, pasture-reared meat.

"The quality of South African produce is exceptional," he says, adding that consumers are taking a far greater interest in where their food comes from.

"I started making a high-quality bacon using a dry-curing process from the beginning, but I struggled to find restaurants willing to pay a little extra for it," Bosman says.

"Last year, my wife suggested we open a restaurant to feature our bacon," he says.

Even an insistent lobby of vegan protesters hasn’t deterred Bosman. "Actually, the protest was great publicity for us. We know where our pork comes from and how the animals are raised."

It’s not just bacon and bacon-related products, such as crackling, bacon candy and a range of homemade sauces, that draw patrons. "The buildings here are characterful, and our strip is a row of ‘huurhuisies’ (rental houses) that used to be the homes of artisans. The buildings have back areas, not visible from the street," Bosman says. Bacon on Bree has a lounge and courtyard that he says visitors are always pleased to discover.

Jason Lilley, who many consider a Bree Street pioneer, opened Jardine Bakery with chef George Jardine back in 2007, at a time when "Bree wasn’t even on the map of cool streets", and there were only three notable restaurants on the street: Caveau, Jardine, and Frieda’s at the lower end. At the time, Long and Kloof streets were better known by diners.

Adjacent to Jardine’s eponymous former city restaurant, Lilley took over the hole-in-the-wall outlet under his name, and no matter the weather, regulars came by to pick up his now-famous croissants (including one with bacon) and coffee.

He acquired the main space with sister Brigitte Lilley in August 2011, splashing out on a major renovation and has been up and running since.

Lilley, whose motto is "consistency, quality and integrity" says, "The trick is in surviving more than two years, the average lifespan of most restaurants."

While picking favourites is a tough ask, Eat Out’s online editor Katharine Jacobs praises Chef Liam Tomlin’s casual tapas diner, Canteen at Chefs Warehouse, but insists that her go-to remains stalwart Jason Bakery.

"It’s one that’s been there from the start, and I think still encapsulates the atmosphere of the road: a kind of hardcore approach to really good food."

After an initial sluggish start, Bree Street now has a proliferation of bars and speakeasies.

Joining Orphanage, Door 221, and Mother’s Ruin Gin Bar on the upper end of the street all add a slice of Brooklyn aesthetic-grit to small, tight menus and high-quality drinks that seem to have won Capetonians over.