In the last 2 years, Stellenbosch has emerged as the Winelands dining destination -- although you'll still hear fierce arguments according that honor to Franschhoek. Stellenbosch, however, does offer greater variety and better value. Because there's a year-round buzz, which has a lot to do with the huge seasonal student population, you never want for ambience, which Franschhoek lacks come nightfall. Stellenbosch's dining scene also isn't quite so focused on tourist trade, meaning there's a better chance to get a feel for the local cuisine culture. Between meals, head for Stellenbosch Hills, a wine estate in Vlottenburg, for a tasting of five wines paired with different varieties of biltong (jerky) -- from kudu to springbok -- individually chosen by the winemaker (tel. 021/881-3828; www.stellenboschhills.co.za; R35; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 10am-3pm; reservations essential). If meat isn't your thing, make for Waterford, another fine Stellenbosch estate (tel. 021/880-0496; www.waterfordestate.co.za), where Von Gesau chocolates are matched to appropriate wines. For substantial fare, book early at any of the places reviewed below -- they're all out of town, smack dab amid the vineyard, and most offer sublime views by day.
If you want to dine in the historic center, the top two choices are both on Dorp Street. Occupying one of Stellenbosch's most beautiful heritage buildings, La Gratitude, The Big Easy, 95 Dorp St. (tel. 021/887-3462), is co-owned by Ernie Els and, thus, beholden to golf fans. Both a wine bar and the most stylish restaurant in town, it offers tastings most days and a great selection of vintages to pair with dishes from a small, ever-evolving menu, with something for all tastes -- including impeccable salads. After a rocky start, new chef Ronan O'Dwyer has found his balance. Tee off with a dozen West Coast oysters with cabernet dressing, or sample his wonderful pan-fried soft-shell crab. Then try the venison loin with grilled polenta and rhubarb confit, or roast pork neck with mustard jus. The restaurant comprises a warren of elegant dining spaces, cozy lounge nooks, slick bars, and a 10-seat private golf-themed dining room, all serviced by primped and coiffed stud muffins.
While The Big Easy certainly has the looks, the most exciting food in town is actually being served at Cognito, 137 Dorp St. (tel. 021/882-8696; www.cognitorestaurant.co.za), which has foodies abuzz with its quirky menu and bold approach to contemporary African fusion fare. At lunch you can get lighter fare, such as an inkuku (chicken burger served on rosemary-encrusted panini, with sweet potato chips), but the self-proclaimed "showstoppers" include meat cuts and line fish, each day prepared with a different flavor or sauce (your server will fill you in), and the prawn-and-chicken Cape Malay-style curry. Don't forget to try the slightly quirky cocktail menu -- a good option is the African dawa.
For a decent, laid-back lunch experience, there's an endless array of possibilities within walking distance of the historic center. The Greek Kitchen, 42 Ryneveld St. (tel. 021/887-7703), is a small, laid-back place with outdoor seating, great mezze, and excellent slow-roasted lamb. Neighboring Greengate (tel. 021/886-6111), a deli-cafe popular with locals, offers a daily selection of fresh quiches, salads, stews, and pies sold by weight. Flavors are fresh, prices decent, and service almost laughable (brace yourself). Oenophiles should head for Wijnhuis (tel. 021/887-5844), in the Dorpsmeent Complex on Andringa Street, where you can dine on average Mediterranean-type fare with a tasting of the region's best wines (R35 to sample six).
Finally, no overview of Stellenbosch eateries would be complete without a mention of the Pan-African buffet (R225; drinks and 10% service charge extra), served by the face-painted staff at Moyo (tel. 021/809-1133), on the Spier Estate (a sprawling Disneyesque tourist mecca with hotel, amphitheater, and other entertainment): This is a great summer-night option, when the treetops are lit up, the drummers and dancers are writhing in the candlelight, and the Bedouin-tented lounge areas abutting the dining area look their most romantic and inviting. Combining the theatrical with interesting dishes from across the continent, Moyo is a recommended, albeit touristy, night out, particularly if there's something good showing at the open-air theater.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.