Durban - Britannia Hotel’s Capsicum restaurant is Olympic gold medallist Chad le Clos’s eatery of choice whenever he craves a curry.
Former Springbok captain John Smit is a regular and MasterChef SA winner Deena Moodley recommended it to celebrity chef Reza Mahammad who, in turn, sang its praises on a BBC Food programme screened recently.
In June it was featured on SABC’s breakfast show Expresso. This week it was the venue for the screening of an episode of an outdoor cooking series, which is still to be aired and which we cannot name.
“We’re overjoyed at being chosen as the only Durban restaurant to host an episode of the series, but we’ve been asked not to reveal the show’s name to the media,” said Shamla Naidoo, Britannia’s general manager.
“I think our delicious food and the high levels of hygiene we maintain in our kitchen were especially refreshing for them.”
Naidoo told how a reconnaissance mission undertaken by the show’s crew caught them by surprise.
“One of the show’s heads heard good things about Britannia from John Smit, who is one of our patrons.
“They came unannounced. We were taken by complete surprise. But our high levels of cleanliness and the crab curry they sampled secured a slot for us on the series,” Naidoo said.
Britannia Hotel has been operating for 133 years and has a unique colonial architecture. Unlike the early days, today it has fully air-conditioned rooms and a modern sports bar.
As appealing as that may be, it is its curry that has brought the hotel both local and international fame and attracts a range of curry connoisseurs, from sporting stars and entertainers to politicians.
Naidoo says it’s the high standard of their food that keeps them coming.
“We pride ourselves on consistently serving high-quality meals coupled with excellent service.
“To maintain our standards, the staff (more than 60) often go on regular training programmes so we remain at the top of our game.
“Perhaps that is the reason our reputation as one of the best curry houses continues to grow.
“We don’t pay particular attention to the many famous customers who come through our doors, although the staff usually get really excited and often get autographs and pictures with the celebrities,” Naidoo said.
She said Trevor Noah, Le Clos, Trevor Manuel, Ernie Smith and many local entertainers and actors were some of the more famous faces who have eaten at the hotel.
In a recent radio interview, Le Clos said if he wants a curry in Durban, he goes to the Britannia.
“I love eating curries. The Britannia is the place I usually go to when I get the craving – but not when I was preparing for a competition,” said Le Clos.
“Their mutton curry is my favourite,” said the swimmer, who is looking forward to a visit to the hotel.
“My schedule is really hectic at this stage – it’s two weeks before I get down to serious training once again. I’ll try to make a stop there in that time,” Le Clos added
Deena Naidoo is another who can’t get enough of the Britannia’s curries and has been spreading the word.
“Reza (Mahammad) and I are good friends.
“He was on his Tour of Africa and wanted a typically Durban taste. I pointed him to Britannia,” said Naidoo, the recently crowned MasterChef SA.
“Reza thoroughly enjoyed the mutton curry. The outing was recorded for an episode on the BBC’s Food Network.
“Three weeks ago, the family of the US winner of MasterChef was in the country and I also recommended Britannia curry to them.
“The thing I like about their food, especially the mutton curry, is the consistency, efficiency and quick service.
“And it is authentic mutton curry. I’ve seen so many versions of this dish. Often the essence of a mutton curry is lost. But I find Britannia’s to be most authentic,” Naidoo said.
So what else keeps Britannia’s patrons coming back for more?
“I think our special mix of spices that goes into all our curries sets us apart from other curry houses,” Shamla Naidoo said.
“Linkey Moodley is the owner of the Britannia. When he bought the hotel in 1981, his mum, Logambal, did all the cooking.
“She used her special mix of spices in all her curries over the years. Logambal, 83, is retired but we still use her original recipes.”
The Britannia was built in 1879 by Castle Wine and EK Green, a liquor wholesaler. According to the hotel’s website, it served primarily the white population of Durban and was classified as such.
Initially it was one block of a building but later it was extended to include more facilities.
During apartheid the wholly white status quo remained in terms of the main facilities of accommodation and pub.
The hotel was then sold to Hymie Sacks, who later sold it to two Indian businessmen.
Not much changed until the Moodley family took over.
When the building was declared a heritage site it restricted any changes to the exterior apart from restoration work.
But Moodley has done extensive renovations to the interior to add ambience and to make the surrounds more comfortable for his many loyal patrons.
He has, however, not interfered with the original marble staircase or the wooden panels that lead to the hotel’s rooms.
In 2010 the old dinning hall underwent a major revamp and was turned into a restaurant, appropriately named Capsicum, a pungent chilli pepper found in North America.
The dining area comfortably seats 100 people.
“While more and more patrons refer to the restaurant by its name, the majority of our patrons prefer Britannia or Brits,” Naidoo said.
Tribune food writer Derek Taylor has been enjoying the Britannia’s curries for the past 20 years.
“Originally it was a bar and a very elementary restaurant, with a betting shop next door.
“I was introduced to it when I first came to Durban by a bunch of traders from the fresh produce market.
“My first lunch with them was a very long one, made longer by the fact that they kept going off to place bets on various races on at Greyville that day. Still, it was very enjoyable.
“Today it has been refreshed and offers a very good-value introduction to a curry buffet on Saturday nights, and the bar is still full of characters.”
Columnist and radio presenter Ravi Govender is another long-standing Britannia patron.
“My first trip to Brits was in my teen years – the legendary chops chutney and mutton bunnies have always been my preferences,” said Govender.
“I recall entering the main room of the hotel with my uncle, who was a connoisseur of good food and drink.
“The dining hall resembled the saloons we had grown accustomed to seeing in classic western movies, and food used to be served on partitioned stainless steel trays.
“The long queues of people at lunch and supper times is testament to just how good the food is. And in spite of the food being spiced up, people from across the racial lines throng there,” Govender said. - Sunday Tribune