If longevity is a factor in the success and standing of a dining venue, as it surely must be, then a large part of the success of Harare’s La Fontaine restaurant must be its ability to stand the test of time and remain as respected now as when it opened its doors.
La Fontaine is the flagship restaurant of the five—star Meikles Hotel and opened its doors on December 8 1958. This means it will mark its 60th anniversary later this year and I understand the hotel plans to commemorate this milestone with a celebratory event. And so it should: this restaurant has created for itself a great reputation as not only a venue of good service and cuisine, but also of adaptability and innovation.
A great many restaurants and other dining venues have come and gone across Zimbabwe across the last century or so, and only a small number go on to achieve significant birthdays. La Fontaine is not Zimbabwe’s longest-running restaurant; that distinction lies in Victoria Falls, where Meikles Hotel’s sister establishment, The Victoria Falls Hotel, is home to the holder of that title: The Livingstone Room.
As the Christmas Pass Hotel in Mutare is the country’s longest-established and continuously operational hotel, one would have thought that its own restaurant would lay claim to the title, but sadly for them their restaurants have come and gone over the years and there have even been periods when their dining venues have been closed altogether. Around Zimbabwe there are venues with fine histories — some of them reaching back to the 1960s and 1970s, but La Fontaine holds a record longer than any of them.
Meikles Hotel was opened in 1915 and its original building was a double-storey construction adjacent to the current hotel’s site. Within that hotel were several dining venues, among them the principal dining room that was as large as a ballroom and of which many older Zimbabweans have fond memories.
La Fontaine was opened after the hotel’s wing was built in the 50s, and has been in the same position ever since, flanked by the equally popular and long-running Can Can cocktail bar. The restaurant is named for the fountains in Africa Unity Square, over which La Fontaine looks, and it is my wish that the City of Harare could upgrade and restore these fountains to their former glory in time for the 60th birthday!
The hotel’s new executive chef, Bosco Govera, is at present finalising new menus for all of the hotel’s food outlets, and this will include one for La Fontaine. His plans include the retention of current favourites and the introduction of exciting new dishes, an important factor that helps create new customers and add value for long-standing ones. The hotel’s recently-appointed deputy general manager, Victor Saurombe, is working on a new wine list, too, and this will also feature existing and new labels to ensure comprehensiveness and appeal.
My last outing to La Fontaine was on Sunday evening, when the Meikles Foundation hosted a fundraising dinner in the restaurant at the end of the run of the Ballet Beautiful show at Reps Theatre. This outstanding production was a collaboration between the Dance Trust of Zimbabwe’s National Ballet and the Cape Town City Ballet company, the second such pairing in the past two years.
The four dancers from CTCB stayed on a complimentary basis at Meikles Hotel during their week-long (and very eventful) visit to Harare, They, plus the director and choreographer from CTB, Robin van Wyk, agreed to join in a Meet The Stars dinner at which people could chat and find out more about the life of a ballet performer. It was an altogether outstanding evening, with excellent cuisine from Chef Bosco’s special table d’hote menu — complete with ballet additions — and delightful wines supplied on a complimentary basis by BrandsAfrica,
The menu started with a choice between Potage Veloute Fonteyn, a duo of pumpkin and mushroom soups that I selected and thoroughly enjoyed, and Chicken Liver Parfait Nureyev, which DTZ chair Ellen Marime, seated next to me, said was excellent and very light. Main course was a choice between Filet Mignon Nijinsky, Poulet Balanchine and Dhiagelev Oriental Stir Fry. I chose the lovely beef fillet, as did Ellen, and we both asked for — and received — meat that was well done; the others who wanted the more traditional underdone to ‘blue’ steaks were enthusiastic about their meat, too. I did not see anyone select the stir fry but the chicken was certainly popular and favourably commented on.
Dessert was made up of Trio Merle Park — named in honour of Zimbabwe’s most successful ballet dancer, who went to great heights in the Royal Ballet is now in her 80s in retirement in the UK — and this dish included snippets of crème brulee, apple crumble and lava pudding. With coffee came Lindt chocolates, also supplied generously by BrandsAfrica.
What was interesting was that the names of all the ballet dancers, choreographer and impresario on the menu was a connection over the past century with Meikles Hotel, each having been in either the old or new hotel at least once over the years.
To this could have been added Darcey Bussell, formerly of the Royal Ballet and now well known as a judge on the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing, which many of us watch with glee each year on DStv. Paired with dinner were good wines: BrandsAfrica had given a Wolftrap Rose for the welcome drink, followed by a Wolftrap White blend and three reds, all of the fat bastard label: shiraz, merlot and pinotage. I had a good supply of the shiraz and found it exceptionally smooth and a superb accompaniment to my meal.
After dinner, Robin van Wyk spoke of the relationship developing between the Dance Trust of Zimbabwe and the Cape Town City Ballet, and said that the group had thoroughly enjoyed their time in Harare, even with being caught up in some of the post-election turmoil. It is to be hoped their collaboration can become an annual event, but as was noted at the dinner, this depends on corporate funding to make it happen. So come on, Zimbabwean corporates; this is a rewarding and meaningful sponsorship!
La Fontaine is a popular venue for all kinds of celebratory events, and it is also open daily for meals for everyone, not only people staying in the hotel but also folk from across Harare who should take advantage of this great name in the culinary world on their doorstep. A resident band plays on certain nights, offering dance as a complement to the dining. It is open for lunch on weekdays and for dinner every day, and booking is always recommended: call (024) 2707721 to do so.
As a restaurant that has served both the hotel and the community well over six decades, La Fontaine is a venue that rarely disappoints. The team there on the night we dined was enthusiastic, helpful, efficient and friendly. The mood, enhanced by delightful piano music from resident pianist Kudzi, was gentle and relaxing. Reflecting on its history, the nature of the event I was attending and the genuinely top class nature of the cuisine, I honoured to be there to join what must be a list of tens of thousands of people who have dined there since December 1958. I look forward to the year-end celebratory event and to toasting the next 60 years of La Fontaine.