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Alexander Bar and Café
The conversation bar that’s the talk of the town
A saving grace for anyone who’s ever lost a conversation to a bar television or felt the burn of Cape Town city centre’s cliquey social scene, Alexander Bar & Café was first born to rescue two locals from an exodus abroad.
“We were either going to have to emigrate or make our own place to hang out,” explains an emphatic Nicholas Spagnoletti, one of the bar’s two co-owners, when quizzed about the birth of the idea for the Strand Street watering hole.
Needless to say, frustrated by the shortcomings of the Mother City’s taverns, lounges and clubs, and inspired by recent trips to Berlin and Istanbul, Alexander’s co-founders decided to take matters into their own hands.
“The point of a bar is to get people to talk to each other,” Nicholas goes on. “We wanted to make a place that forced patrons to mix and mingle and meet one another.”
The result? Fertile conversation ground in the heart of the Cape Town CBD.
The talk of the town
Designed thoughtfully and deliberately to create a buzz even among the most awkward of bar flies, Alexander brazenly tears a page from the good book of British pub culture. For one, the main feature, a handsome mahogany counter, is built as an island in the centre of the room and boasts four corners ideal for gathering round, a pointed ploy meant to encourage banter between both taciturn strangers and the best of mates.
Similarly, Nicholas and his founding partner, Edward van Kuik, were adamant about ensuring that no one would have to sit side-saddle or stand nervously. Thus, there’s more than enough leg room – and hooks for bags – under the bar overhang, making the centrepiece’s high-backed chairs inviting perches for even those who don’t need to have a good time to drink (happy hour is serious business for some).
Though, the concept of facilitating interaction doesn’t stop there; rather, it prevails throughout Alexander’s old-world décor. Antique rotary telephones and a rotating couch help to spur on the predatory cat-and-mouse games that so often go on in places where there’s too much alcohol and not enough inhibition.
And thanks to Edward’s inner nerd – both owners are actually computer programmers by trade – the telephones are not only functional, but also allow patrons to call other tables, burst into already-established conversations and phone in orders to the bar.
“People use them to jump the queue when it’s busy,” admits Nicholas, “which is very naughty, but completely allowed.”
The plush, swivelling piece of furniture (the rotating couch), on the other hand, is the perfect icebreaker for those at a loss for a good pick-up line or witty intro.
Both items are also indicative of a broader Victorian-era motif. Sumptuous drawing room chairs, antiquated artefacts (ancient typewriters and a worn phonograph), padded walls and gilded mirrors adorn the room, making for a theme that’s seamlessly stitched together by colourful Persian rugs.
“The bar turned out a little smarter than we initially imagined, but this building commanded a bit of prestige,” Nicholas says, motioning to the 275-year-old facade.
Deemed a heritage site, Alexander Bar flaunts the sort of regal character only achieved at a certain age; though, its owners insist that the ambience is not so much stuffy, as it is “gentlemen’s club camp”, a concept that’s even inspired the food and drink menu.
“You can sip your way around Scotland in an evening, and it will be a lot cheaper than at most Cape Town whisky bars,” Nicholas explains in reference to the personally-chosen single malt collection.
Aside from a lean, mean, cherry-picked whisky selection, Alexander also offers an assortment of craft beers (there’s a weiss brew on tap), an eclectic mix of classic cocktails (try the Cucumber and Elderflower Martini) and a simple food menu offering up reinvented salads, sandwiches and cheese and charcuterie boards.
Not to mention, the kitchen stays open until midnight, a point that Nicholas insisted upon as he often used to battle to find a restaurant still serving when he finished late-night Monday theatre sessions.
Not an obvious drama buff, Nicholas – a man of many talents, it seems – is also an acclaimed playwright, a passion that inspired the latest addition to the bar, Alexander Upstairs.
Once used as office space, the second storey of the city centre watering hole has, since October 2012, been used as an intimate, 40-seater performance arena. Operating on a festival-like schedule – different shows are on the bill for every evening – the theatre packs stand-up comedy sessions, jazz nights, literary readings and more into any given week.
Needless to say, the space is both a perfect platform for new, emerging and established artists and the most valid excuse for Capetonians to venture out on a weeknight since the advent of the pool table.
All in all then, Alexander Bar may be a throwback to a time gone by in its look and feel, but it’s clearly paving the way forward with its penchant for connecting people and its success in supporting the Mother City’s arts and culture scene.
Tip: While not available for private hire (it would be against their mix ‘n mingle-inspired constitution), Alexander Bar does have a parlour room and a canapé menu perfect for accommodating smaller parties.
The Bill: Expect prices to suit every income bracket. The food menu has options that range from R26 (Swiss and Mozzarella Cheese Toastie) to R105 (the Cheese and Charcuterie Board). Similarly, beers run from R16 (commercial brew) to R43 (Darling Slow beer) and cocktails and wine average around R40 a glass.
Find out more about the intimate city theatre space Alexander Upstairs.
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