Anyone who’s been to that most gloriously styled of Cape Town restaurants, The Duchess of Wisbeach, set off the main drag in Sea Point, should have at least an inkling of what its chef-proprietor is all about. No, not just the satisfying, homely dishes Theresa Beukes serves up night after night, but the casually decadent, slightly worn-at-the-edges grandeur of the space she’s created, in which it’s often impossible to get a table. There are piles of faded old books wherever you look, even in the rather glamorous loos (which can cause terrible hold-ups), regal gilded mirrors, an inviting antique bar, and on the tables, holding down the crisp white cloths, an assortment of kitsch porcelain hounds. When not surveying the scene from their beds, Theresa’s own two dogs trail after her as she greets friends and customers between sending out orders. The Duchess is just that kind of place.
Theresa’s Green Point home is in many (but not all) ways an extension of her restaurant, where she spends seemingly most of her life, starting work at 8am and finishing often in the early hours of the morning. Sundays are her sole days to herself and she wouldn’t really want them spent anywhere but at her renovated Victorian terrace, reclining on a day bed layered in antique linen out on the sunny front veranda, or relaxing in a repurposed iron bathtub set in the middle of the prettiest bathroom ever, perhaps catching up on some reading. Books are an obsession and, as with The Duchess, they take pride of place here.
Theresa’s move to Cape Town from Johannesburg, where she had run a succession of popular restaurants, happened ‘by way of a detour into country life,’ she says. She spent two years ‘making jam’ at her late father’s cattle and apple farm near Elgin. With ambitions to turn the farmhouse into a boutique hotel and spa, she called in well-known designer Craig Kaplan with a view to ‘doing it up’, and a friendship was forged.
Circumstances, however, brought her to Cape Town. ‘It was quite a big thing,’ says Theresa, ‘I bought a house and started a restaurant in a new city at the same time.’ This time Craig was able to help her with both. ‘We did the Duchess on the smell of an oily rag,’ she says. ‘Everything in it belongs either to Craig or to me, taken from home.’
She had found her perfect house with relative ease – it had, fortuitously, belonged to her real estate agent and Theresa had fallen ‘instantly in love with it’. ‘I wanted a house that wasn’t pretentious or ostentatious… that wasn’t modern or smart,’ she says. This one fitted the bill. Although it had the requisite wooden floors and high ceilings, there was still much work to be done on it. ‘Upstairs was a rabbit warren of minute rooms,’ she says.
Walls were knocked down to create ‘one big room’ – a generous space comprising a kitchen and dining area, leading into an airy lounge that opens onto a balcony spanning the width of the house. ‘The house must have been subdivided in the 1950s,’ says Theresa, explaining the strange position of a staircase, now blocked off after
a new one was installed to connect the upper and lower levels.
The house has been beautifully finished, from the elegant cornices to the neat, recessed bookshelves, although its owner was adamant about keeping a patchy stretch of the wooden floors in the dining area as is, an effect that adds to the patina of the revitalised old home, along with its original fireplaces and ceiling roses.
A soft, neutral palette ranging from milky whites and double-thick creams to, in her sleeping and bathing quarters, the palest pinks and baby blues, makes for a calming backdrop for inherited furniture and the odd quirky find. Theresa’s home is all about comfort and ambience, and reveals the sort of unstudied style that is not easily emulated. It is in every way fit for a duchess. The Duchess of Wisbeach.
Originally published in HL October 2012.