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What it’s like inside Cape Town’s award-winning secret bar The Art of Duplicity

Last year The Art of Duplicity moved up two spots on the World’s 50 Best Bars extended list. We visited to see what the hush-hush hype is all about

09 February 2022 - 09:34
The moody bar inside The Art of Duplicity.
The moody bar inside The Art of Duplicity.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer

Once you’ve made it past the first nondescript door, you find yourself in a narrow alley with a laundry line zigzagging above your head.

“Password?”

If the baton-touting doorman is satisfied with your answer, you are ushered into the belly of a secret operation: through a back door and past a row of toilets, along a darkly-lit wall and towards the corner of a vast room where a sign which reads “strictly no admittance” is far from welcoming.

Boom. Boom. Boom. The doorman bangs on the door before slipping away, leaving you to your own devices.

A few moments pass.

“What now?” someone asks.

We wait.

Moments later, a small slit in the door slides open. We’re again asked for the password before being allowed in — a bit more brusquely this time. It’s all part of the act.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported into the 1920s prohibition era

The small foyer opens into a converted warehouse of sorts. Metal structures line the walls and bear large burlap sacks. But it’s what unfolds between the walls where the magic happens.

Jazz guitar music marries beautifully with the sultry vocals coming from the small stage at the front of the room.

Rich leather couches and velvet chairs made of dark wood fill the floor amid vintage lampshades, trinkets and peacock feathers. At the back a striking bar beckons — moody and terribly tempting.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported into the 1920s prohibition era. The suggested “Al Capone meets Mae West” dress code is taken seriously by many of the patrons of this establishment.

The speakeasy cocktail bar was opened in Cape Town by the man behind Truth Coffee, David Donde, and award-wining bartender Brent Perremore, in 2018. Since then it’s been raking in the accolades.

In 2020 it was named Cocktail Bar of the Year during the 2020 virtual SA Bartending Accolades and Recognition Awards, and at the end of last year it made it onto the extended list of the World’s 50 Best Bars for the second year in a row, up two places from number 88 to 86.

The bar is headed by Spirit Guide Justin Shaw (the pun is fully intended), who changes the menu every four months or when he feels it’s needed.

Supply chain issues and alcohol shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic restriction mean Shaw is slightly constrained by his creations — not that you could tell.

A Twist on a Basil Smash, left, and Saigon Sideshow.
A Twist on a Basil Smash, left, and Saigon Sideshow.
Image: Sanet Oberholzer
Mixologist Justin Shaw behind the bar.
Mixologist Justin Shaw behind the bar.
Image: Sanet Oberhozler

When they don’t have a printed cocktail menu, Shaw’s latest creations are relayed by the charming Mark Purdy. On this visit, they sounded delicious and intriguing.

I had a Saigon Sideshow, a spicy Asian cocktail with a bit of bite that develops flavour and intensity as the ice melts and the temperature changes. We also tried the (secret) Twist on a Basil Smash and a tall cocktail that resembles a Guinness but is made with whiskey, cognac, coffee infused milk stout and a few additional — and very secret — ingredients.

They also have their classic cocktails served strong and stiff in dainty glasses. They’re inspired by the cocktails from the pages of The Great Gatsby: no mixers and a flurry of delicious booze mixed together.

“Why do you think they were always so happy?” Purdy winks.

Cocktails with a powerful kick are served in dainty glasses.
Cocktails with a powerful kick are served in dainty glasses.
Image: Crave Concepts

Their most popular cocktail was the Noritori Tea, a R360 cocktail made with Japanese whiskey and served hot with one description: “Don’t ask”. It's been described by the Cocktail Pilgrim, a respected member of many cocktail awards judging panels, as the best cocktail he’s ever had.

A small food menu is available to enhance the cocktail offering. They’ve added dim-sum and the duck bao is well worth a visit on its own.

When it first opened, an invitation and the bar’s location was only obtainable through word of mouth, but those who are curious to discover Cape Town’s best kept secret can make a booking online to receive a series of clues and — if you’re lucky — the secret location.  

• The Art of Duplicity is open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 6pm until late. Tables are reserved in two-hour time slots for an early seating and later seating (standing room is available should guests wish to stay longer), and group seating is limited to 10 guests per party. For reservations, visit: 170120.co.za


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