We’ve stumbled on the set of a mid-20th century movie. You can almost see the tumbleweed drift across the road and hear the rattle of a coiled snake. There’s a sepia undertone to the brick-and-rust vintage diner. The red, green and yellow of the fuel pumps in front stand out in sharp relief. We’re at the Diesel & Crème vintage diner on Route 62, Barrydale, in South Africa’s Karoo heartland, but we might as well be anywhere in Jack Kerouac’s America.
There are wooden tables, blackboard menus and old tin signs advertising anything from Pepsi and Castle to Lucky Strike, Nugget and Castrol motor oil. The high ceiling is the weathered corrugated iron of a farmer’s shed, the bar stools are old tractor seats. Stained glass windows and neon signs add a few touches of brightness to an otherwise faded, monochrome palette.
Outside six bikers are at the table next to us, speaking a mix of Afrikaans and English, as the whim takes them. Inside a themed birthday party is winding down and the women filter out, some in full 1920s dress, complete with appropriate shoes, others with just a cloche or a flower stuck into a headband at a jaunty angle. Two of them pose on a 1965 Impala Chevy parked outside as if they’re at Earl’s Court. They don’t give a fig for the jumble of eras.
They saunter across the dust to the far side of the parking lot, where an open truck with blue plastic covering its sides is parked. One by one they climb a four-step wooden ladder and disappear into the back of the truck. The engine roars to life and the last we see of them they’re laughing and waving through the open back of the truck, two lines of elegantly dressed farmers’ wives, incongruous in what might well be a cattle truck.
Diesel & Crème co-owner Arthur Pharo seems to take such scenes in his stride. He tells us he started to collect bits and pieces of memorabilia when he and wife Louise bought a house in Barrydale six years ago. When he wanted to get a licence and open a pub behind in the house, she baulked. So they bought a piece of land next door and Diesel & Crème was born.
Arthur brought bits and pieces here from all over. If I remember correctly, the steel shed came from Bonnievale, the stained glass windows from Belgium, some other windows from Uruguay, the verandah, floor and roof sheets from the Free State. ‘The inspiration for the theme was old movies. You know, where you see people driving to the vintage diner?’ he says. ‘We still have a house in Cape Town so our feet are there, but our hearts are here in Barrydale.’
Arthur is obviously mad about vintage cars and motorbikes. You can expect to see a few of his favourites parked outside. The last time we visited, apart from the Chevy the birthday ladies used as a prop, there was a black Pontiac and a Harley-Davidson with a licence plate ‘Spoilt-WP’. He confesses it’s not the only bike in the family, but insists this isn’t a place just for bikers: ‘Everyone’s welcome and everyone’s treated equally.’
If you visit to sample the cakes and the milkshakes, which are rapidly becoming legendary, you’ll leave thrilled with your experience. We can vouch for the Morning Glory (shot of espresso), Honey Crunch (honey and Crunchie) and Vintage Villain (with bits of chocolate brownie) milkshakes. The Lady in Red (with bits of red velvet cake) and Pink Cadillac (strawberry) are also hugely popular. Each is served in a Consol jar with a piece of plastic tubing as a straw – because no normal straw is fat enough to handle how thick these concoctions are.
As for the meals, the diner does breakfast and lunch. On two different occasions, we tried the signature Diner Burger (with bacon and cheese) and the chicken burger. The buns were freshly made and the potato wedges yummy, but we thought the burgers fell a little short of the five-star delights of the décor and milkshakes. There are weekly specials like butternut soup and Amarula malva pudding. The diner also does man-sized waffles I’ve heard people rave about.
Diesel & Crème is open 7 days a week from 8am till 5pm, tel 028-5721008. If you’re in the area, stop and see what all the fuss is about. Better yet, make a plan to go to Barrydale one weekend and take in some of its other pleasures too. That way you’ll have time to return for a second or third milkshake.