What it's like to eat at Klein Jan, the Kalahari restaurant hidden under a 1920s desert farmhouse

  • Klein Jan is one of South Africa’s most celebrated and popular high-end restaurants.
  • It’s a dining experience that starts on the porch of a classic 1920s desert farmhouse and ends in a secret underground dining room.
  • Despite its exclusivity and location in a Northern Cape desert, it’s booked out months in advance.
  • Here’s what to expect from an evening at Klein Jan – and how to score an unlikely reservation.

Klein Jan, created by one of South Africa’s few Michelin Star chefs Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, has quickly risen to become one of the world’s go-to restaurants. This is somewhat ironic, given it’s located in the southern reaches of the Northern Cape’s Kalahari Desert.

Unsurprisingly, Klein Jan gained almost instant acclaim for its food, which is thoroughly modern but leans heavily on ingredients you’ll find on the surrounding Tswalu private game reserve and Northern Cape farms.

The decision to use local ingredients, from boiled Kalahari rainwater to Orange River raisins, makes for a good story – but similar to acclaimed South African restaurant Wolfgat, it also adds to the experience. It’s also a somewhat practical decision: the closest thing you’ll find to Klein Jan that vaguely resembles a town is Kuruman, a 90-minute drive away and a location not exactly renowned for its fresh produce markets. And even the closest farms producing goods worthy of Van der Westhuizen’s menu require drives in excess of four hours.

Despite its remote desert location (by car, 8 hours from Johannesburg and 11 hours from Cape Town) it’s still solidly booked out for months in advance. 

Those who secure a day reservation often skip the drive and fly direct to the local Tswalu airstrip. But surrounding lodges slightly cheaper than Tswalu have reportedly also seen an uptick in visitors coming simply to eat at the restaurant.

Although the food has been enough to get the restaurant noticed, the constantly shifting speakeasy-style theatrical journey through the farmhouse has cemented its reputation.

Here’s what to expect from a meal at Klein Jan, located in Tswalu Kalahari.

The Klein Jan journey starts outside a 100-year-old farmhouse surrounded by Kalahari bushveld.

It’s the type of farmhouse that may have been ignored – or captured imaginations – as you whipped past it on a road trip through the Karoo or Kalahari. And you soon learn it’s probably hiding about as many secrets.

Google Earth shows how much the farmhouse has changed. In 2003, it was a small, remote farm. And a capture from 2019 hints to some of the alterations needed to turn the old farm house into Klein Jan of today.

As a day visitor, it’s only possible to eat lunch at Klein Jan – and even those spots are hard to come by. Klein Jan reserves the spectacle of dinner for guests staying overnight in Tswalu.

Tswalu keeps all guest activities separate – and a trip to Klein Jan is no different. You’ll arrive at the restaurant with your partner or group, driven by your private guide, at a predetermined time. This keeps the experience exclusive. Aside from the shared dining areas, which have well-spaced tables, at no stage will you have to share the experience with other guests.

In summer, dinner guests start arriving shortly before sunset. 

The Klein Jan team, one of whom becomes your private guide for much of the experience, welcomes you with a hand-washing ritual using camel thorn leaves as soap and warm water poured from a large pitcher.

Staff dress in neutral-toned period outfits. They are the definition of professional, but they also fit the setting, sometimes feeling like actors in a carefully choreographed play.

Guests receive a welcome drink of Orange River sparkling wine or Kalahari whiskey sours on the 1920s farmhouse patio. Staff also pour guests glasses of lavender fever berry water. 

This is also when the menu arrives, which, if you’re coming into the experience blind, is the first hint that you’re not likely to spend your entire evening on the stoep, as idyllic as it is.

The first course is served on the stoep alongside the welcome drinks.

On this occasion, the starter was a Boscia root coffee with olives, grains, and almond skins that pay homage to the region’s migrating butterflies.

At this stage, much of the experience feels like you’re sitting in a period television series about South African farm life, and it would be easy to enjoy a full meal from this vantage point.

But before more guests arrive, your guide escorts you from the table into the old farmhouse.

The farmhouse is over 100 years old, and its interior feels part museum, part film set, and has several unique touches, like an old telephone hanging on the wall.

There’s also a small kitchen used to prepare some of the food. It would make the perfect setting for a farm-style meal, but you won’t linger here long either, and instead head out the back door.

Behind the old farmhouse is a washing line with laundry flapping gently in the evening breeze. 

At first, the laundry looks like an embarrassing oversight on the restaurant’s behalf. But you soon learn there’s very little accidental about the Klein Jan experience.

Also around the back is a vintage windmill and a rusted plaasdam, or reservoir, reintroduced during the farm’s reconstruction to complete the old farmhouse aesthetic. There’s also an outhouse that sits eerily in the dusk.

At this point, you may notice a door cut into the side of the reservoir – and your guide will open it up and motion for you to enter.

Inside the reservoir is where the most remarkable part of the journey begins. It may have been tempting for Van der Westhuizen to place a single table in the middle, but instead, he inserted a floating spiral staircase into the Kalahari Desert floor. 

The helical staircase is surrounded by a curtain of water infused with petrichor – the smell of cool rain falling on hot earth. It takes you four metres underground to a long, dimly-lit root cellar.

The cellar is a 20-metre-long brick-lined arched tunnel with shelves full of fresh produce, raw ingredients, various preserved products in glass jars, and a massive collection of regional and Cape wines.

The root cellar concept dates back to the 18th century. Farmers use them to keep food fresh in a stable environment in a region where surface temperatures reach upwards of 40 degrees Celsius. They were vital before the invention of electric fridges. 

Although it makes for a remarkable hidden attraction, the cellar still serves a practical purpose at Klein Jan. The restaurant gets most of its ingredients from surrounding businesses, which in the Kalahari can mean a four-hour drive to Prieska for pistachios or Augrabies for table grapes. Chefs then store them in what feels much like a living food museum.

Midway through the long tunnel is another surprise – a hidden table with a special tasting platter that emerges from the wall. 

Each month the Root Cellar highlights a different local ingredient. In this case, four different types of local honey washed down with a mead palate cleanser.

The journey continues into a cheese, bread, and preserves room that you’ll return to later. 

The room resembles a scene worthy of a baroque still-life food painting. 

It also has a collection of Van der Westhuizen’s cookbooks and his grandmother’s stove as a centrepiece.

The experience then enters its final destination for the evening: a modern dining space called the Infinity Room.

The room has a large opening to the outside world through floor-to-ceiling glass windows, not visible from the front of the property. At dusk, it allows you to watch the Kalahari sunset.

The Infinity Room plays atmospheric background music throughout the meal.

One end of the room has a large fireplace, the other ceiling-high shelves filled with liquor bottles holding everything from mampoer to top-shelf local whiskey, which are available for drinking.

In the middle of the room is an open kitchen, where chefs silently prepare the remaining courses.

Menu items change regularly with ingredient seasonality, but they always use items sourced from sustainable Northern Cape farmers and growers.

Although the food has a distinctly foraged and South African feel, it is also ultra-modern. 

In November, the menu included a braaibroodjie macaron, gemsbok biltong and wag-’n-bietjie lamington, “hydration” salad served with rainwater sauce, venison, salted breadsticks in grass, and xigugu and Orange River brandy raisins paired with motlopi tree root coffee.

Each course is a masterclass in plating and presentation.

And most contain a story – like this candyfloss floating above a plate of “bokdrol” chocolates for desert.

Paired wine accompanies each dish, and guests can choose unusual Northern Cape varietals or more familiar Cape options – which are stored in the adjacent Root Cellar. 

After several courses, it’s time to visit to the cheese room you previously walked through. It delivers plenty of Northern Cape cheeses and various types of handmade breads.

By this stage, at least three hours have passed in what feels like something of a time warp. 

From arrival at sunset on the stoep of a 1920s farmhouse, you’ve effectively walked a summarised journey through 100 years of desert living and cuisine, culminating in a meal in a modern dining room with a high-end open kitchen. You likely aren’t ready for the experience to end – and if that’s the case, staff will invite you to order a whisky or related nightcap that you can drink by the log fire. 

They will then escort you back through the secret passage, up the spiral staircase, into the reservoir, and through the farmhouse backdoor, now all cloaked in darkness and beneath a canopy of stars. After eating for several hours, it seems unlikely you’ll need any more food – but chefs in the old farmhouse are still on hand and may present you with one final treat for the road.

A guide will then drive you back to your lodge room, completing an evening that instantly feels like a living dream, and in no doubt that this is one of the world’s top dining experiences. It’s also an experience that changes regularly, with food and locations cycling depending on the seasons so as to keep even return trips unique.

Reserving a table at Klein Jan

Klein Jan reservations are already hard to come by. Day visitors can book tables for a seven-course tasting menu and wine-pairing lunch on select dates directly on the Klein Jan website

The meal costs R2,500 per person, and there is at least a three-month waiting list. Limited spaces become available on the first day of each month and get snapped up as soon as they become available, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the booking page and integrated DinePlan plugin.

Dinner at Klein Jan is included with all reservations at lodges within Tswalu. There is no need to book this separately if you’re staying over, and the reserve takes care of all arrangements on your behalf. 

Tswalu operates at high occupancy and caters to the upper tier of safari lodges in South Africa. But Tswalu reservations are sometimes easier to get than lunch reservations at Klein Jan. 

If you’re desperate to dine at Klein Jan, incorporating it into a trip to Tswalu is, therefore, likely the best way to secure a spot. Tswalu currently has one main lodge for couples and families, and another for exclusive use by bigger groups. Both occasionally offer promotions and deals.