-- The waiters wear black bow ties, the steaks are thick and juicy, and the tables at night are bathed in candlelight. But the Pollsmoor Mess isn't your typical restaurant.

Behind the kitchen door, the cooks sport orange jumpsuits and tattoos. Tips to waiters are carefully controlled. And through one of the windows, behind a row of blooming trees, is a 30-foot-high fence of electric razor wire.

Pollsmoor Prison, the notorious Cape Town lockup where Nelson Mandela served part of his 27-year sentence, has dressed up its former guards' cafeteria and opened the new restaurant to the public.

Diners who don't mind a car search and a bit of questioning about their motives for visiting can enjoy surf and turf or a dozen other specialties, cooked and served by inmates.

The idea is to provide job training for some of Pollsmoor's more cooperative prisoners and break the cycle of recidivism that lands most ex-cons back in jail when they can't find work.

"If they can't get jobs, crime is always an option for them," said Abraham Bruintjies, the restaurant supervisor. "We want to make sure when they leave they have options."

The restaurant, a short drive outside Cape Town along one of the region's famed wine routes, is quickly gaining a cult following, not just for its cheap and succulent T-bone steaks but also for its unique ambience.

Open for lunch seven days a week and for dinner two evenings, the restaurant features a menu that includes buttery snails on toast; chicken cordon bleu; a seafood platter of mussels, shrimp, langostinos and calamari; and desserts from tartufo to banana splits. There's a kids' menu offering chicken wings and hamburgers, and diners eager to imbibe can choose from beer, spirits or some of the superb South African wines produced at the wine estates near the prison.

Just as enticing as the food is the chance to chat with waiters in jail for home invasion, theft or other nonviolent crimes.

"Inside [the cellblock] there's so much stress. You come here, and it's nicer," says Masheza Peter, 25, who's doing six years for stealing cars. "This is good work. You meet a lot of people and you get tips."

Inmates chosen for their cooperative attitude start work in the restaurant's kitchen washing dishes and scrubbing floors and then move on to grilling, frying or other cooking tasks. Eventually the most skilled of them -- those with the best English and most polished manner -- move to the restaurant floor as waiters. Most are indistinguishable from their colleagues on the outside, apart from the sneakers and occasional tattoo or missing tooth.

"Would you like a starter with that?" Peter asks while pouring sparkling water for a customer. Later he deposits dessert -- a slice of cassata, arranged on a circle of chocolate sauce with candy sprinkles and a swirl of soft-serve ice cream -- with poise and flourish.

"When these guys arrive they know nothing about being a waiter," Bruintjies said. But after taking part in a once-a-year training course, or simply learning from other inmates, the restaurant's four cleaners, six to eight cooks and six waiters quickly master everything from steaming mussels to touting wines, he said.

Many, who come from the poverty-stricken Cape Flats townships outside Cape Town, have never even eaten at a restaurant before or tasted a steak. Gladman Thembalani, one of the waiters, admits he has developed a passion for calamari since taking the job. One of the cooks, Ronald Fergotini, has become a wizard at frying the squid.

"I like it very much. It's changed my life," said the 32-year-old Fergotini, his face covered in scars from knife attacks. Now, with a cooking certificate in hand, he hopes to find work at a small hotel kitchen when he's released next month.

Prison staff members have worked hard to improve the former cafeteria's rather industrial ambience. Burgundy curtains adorn the windows, country-style wooden chairs surround tables swathed in laminated floral cloth, and potted plants dot the corners.

Still, there are reminders that this is dinner behind bars. A small box on the menu warns that "it is illegal for any inmate to be in possession of money," so tips should be deposited in a box at the front, to be converted to credit at the prison commissary.

Besides feeding wardens from Pollsmoor and other prisons, the restaurant pulls in a mixed crowd of novelty-seeking tourists and locals drawn by the bargain prices, particularly the impressive $5.60 T-bone.

"It's not the sort of food I normally eat, but I thought it was very good," said Clive Webb, a wine expert who stopped for lunch with his son, who is attending a nearby technical college. For a plate of chicken and ribs, another of steak and calamari, and two beers to wash it all down, "we paid under $10," Webb said. "We'll come back."

Prison officials, eager to bring more inmates into the training program, already have expansion plans in mind. The restaurant has begun playing host to and catering wedding receptions on weekends, and a group of chalets -- once reserved for visiting wardens -- are open to visitors. There are also a driving range and a camper park available for vacationers on prison grounds.

Keith de Vries, a spokesman for Pollsmoor, envisions the day when busloads of tourists visiting Mandela history sites pull up at the Pollsmoor Mess for lunch.

But Bruintjies cautions that the restaurant's unique environment requires working "in a controlled manner."

Visitors "should be open to being searched," he said. "And they need to call ahead."

Masheza Peter, doing time for car theft, waits on tourist Alexandra Carron.