South Africa


Joburg food creators – pivoting as fast as they can

Joburg food creators – pivoting as fast as they can
Seventh Street, Melville, Jozi, in July 2020 when it was no longer bustling with business at al fresco tables. (Photo: Supplied)

Restaurateurs and chefs are turning their livelihoods around and then around again, with each new set of regulations, performing almost impossible pirouettes, some gracefully, some with a sorry stumble.

Ziggy the Seventh Street cat troddles bulkily in his full-fur coat, across the road. I don’t hold my breath today because there’s not much traffic even though it’s Saturday. Anyway, Ziggy does it twice a day each way and knows his treat beat. He belongs to an arty woman with a pet food parlour named after him, and her actor husband. But Ziggy’s the independent type, intent on his route with fewer rewards.

I’ve been avoiding this street that people describe as “the one with all the restaurants” on my own ambulations because of the sadness of seeing now-vacant spaces. I’ve just come up from the Bamboo Centre two streets down, from the service station where the better-heeled often queued for tables or even just the sunny window-bar stools there, especially on Saturdays. Carmen van der Merwe, the owner, said they’ve “only just reopened”. And shrugged at the only two tables, one  occupied by three young goggle-eyed men, in the large and strangely quiet, glassy open space. 

Here in Seventh Street I follow Ziggy from De la Crème, generally a meeting spot, where no one is seated at the now-distanced tables. There are just two masked women choosing pastries to take away. I think Ziggy received a reward and I got my first hand-sanitising of the day just inside the door, where the gingerbread men used to be. The tables on the pavement are empty but for the newspaper vendress.

Ziggy had his own bowl at The Whippet but must know by now that The Whippet, only recently bursting with chattering breakfasters, features sage green chairs piled onto creamy wooden tables inside, a bare pantry and the rooftop farm’s tent fluttering blankly atop the lovely art deco building.

Melville is a good place to gauge many things and restauranting is one of them. Guide books say it’s “an accessible microcosm of Johannesburg”. I know what they mean. A full variety of colours, creeds, ages and sexes, South Africans and internationals, sit out on the pavements. They’re a pretty friendly lot so it’s where conversations and gauging can be done.

It’s more accessible too because people walk around here, rather than drive as in the rest of Joburg. Every seventh house is a guesthouse or houses an Airbnb largely because of the many international NGOs, the academic visitors to the two local universities and the medical specialists visiting the two local teaching hospitals. Most of Melville’s own population seems to be freelance and involved in the arts. I’m speaking in the present tense as if it were all still obvious.

Ziggy has reached the end of his block and crosses the street again to visit the mostly closed places on the other side, while I move on up, reading the closed signs on one place after another.

Melville has 37 restaurants and food-serving cafés in just over three blocks on Seventh Street and a few alongside. No one counts Main Road for more eateries because those are mostly chain restaurants. Or were.

Of those 37 places, 12 remain open in some sit-down measure. One of them is Hell’s Kitchen, though its sister restaurant La Santa Muerte is shut. Hell’s Kitchen sports a lot of outdoor space, all unoccupied. Jonno Kirby the owner isn’t in and I don’t see the kitchen fire lit, where rather good burgers and steaks are shown the boozy flames. A waitress tells me “more” people will eat here “tonight”. More than none.

And so it goes. My hands are full of all kinds of sanitisers from the variously scented to some gloopy blue stuff. I sorely miss La Stalla, Pablo’s Eggs Go Bar and Ba Pita. They are closed for good. Some restaurants are closed but just Until.

Until has just been extended to September perhaps, when alcohol may be permitted to be drunk with food once more. La Petite Maison, a delicious sliver of a fine dining restaurant, despite its name, has been producing astonishingly good tasting menu meals, inspired by places all over southern Africa. It could only ever host 16 lucky people at the most, a third of them snuggled along the beautiful mustard velvet sofa-banquette.

Spilt Milk should be doing fairly well with no wine expectations, serving coffees, breakfasts and toasties for lunch inside but also on a wooden deck and in the big sunny back area. There are not many takers indoors and no one outside, where I would have expected people to be.

A very large IT “café” has been licensed until now, to sell both wine by the bottle and food takeaways during lockdown Level 3. Tables and chairs had been set out in the courtyard parking lot, where people were presumably free to combine their drinks and food at one sitting if they chose. And they did.

I don’t bump into two friends outside. Instead, we skirt each other as if in a masked minuet. Michelle and Ashley are loading large cartons and lots of teaspoons into a lorry for their feeding scheme. Ashley and her husband would “normally” be running their madly popular Roving Bantu Kitchen in nearby Brixton, “closed for now”.

The Lonely Hearts Club is the only place where, apart from sanitising my poor hands again, the manager with a hairstyle that adds 20cm to his not insubstantial height also takes my temperature and my name and contacts on a clipboard. Named for the Beatles and not for dating purposes, this tapas restaurant belonged to Jonno Kirby too until just before lockdown. The new owner stands by looking shocked. Here there’s also a rather lovely and long, sunny outdoor area. But nobody else is anywhere to be seen.     

The Ant has another fun and sunny courtyard as well as pavement tables but, surprisingly, no one is using them. The Ant is well known in Joburg for those almost transparent, thin-crust pizzas. Thys Botha the owner says “people prefer to take them away now”.

There aren’t many easy-to-spot foreign NGO types on the street any more.  Two people speaking masked German pass me quickly but that’s all. I ask a local guesthouse owner where the visitors go out to eat now. He says, “They don’t – they order in through Uber Eats. Everyone’s scared.” He says he hasn’t eaten out since lockdown but might, he concedes, go to a place he trusts, “very well-run, like  Pronto in Craighall”. I know it is open for sit-downs.

The matter of trust is a great consideration, I think, sitting in the warm sun on one of the many benches alongside a very architectural children’s playground, drinking good coffee and dipping into it an excellent croissant from Kwoffie, the roastery. The place had been full, which seemed like a funny word when I looked at the separated tables. But they were all taken indoors. It does breakfasts and lunches. I decide there are two places in Johannesburg I trust most and whose food I especially want to eat in situ. One is in Melville, the other in Parktown North.

Alongside me, within the 27 Boxes, a sad, much-emptied centre built of containers, the Countess, the double-storey, fabulous, ultimate-burger specialist restaurant, has shut. Reservations is open though, a casual coffee and breakfast and lunch restaurant. It has a wide outdoor area and this one is being utilised today. The other four restaurants I can see from here are closed, except for Bambanani.

Bambanani is a restaurant for parents, with two supervised, three-tier vertical play parks for children at the back. Mothers would often be swigging chardonnays together on the wide restaurant verandah, while their children were off their hands. When I look in today, the restaurant is empty but five children are in the play parks. Their parents hold coffee cups, watching them.

Here and in the rest of Joburg, I am fascinated by how owners and chefs are turning their livelihoods around and then around again, with each new set of regulations, performing almost impossible pirouettes, some gracefully, some with a sorry stumble. And my expectations about patrons’ behaviour is not all going as I’d presupposed. Why aren’t they all sitting outdoors? What drags them out of the safety of their homes in the early evenings?

I amble down empty avenues to see the two chefs at NCW, a beautifully restored heritage building, which is a Joburg top-10, tasting menu restaurant, strung throughout a gallery of Ence Willemse’s own collection of South African art. It has recently opened again, now for smallish group bookings. But meantime, the two have started a more homely line of comfort dinners, the elements of which you choose to make up the whole meal. It’s called Anna’s, after both their mothers. These I’ve tried a couple of times and am not surprised at their sudden popularity, delightfully delivered by the chefs themselves.

These energetic guys are doing it all by themselves these days, Ence in the kitchen and Philip Potgieter seeing to the guests. They had a party of 20 here last night at a very long table and have another tonight, both boozeless, with virgin concoctions of drinks centred on their fascination with local, often overlooked and forgotten plants, fruits and vegetables like waterbessies, African horned melons and wild African herbs, as the food is.

Standing in the sun on their big patio next to the fountain, I picture a group of my friends getting involved in a fascinating Ence meal, looking towards the wilder koppies. When the sun sets over there, we leave. No booze is really required for that. This is one of the two places I trust most.

The street outside Il Contadino. (Photo: Supplied)

My other one is very different. It’s Il Contadino, named for utilising the all-organic foods from the chef-owner’s family farm, in rustic-food fashion, not necessarily Italian at all. James Diack has closed his finer-foods restaurant, Coobs in Parkhurst, and will move next to Il Contadino in Parktown North. James will now, this coming week, also open a deli alongside these two, to make use of all that fine produce and the charcuterie and cheeses his mother turns out on Brightside, the farm. He is elated, laughing delightedly as we speak, turning what had seemed a ghastly situation around, into something he can love. He races ahead, saying he’ll use the farm sausages for hotdogs in his wood-fired oven rolls, spilling with the preserves and pickles from Brightside. He’ll make ice creams using the full dairy cream and eggs, the berries and fruits and nuts off the farm. He’ll even sell his wild boar ragu at the deli, inter delicious alia.

“The best of it all is that the guys that have been with me through all these years and businesses can be with me still. We can continue to work!”

Joanne (Jo) Botha, who also lives in Melville, and runs her Pillar9 reputation strategy business, has a portfolio of magnificent restaurants including Marble in Rosebank and Saint in Sandton, both owned and run by top-tenner chef David Higgs and his business partner Gary Kyriacou. “They are both remaining closed,” says Jo. “Without the optimum number of tables, without the building up of the experience of moving from the beautiful on-site bars to the tables, appreciating the décor, the service and the stunning wines that are all intrinsic to the experience, it’s not viable or what David and Gary want you to have.” She pauses and adds, “It’s just not worth it.”

We chat about the “heartbreaking” shutting down of another Joburg top-tenner, Farro in Illovo, run by chef Alex Windebank and his wife, Eloise. The two had battled and won against enormous odds, most probably because of their location. And it was Jo’s favourite eatery, apart from her clients’. The Windebanks still have a pretty wonderful box business though, where orders for two or four include a couple of their outstanding main dishes, a light meal, a stunner dessert and lots of little extra treats. It’s a semi-pirouette, though Eloise says they have decided not to do any pivoting.

Another person, apart from James Diack, starting a new food business in this time is Shayne Holt, the man behind Coalition, the place of the slow-slow sourdough pizzas. I’d dream about them through week after week of lockdown. Now they can be ordered for delivery, as delicious as ever. And a new Coalition has just opened in Blairgowrie.

However, another favourite, BRIK, in Parkwood, has shut. The all-consciousness, all-deliciousness place that I had imagined would be doing so well, especially in the breakfasts and lunches arena, has closed and is selling the responsibly sourced produce as deliveries.

However, DW11-13 in Dunkeld, the food platform for Joburg top-tenner Marthinus Ferreira, is open for diners. He’s the person who probably understands and uses taste relationships better than any other chef here, to build the most mouth magic in his dishes. However, he’s also selling divine dinners online.

Ciro Molinari has always been able to boast that some of the top dinners hosted in Johannesburg consist of food taken in the hosts’ own containers from Cucina di Ciro in Parktown North. He said to me that things “are not all good”. He is open again, just from Fridays to Sundays, and “will give it three months”. He said, regarding diners-out that, “There’s a section with money,” and I know he means his faithful regulars, “but even they are starting to feel the pinch.”

Ziggy’s cross-road activities, while I marvel at their constancy, do say something sad about not attempting anything new. His relied-on places have closed on his route but he hasn’t yet tried for new ones elsewhere.

I can hardly compare a chef with a cat, though it’s a charming provocation, but there are the spinners, those pirouetting energetically, maybe because of their staff, of new thrills, of old debts. And then there’s something Eloise Windebank wrote when they decided to shut:

“It was supposed to be about great food, great wine and great joy.”

She added later, “We need to push ‘reset’ and find a way to start again. But start better this time, do better, stay more attuned to who we are. When we can gather again, there might be pop-ups, and intimate dinner parties, long, lazy lunches under trees and menus that say: ‘Look what we have today. Try this, it’s delicious.’ We will return to basics, to the grass roots of what we once began, and hope we will see you there, in a kinder, more hospitable world.” DM/TGIFood


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