Chilling and grilling on the cool South Coast
‘You only live once but if you do it right, once is enough.’ Dalene Joubert has these words stitched on a cushion in her happening Scottburgh restaurant-pub. Food, drink, service, vibe. You could say she’s doing it right.
The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.
Surf boards. Sugar skulls. A fish vortex. Suspended jellies. The shy octopus. Long John Silver, peg-legged and fearsome. Casting a beady pirate’s eyes over ice-hot pool tables (they have a steely glint) on gleaming checkerboard tiles. A loo sign with arrows reads: “Men to the left because women are always right.” Touché. Masks. Cocktails. Sushi platters. Mammoth burgers and finger-licking buffalo wings piled high. Garlic prawns whispering “chew-on-me”.
Except for the deboned mutton bunny, I might wonder if I have been spirited to a delightful and entertainingly eccentric diner-bar in one of any number of funky California coastal towns. If only I could play ignorance-is-bliss and forget I was here, two days ago, for half-price-sushi Wednesday.
Here that time to anonymously check out the place, the food, the vibe, before setting up a meeting with Dalene Joubert. Here today, dropped off early morning in Scottburgh to wander, explore.
And finally to meet, in the flesh, the Intrepid, visionary owner of this very cool KZN South Coast bar and grill.
“Restaurants sell memories,” Joubert told me last year, back during an early phase of harder lockdown. By phone. When I connected with her the first time, through someone – I don’t recall who – last July. When TGIFood came out in solidarity with restaurants around the country. When these restaurants united and mounted a national #jobssavelives campaign for survival.
Then, we were talking about the ban on alcohol and early curfew, with restaurants forbidden to sell a glass of wine with a meal. Then, Joubert was doing all she could to try to help staff and her establishment survive. While watching “holiday town” Scottburgh shut down.
“You don’t go to a restaurant just to eat,” she said then. “For that you can buy something at the corner cafe or make a meal at home.
“When you go to a restaurant it is often because you want to be with someone. And for most people the dining experience comes with a glass or wine or a beer.
“Even a business meeting, a couple of beers, a glass wine, a coffee: these all make it a social event. Memorable.
“Everything we do, what we offer, the best dish we can make and serve up on a plate: you don’t come to eat because you’re hungry. For that you can stop and buy a pie at Pick n Pay. You go to a restaurant, you come here, for an experience.”
I spoke to Joubert by phone a second time for a December feature on weathering the pandemic. The beaches were again being closed, another strict curfew introduced, alcohol sales again banned. Restaurants – whether complying and committed to all protocols, or not – in crisis.
Planning for Christmas with restrictions and uncertainty, she said then, was “sort of like inviting 100 people to a sit-down dinner, no one RSVPs, but you have to prepare for 100, have staff to serve 100. Then only 10 pitch up. That is the reality”.
Today I have her for just over an hour before she must set off for an appointment in Durban. She will meet with her lawyer. Her financial person. Rent matters are on the agenda. Financial survival.
And now there is fear of restrictions being reintroduced. Restaurants targeted. More jobs lost.
“If they shut us again, we’re doomed,” bartender Rasta Gasa says when we talk a little later over the piña colada he has just mixed, blended and poured for a lunchtime customer.
Since 2015 he’s worked here. Since dropping out of a commerce and management diploma he was studying for, through Unisa, when his funds dried up.
At this pub, called the Beach Bar until Joubert with the help of her partner, Angelo Bender, plus staff and friends, revamped, redecorated and transformed it into themed Mexican day-of-the-dead Sculls (at the Beach Bar) during lockdown.
“I love what I do here,” he says. “But Covid…” So tough. “We had a baby near the start of lockdown. Savings are gone.”
But today is a celebration. With masks and protocols, let me add.
It’s Joubert’s birthday.
She was, she says, told not to come in the previous day. Present-buying, balloon blowing, decorations were being organised. Today she gets a celebratory welcome on arrival.
After her meeting in Durban, she and Bender will return for the festivities.
I know from our previous conversations that Joubert was only one year into the restaurant business when Covid hit. “I love cooking. I love to feed people. I love looking after people. But I am actually a ballet teacher and hairdresser,” I knew from before.
What I did not expect was to find a restaurant – the Bell & Anchor (seafood and grill) is the largest in Scottburgh with just a parking lot, a narrow road, lush seaside subtropical vegetation and a railway line between seating, open and airy, and the ocean – all set up formally with a charming old-fashioned kind of style. Cloth tablecloths, serviettes in wine glasses. Appropriately a nautical and ocean theme, given its location.
The Bell & Anchor is something of a landmark. It’s been going for 27 years, having opened a few kms away in Rocky Bay and moved to its current spot in 2012.
Joubert, meanwhile, was living in Pretoria. Then Johannesburg. Hairdressing. And running a ballet and dance shop, called Fab and Funky. Which seems a totally appropriate description of its founder, the woman I am talking to, I decide when she tells me.
For years since she was a child, like many “Vaalies” as we in Durban used to call them, Joubert would spent holidays on the South Coast.
It was just two years ago, in March 2019 and mid-divorce after a 28-year marriage, that she took over the Bell & Anchor. Her dad had recently died. She had her long-time holiday house in nearby Pennington. Was staying there for a respite from the dramas of her life when she heard the previous owners were keen to sell.
“I chatted with Angelo. Thought about it. We decided, let’s buy. It’s a good business.”
She walked in with no experience “except I knew that I knew how to make people feel good. How to give them the best experience: food, service, entertainment. I felt confident I could do this”.
The confidence, she reflects looking back, came from many years of planning and organising events. “I am sure that’s why I had the guts to take this on. For years, while running Fab and Funky, I worked with caterers. Set up many events, some small, sometimes for several hundred people.”
At the Bell & Anchor she took over someone else’s dream. To make it hers, while keeping menu and staff in place, she changed the decor. The restaurant she bought was brown and orange. She changed it to blue and white. Sea and sky and boats and sea creatures. An artist friend did the wall murals. The fish. The octopus. The jellies. Other friends helped with the painting.
A different friend did all these designs. “Turned it into my dream. Everyone has lost someone. Passing can be beautiful. The wings behind the bar represent new flight. New beginnings. Times after Covid. The hardware stores were closed when we did the bar. Friends and staff brought what they had from screwdrivers to paint, paint brushes and drills. Angelo recycled everything from the old Beach Bar and we reused it.”
With Joubert and Bender gone to their meeting in Durban, I stay on.
Entertained by the staff. The customers. And memories and thoughts of California. My once-upon-a-time dream of being a waitress at a seaside restaurant and living in a combi. And how life takes over.
I watch the food come out the kitchen. Garlic prawns that Charlene Moodley serves to the couple at the table next to mine.
She has been at the restaurant since it moved here from Rocky Bay. “I came from Durban and saw a job advertised for a hostess. I applied. Got it. Later switched to waitron.
The couple having the prawns tell me they’ve been here before, from somewhere further up the South Coast. Relished their meal. Will be back.
Soon as they leave Moodley gets to work on the table. Spraying everything with sanitiser. Wiping it down. Doing the protocols. Wearing the mask.
“Standard,” she tells me when I ask.
The food I note is well-prepared, well presented. The menu at the same time standard and unexpected.
A deboned lamb bunny makes its way past. It’s going to people drinking cocktails over on the Sculls side. I see an order go by of the crème brûlée Joubert tells me they’ve tweaked and modernised. It’s ample. And threads of spun sugar decorate the top.
When I am dropped off in Scottburgh before 7am, after wandering up and down the single main street, noting thrift shops and how clean and spruce the buildings and street look compared to Durban, watching early morning arrivals at a Montessori school, seeing vacant shops, some invisible force propelled me down the hill. Towards, I discover, the surf lifesaving club.
Outside I find a friend with his surfboard wondering if the tide is right to paddle out.
“Is there coffee anywhere?” I ask him.
“Downstairs. Takeaway. It’s remarkably good,” he tells me.
After a while spent magnetised by the waves I venture down and find All Sorts sweet shop under the deck at the main Scottburgh beach.
They make me an Illy black Americano.
While I wait I see “Kiss Me” mints and girls’ and boys’ lucky packets. Other sweets too. So old-fashioned. Only to be found at a beach resort. In California or Scottburgh.
Over at the beach in front of the Blue Marlin Hotel, a scuba dive-boat launches from the beach. The drizzle is gentle. The mood is mellow. I conclude Dalene Joubert has chosen a good place to anchor herself. A good place to be. DM/TGIFood
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved