Salvation, sunny side up
Our (almost) constant joy all through Covid-19 has been the sunny coffee and breakfast places. They were likely to be much less dependent on the masked than they’d been on the unmasked before them.
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.
During the time of Covid we know only too well how restaurants have suffered. They and their staff have had some of the roughest time almost all the way through it.
Early predictions were that the fine dining places might survive what we imagined to be the length of the pandemic, since top-end diners were not lacking expendable income and would presumably continue to eat out almost as usual. The middle rung of restaurants were considered the likeliest not to survive because their clientele would be hit hardest in the wallet. The bacon and egg places and coffee joints, well, they would not be that affected because people would still pop in for coffees and comforting toast and stuff, nothing wildly expensive anyway?
The owners of cafés and breakfast places have had less to fear from the liquor prohibitions, if they are even licensed, and the curfews. They were not going to be much more dependent on the masked folk than they’d been on the unmasked before them, anyway. Some even added takeaway or delivery services.
Of course, everyone was affected. As predicted, the middle end suffered most and closed fastest, even during the earliest lockdown.
Then the top end started to buckle just when it seemed those places might make it and win through. The tasting menu places began feeling pinches that their patrons, wealthy as they may have seemed, were finally feeling. It’s been over a year since the start and that’s what is so sad. They held out for so long.
The casual or less expensive end, the breakfast places, the coffee joints are doing the best of all, which is not to say they’re necessarily doing well. They’re just more able to cope with the lockdowns since many do takeaways anyway and liquor prohibition means little to them. Many do not even rely on sit-down eaters to any large extent. It has helped. Most of the valued ones are still with us. Luckily for us, they are survivors.
On a very bad and sad protest day for parts of Gauteng, when even the air seemed fragile, I started revisiting some stalwarts, the better of my old coffee and breakfast constants, the ones that have maintained high, even impeccable food standards no matter what.
They were not in affected looting and burning areas because they are not the types of places in big centres with big parking lots. They tend to be tucked into small surroundings.
The Salvation Cafe at 44 Stanley is thankfully still here. After 15 or 16 years at 44 Stanley, chef Claudia Gianoccaro is still turning out those 10-out-of-10 Eggs Benedicts and their cousins. The poached eggs that once wowed eaters, because they were so used in those days to being served steamed eggs from “poaching pans”, taste as good as ever. The quality of everything has always been and is excellent, like the wonderful bacon, the Hollandaise made with real egg-tasting eggs and lemon juice just before it goes over the poached beauties on their English muffins.
Claudia shrugs when we talk about her place’s survival. Today it is empty but for me and a friend outdoors and another person indoors. She gesticulates at the empty benches and tables. The well-trained staff that is certainly not cheap labour are here every day no matter how many eaters do or don’t rock up.
“The electricity and gas run just the same. So, besides less people on tricky days and Uber Eats taking a large chunk of commission, it does mean we’re less profitable than before.”
It’s the very first time in 16 years of Salvation breakfasts that I don’t eat Eggs Benedict. It’s also the only place where I always very much want to do so. The friend, who’s heard a lot about them, does exactly that and the waiter suggests I have shakshuka. I’m a little tired of this dish, now becoming ubiquitous, but this one is different. It’s more like a sort of ratatouille of red vegetables in which lie the brilliantly poached eggs. The other thing is that fresh sesame has been cooked with the vegetables and it makes the sauce quite creamy and extra delicious. I say fresh sesame with meaning, because older sesame never does that and is slightly bitter rather than nuttily sweet.
After my lockdown home barista course (How to lock down a great home brew) with Lovejoy Chiramabasukwa from whom, personally, I now buy my coffee, I have become a coffee bore among my friends and something of a choosy drinker. So, I’ve left out places that may do scrummy breks but serve mediocre coffee.
Salvation’s coffee is excellent and has been from the start, though the beans suppliers may have changed over time. I wasn’t so surprised to realise I’ve been going there for close on 17 years. Actually longer because, before the Salvation, it was Andrea Burgeners’ Super Deluxe that also featured breakfasts. Places with great longevity like this are also unlikely to disappear in the face of difficulties.
The rest of the menu besides the Benedict, Shakshuka and coffee is attractive too, with new cheaper meals mostly on croissants and toast for today’s lighter wallets, as well as the classics. Other stalwarts are the spinachy variations on the Benedict theme, cinnamony pancakes and the ones for which the Salvation is best known, the ones with fresh fruit, berry coulis, yoghurt and syrup. A Canadian woman called once from our table, on having tasted them, to her daughter, I seem to remember, all sleepy in Toronto, and told her to place at the top of their combined list of world-best breakfast items ever eaten, this dish.
I wonder sometimes about the deliciousness not just of breakfast food but of the experience of eating it out. There’s something slightly racy about it. Breakfast is easy to make yourself. But somehow, sitting in a sunny and rather beautiful courtyard as here in Milpark, with someone else’s own good blend of steamy coffee in hand, is an escapist thrill, a not very expensive one at that.
Melville is full of coffee places, perhaps because so many people are freelancers in the neighbourhood. Down near the bridge over to Westcliff is the Bamboo Centre, named for the place that once stood next to a petrol service station on the corner, a place where cane and reeds like bamboo were woven by blind people. The Service Station on ground level has been there for 22 years come August. Carmen van der Merwe runs it slickly and sleekly, as did her parents before her.
Carmen is always shyly brisk. “We’ve definitely benefited by not having Covid problems like curfew and stuff but we also benefit from having our deli and the frozen foods from it that have increased in popularity considerably over this time.”
Those frozen meals are made by small suppliers, some by super-talented locals. The deli products like the pork-and-apple bangers made by Linden’s farm-to-table Bacon and Bangers are used in the breakfasts. The Service Station is known for the fab cakes to eat with excellent coffee. Jozi’s best artisanal bakers supply the breads and the croissants are among the best I know in Jozi.
There are pretty enclaves behind planters on the pavement and the interior is sunny too, leading into the independent Love Books.
It’s a most desirable meeting place, even now, and people often compose their own breakfasts from so many choices. I love having omelettes here because the Emmenthaler is so good and so are the organic eggs. There are lots of variations of French toast, made with brioche, sourdough or ciabatta and various cheffy items. The breakfast wraps are pretty special too, one place where I reckon a wrap can be exciting, either bean and Mexican style ingredient sorts or sausage, scrambled egg and avo sorts.
Over weekends the Benedicts and Florentines can be had, as well as a rösti, poached eggs, salmon and crème fraîche breakfast.
Eating breakfast and coffees out is a fine thing in that it can be one of the experiences that work best solo. I’ve mentioned that people love to have small meetings at the Service Station. Equally it is a place to luxuriate on your own, especially with a book from next door.
Another place where people love to go on their own, as do I, is Breezeblock in Brixton.
Architect Dave du Preez, who owns it, is almost always there and the staff have been there since the place opened over four years ago. Dave says that people become “almost possessive about Breezeblock as their space”. I know what he means. You want to be part of a space that feels so calm, so visually interesting and so extraordinarily free. Artists do hang out at Breezeblock and perhaps it’s only natural that the Goethe Institute should recently have picked space here for its arts residencies.
Dave feels the whole place is very worthwhile keeping going, though he’s not been making much of a profit for some time because “although the booze bans affect us for events in the courtyard, what really underlies them is the fact that people have renewed fear and stay home then”.
I sun myself in the open courtyard with its ’70s style water feature and indigenous aloes. A friend who joins the table shows me that all the bees buzzing among the blooms have orange caches of pollen between their legs. It’s wonderful to watch while breakfasting on a Meneer Monsieur of eggs under a mustardy cheese sauce with ham. I usually have a very different Persian style dish of Eggs Mirza, garlicky smoked aubergine, full of turmeric and tomato with mint and harissa plus poached eggs.
Dave’s mother is from Meppel in Holland and so his signature dish consists of the typical oven baked pancakes from there, with honey, ricotta and speculaas crumbs.
As Dave says, his coffee is a very expensive item for the restaurant “but it’s crucial as part of the experience”. It’s always served with a homemade speculaas biscuit.
I am not surprised that these hardy but special breakfast experience places are still around. We treasure them for the precious escapism from our slightly Covidly depressive days they provide. It’s a joyful brightness of the sort we need. DM/TGIF00d
Salvation Cafe, 44 Stanley, Milpark. 011 482 7795
The Home Barista Shop 060 327 3331
Service Station Cafe, Bamboo Centre, cnr 9th St and Rustenburg Rd. 011 726 1701
Breezeblock, 29 Chiswick Rd, Brixton. 078 175 2556
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