Patrons are separated by plexiglass sheets as they return to restaurants on the first day after novel coronavirus restrictions were lifted to visit restaurants in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Picture: REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
Patrons are separated by plexiglass sheets as they return to restaurants on the first day after novel coronavirus restrictions were lifted to visit restaurants in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Picture: REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Last Friday night, in search of some light relief, we ventured out for a sit-down meal at Montecasino, the faux-Tuscan entertainment village up the road from where we live in Fourways, Johannesburg.

I thought the place would be bustling. Given its choice of restaurants and South Africans’ newly regained freedom to frequent eateries, I assumed there would be plenty of other Jozi residents itching to escape the confines of their own kitchens.

The place was virtually deserted.

Admittedly, we didn’t linger – it was just too depressing. What was particularly disconcerting was that about a quarter of Montecasino’s restaurants were still clamped shut – perhaps permanent Covid casualties? The industry has warned in recent weeks that 20% to 30% of SA’s restaurants won’t have the cash flow to keep paying staff and reopen post-lockdown.

Granted, as the number of Gauteng’s Covid-19 infections accelerates, people are no doubt more inclined to stay home. However, one can’t help but wonder how much government’s nonsensical ban on selling booze in restaurants has to do with it. The cabinet’s obsession with sobriety has now infiltrated the rest of its thinking too, as President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday that there would be an immediate ban on selling alcohol anywhere, for who knows how long.

And even once it is unbanned, it’s unclear when restaurants will be allowed to serve it again. It’s not a matter of being unable to have an enjoyable night out sans your favourite tipple; the issue here is one’s right to choose whether you want to abstain or not.

The ban is also destroying thousands of jobs. For many restaurants alcohol is critical to turning a profit, as Beerhouse owner and founder of discussion group Hospitality Alliance Randolf Jorberg points out.

Made to order: roadhouses and drive-ins

Meanwhile, if restaurants – and the malls and entertainment complexes like Montecasino that house them – are to remain open for business until there’s a vaccine for Covid-19, they will have to come up with creative ways to attract patrons.

One crowd that is doing just that is Drive-in Diner, which is a clever collaboration between restaurant tenants and their landlord at Pineslopes Boulevard, another popular Fourways leisure destination, within a stone’s throw of Montecasino.

JSE-listed Fortress Reit, which owns the centre, has turned a portion of the parking lot into an old-school, retro-style roadhouse that offers a joint menu from six of the centre’s restaurants, including Doppio Zero, Nikos, Salsa Mexican Grill and Billy the B.U.M’s. Diners can enjoy a meal in the comfort (and safety) of their own cars with waiters serving their nosh on clip-on window trays.

Fortress retail director Vuso Majija hopes the diner concept will go some way towards kick-starting Joburg’s ailing restaurant industry. Though restaurants usually compete for business, this is an encouraging example of how tenants and landlords can work together to help each other survive the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.

Maybe it’s also time to bring the drive-in cinema back to Joburg. There’s no shortage of parking lots in the city’s myriad malls that can be put to good use for this purpose.

It may not surprise you, however, to learn that the government’s silly regulations are blocking the way. Last week, two drive-in entertainment venues in Cape Town – the Mother City Drive-in and the Galileo drive-in theatre – were shut down hours before they were due to open. It turns out the government is treating drive-in venues as public events or gatherings, which are banned under lockdown level 3, rather than cinemas, which are allowed to operate. Read about it here

In fact, in the UK and many of its European neighbours the old-fashioned drive-in cinema is fast becoming the outing of choice.

In this piece British newspaper The Independent explains why. The latest edition of UK Vogue has an entertaining take on the same topic.

It’s a concept that is catching on globally, which makes it all the more ludicrous that SA’s government is prohibiting the return of the drive-in. Surely there are few other venues for leisure outings that are as ready-made for social distancing as that?

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