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The City of Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED
The City of Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED

Those who live in Joburg are fond of saying that they live in the wild west. Shoot-outs, prospecting, flashy steeds – for over a century, the “frontier town” metaphor has appealed to the motley bunch of people who hit this patch of the highveld to make their fortunes. 

It’s an allusion that’s a little flattering to the ego, as it implies that you must have the chutzpah and nerve to make it on these mean streets.

Of course, outsiders look at the Joburg landscape of pseudo-Tuscan complexes and dead traffic lights and boggle at the appeal. And yet, Joburg residents, such as myself, may complain ceaselessly about the state of everything in this feral city, but we still harbour a sense of pride at the chance-taking maverick richness of our town. Talk smack about our home and we’ll take you out, china. 

The poster children for this bedraggled mining camp-turned-big-dorp moxie are the restaurant owners and workers, always fired up with possibility despite the debris around them. They were already Joburg’s boldest, long-suffering posse even before Covid hit (discharging your weapon at a Tasha’s, anyone?). Only now, 18 months and a pandemic later, they’ve got the scars of an epic showdown at high noon to show for it too. 

As they open their saloon doors every morning and pour us another coffee while we guzzle their Wi-Fi, it’s clear you’re dealing with a particular brand of fearlessness. They’ve walked through a blaze of economic devastation, government neglect and lockdown madness, and they’re still standing to count stock another day. Hell, they’re even opening new restaurants. 

Now, we know that Joburg is not globally renowned as a fine-dining hotspot – but who doesn’t need a breather from that clichéd 57-course degustation eating experience? If you want a bloody delicious schwarma, a delectable plate of arrabiata, a pin-up sirloin or a fantastic fry-up, pull in, my brother. 

Ah, yes, you may be seated at a table with a view of a car park. But just think of it as an opportunity to admire the latest in automotive ingenuity and flawless blue skies. 

We also don’t mind a meal inside a mall. Some of the most pleasing oversized muffins I’ve had in my life have come with piped music and travertine floors. 

Shopping centres aside, it says heaps about Joburgers that they’re resolute about sitting on pavements and pretending they’re in Paris, even though everyone knows someone who’s had a cellphone nicked off the table. People-spotting at a café in The Marais has nothing on sitting kerbside and watching taxis dodge pedestrians under full-blown jacarandas during a summer thunderstorm. 

And if it’s glitzy eateries you want, this town has them by the Hilux-load. The designers of Joburg restaurants are boss: they go hard on velvet, copper lights, double-volume spaces and pieces of slate as plates. We love a neon sign and a hipster plant and making like it’s Manhattan, not Morningside. Design aficionados might accuse us of being derivative or showy — we’d take both as a compliment.  

But the element that really elevates Joburg’s restaurants? The people. Waiters from Zimbabwe chat about the bleak politics of home and serve up food native to Addis Ababa or Louisiana.  Or there’s an owner, long past retirement age, born in Lebanon who still makes his granny’s kibbeh recipe. Visit twice and they’ll know your kids’ names and that you like your mochaccino with an extra shot of espresso. 

This is all the more evident when summer descends on the City of Gold, as it has in the past week. Glance around and you’ll see the gin joints and pizza places have begun to heave with humans eager to resume post-third wave life. From Pron to The Peeping Tom, from the Troyeville Hotel to Tang, with a serving of Tortellino d’Oro and Toasted, the restaurants of Joburg deserve a smoking season. If fortune favours the brave, they’re in for a windfall. 

Buitendach is contributing editor at the FM


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