The state of eating out in Jo'burg

Dear Nic,

It was with great concern and interest that I read your expose of the dining scene in Johannesburg, published in the Mail & Guardian, last weekend.

At Eat Out, we strive to uplift the culinary industry to do their very best. Having said that, I do, with a heavy heart, concur on some level. Every year at Eat Out we receive criticism for the lack of representation of Jo’burg eating establishments in our Top 10, and I continuously ask, well where are they?

I don’t believe that gourmands there are yearning for innovation, especially after reading some of the comments on your feature online. It was quite shocking to hear the complaints of some not very good restaurants. Maybe there are no bench marks as to what is good, what is great and what is spectacular.

Food entertainment
I also believe there is much confusion of this word—fine dining. Is stiff fine dining actually present anywhere in South Africa? Maybe in a few places, but trends are materializing around the world that it’s not fine dining that people are looking for, but rather fun dining.

Whether you are eating at a hotel dining room or at a local trattoria there should be one main criteria—food entertainment. It’s about the respect for ingredients and the taste transcribed onto the plate. Good chefs move you, they create an emotion—and this is what I feel is not showcased in your neck of the woods.

So can we elevate the industry, can we create mountains out of the mine dumps?

One ingredient that is missing right now in Johannesburg, which I feel could be contributing to the lack of quality restaurants, is training. Where are the great chef’s schools? If they want to pursue this path our new shining stars need to make their way down south to learn.

At the Eat Out Awards this year, we’re putting our heart and soul into celebrating the terroir of each region of SA. We have recognized that right now its about ethnic eating, highlighting the cultures and awarding the steakhouses, Italian restaurants, Asian and a few others in between. The more that we showcase the best in Johannesburg, the more we hope to instill the strive for excellence in chefs.

We also need to educate the public. I chatted to Marthinus Ferreira, the chef and owner of one of our top ten restaurants for 2010, DW Eleven-13 [and a restaurant highlighted by Dawes], soon after he opened in Dunkeld. He was concerned that although he was just down the road from Hyde Park, it was evident that diners just didn’t want to take the risk.

The risk of what? Eating a fabulous meal in an old-fashioned small shopping centre, instead of a mediocre meal in a local mall were restaurants pay high rents and feed the masses?

Innovation and creativity not on the menu
Again my heart missed a beat, but not of excitement, when Rudi Liebenberg [from the Saxon in Jo’burg] gave me the news of his move to Cape Town. I was happy for Rudi but sad for the loss of a passionate chef up north. Soon after his move, I chatted to Rudi, who was really surprised at the camaraderie of Cape Town chefs. “We talk to each other, things about service issues, staff and build relationships with suppliers”.

It is quite clear that there are not even a handful of Jo’burg chefs who use or are aware of high quality ingredients. It just feels like the magic words—innovation and creativity—is not important, as it certainly doesn’t exist on the menus.

Five years ago, all chefs struggled to source good quality ingredients, but by working closely with suppliers, and constantly building relationship with them, the suppliers down south have begun to assist chefs to excel.

There are some Johannesburg restaurants getting it right. I agree with you regarding those fabulous eateries in the roads of Cyrildene and Fordsburg. Those are the restaurants that cook from the heart and work from what they believe in. It’s being true and honest. A sure recipe for success. When Dario De Angeli closed the doors of Yum in Greenside it left a big gap and I applaud him for opening his new venture, The Cube and introducing the fun element of eating which we remember from establishments like Baccarat, Gatrialles and The Three ships all of 20 years ago.

Eating out is a philosophy as much as a chef has his own philosophy. We just need to be on the same plate and I am sure a new wave of gastronomy will emerge.


This letter originally appeared on

See our round up of responses to the original piece here.

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