I’ve been in an enormously happy and creative mood since attending the Design Indaba in Cape Town last week, so I thought I’d write about something positive for a change. As a denizen of both Johannesburg and Cape Town (and I’m using the word in the sense of “a plant or animal established in a place to which it is not native”, rather than the more usual “inhabitant”), I’m often asked to recommend restaurants that have been in these cities for ages.
People are looking for the stamp of approval conferred by longevity, the comfort of consistency and for places that have established a rhythm and tradition that you do not get in the establishments of the flashy new tsars of the restaurant firmament. There is something reassuring about knowing that style and quality can be lasting and that you do not have to keep endlessly embracing the new in a quest for worth.
The restaurant I choose in Cape Town is Miller’s Thumb, which has been in Kloof Nek Road since 1995. I first reviewed it about 13 years ago and at the time it was one of the few restaurants that had embraced the strange concept of fresh fish. Quite why restaurants in a seaside fishing village never realised that people might want fish fresh from the ocean, I’ve never worked out.
Incredibly, the menu at Miller’s Thumb appears not to have changed at all. On this visit I was again offered fish that had been caught that morning. The food was as tasty and simple as I remembered from my last meal there, years ago.
And, even better, the service was immaculate and friendly, again exactly as I remembered.
Johannesburg was more difficult, given that I’ve become a proper resident only in the past two years. Most Jo’burgers with a sense of history recommend the Portuguese food at the Radium Beer Hall, a venerable institution that was established in 1929. They rave about the Mozambique prawns and chicken livers, so I gave it another, more purposeful bash after a previous, forgettable visit.
I don’t know, though. What is it about people in Johannesburg and restaurants? The food at the Radium is decidedly average. There is nothing wrong with it that a few of beers cannot drown, but it is hardly worth raving about. The decor is probably best described as absent, although the appeal to history is made with some choice old newspaper posters.
Seriously, Jo’burgers — I’m all for eating with rose-coloured chopsticks, but you need to work on making your menus match your myths.
Unusually for a newspaper column, I’m going to leave this open-ended. I need more in-depth local knowledge, so I’m hoping an eager Jo’burger will point our readers in the right direction to a restaurant where pedigree and product do each other justice. I’m sure there must be many out there.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @chrisroperza