Still grand at the Rand
The first thing you see when you step into the cool foyer of the Rand Club is a small sign prohibiting the use of cellphones. Very little penetrates the thick walls, least of all the bustle of modern-day Johannesburg, and the midday hum of traffic on Commissioner Street is reduced to a murmur.
The cuisine has also been unaffected by the passing of time, but as luck would have it, on the day I visited, a new menu was being introduced to club members. A small sign at the foot of the grand staircase announced the special of the day: potage Saint-Germain, followed by oysters, then roast of the day — pork or lamb — with all the trimmings.
Charles Drewe, the general manager, kindly overlooked my sneakers and jeans when he met me.
A group of well-dressed men were standing around in the Main Bar, laughing and puffing on cigars.
Most of them were drinking beer out of silver mugs. The Main Bar counter stretches around the edge of the entire room and has tin boxes of sand at the foot rail.
The club is 125 years old, but has been rebuilt three times, most recently in 1904. The steel girders for the building were manufactured in Glasgow, then shipped to Durban and brought up to the Reef on ox wagons. Upstairs, there is a faded brown photograph of the original building, which had a tin roof, and a few of its members, from 1887, who needed somewhere to spend their money.
There is a grand staircase with brass bannisters and a burgundy carpet that takes you up to what is known as “The Surrounds”, or a landing, with leather couches and little tables where the members take their port or brandy and coffee after meals. As you climb the stairs, an almost life-size oil of Nelson Mandela has taken the place of a youthful portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which now resides off to one side. There are also bronzes of Paul Kruger and Ernest Oppenheimer.
Everyone, barring members, seems to get a little giddy in the Rand Club, in part because of its old-world grandeur and perhaps because of its famous exclusionary clauses (they discriminated against everybody except white men). Princess Elizabeth, visiting in 1947 with her parents and Princess Margaret, was only allowed entrance as a guest and was not allowed to spend the night.
Many of the club’s members used to work in town and would utilise the club two or three times a week. Nowadays, most members cannot afford to take a three-hour lunch (and do not work in town) and will visit the club in the evenings.
Drewe diplomatically says the new menu is an “interim” one, in case of widespread outcry from members.
“They ate Scotch broth once a week for 20 years, and suddenly it is not there anymore.”
There is a certain kind of institutional food, perhaps with a Continental, or colonial flair, that one expects to be served at a club.
Done the Rand Club way
Chef Tom Cooper says he tries to prepare food “that you’d eat at home”. He also has to satisfy younger members with more modern tastes as well as older members. “It isn’t easy.” A popular item to survive from the past is the marrowbones, “done the Rand Club way, cooked in red wine, served on toast” (R40). But there are signs of modernisation, with the prawn and spring onion potato cake (R52), or a kind of deconstructed Avocado Ritz (R70), with prawns, celery, lettuce with chilli and tomato mayonnaise.
There is, of course, plenty of what one would expect: grilled kingklip (R140), Canadian salmon with hollandaise sauce (R135), and, of course, the East Coast sole (R135). There is chicken breast chasseur (R80) and duck leg confit (R85), as well as a 200g beef fillet with a salt and pepper rub (R135). All of this is served with a choice of three seasonal vegetables and chips, mash, potato or rice. House sauces include Madagascar, Bordelaise and Grenobloise.
Sitting at a table near the window in the grand dining room, which is painted a pale blue, I order one of the club’s specialities, the prawn curry (R125). Before it arrives, however, there appears on the table a small basket of warmed bread known as “Committee Toast”, named for the committee that first ordered it.
A papadam accompanies the curried prawns, which come piled on top of yellow rice; a waiter offers sambals of chopped tomato and onion, pineapple and cucumber, and spoonfuls of desiccated coconut and chutney.
Drewe says he finds it very difficult to persuade members to try something new. Many prefer to stick with what they refer to as “club classics”. He has, however, introduced what he calls more “personalised” service, and waiters will now wheel a trolley out to carve the roast next to the table. There is also a dessert trolley.
The lunch is over, and despite only drinking a glass of the house sauvig-non blanc, I feel intoxicated. A large table of businessmen were emptying the last of their wine and pushing back their chairs, making their way to The Surrounds for their coffee and liquor. All has gone well. The Rand Club has a new menu.
Rand Club, 3 Loveday Street. Tel: 011 870 4263