Not the Restaurant Review.
I think of the fabulous BBC series “Not the 9 o’clock news”. This is not a restaurant review. This is not a food review. I am simply taking a nostalgic look at changes in restaurants, their ownership, operation, menus and choices, over two or three generations. Hopefully, you will find this informative as well as entertaining and humorous.
What was, was. That was then.
I attended high school at SCHOOL, in Durban1. There I acquired my taste for spicy food. What is known across the country as “Durban Curry”. We dined regularly, and often, at Indian restaurants owned by friends of my parents. Indian restaurants were traditionally owned by Indian families. Yes, families – not just by one man2. And the entire family worked there. Everyone, except for a few “white” customers, was Indian.
Chinese restaurants were all the same at the time. Here is the only name that I will mention, because it was an iconic, extremely well known restaurant in that era. The Little Swallow at the bottom (western) end of Johannesburg. Near where the infamous John Vorster Square police station was. It is now named Johannesburg police station. The Little Swallow was owned and run by a Chinese family. Everyone worked there: mamas in the kitchen, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles everywhere else. Your waiter was Chinese.
with the cutest kids in the world
The younger children, between about two and 12, didn’t work, but ran around joyfully chatting with customers. The food was authentic, prices were excellent and the service was enhanced by the difficulty to communicate. It was hilarious watching white South Africans trying to communicate with a few horribly mispronounced Chinese words. In the background, traditional Chinese music played gently.
As I recall, the first Teppanyaki style restaurant opened in a hotel in Durban. The owners were not Japanese, but at least the chefs who prepared your food and very large flat gas-heated plates, were genuine Japanese men, imported from Japan. It was a great new adventure into eating, for South Africans.
Aaaaaah. The days when every Italian restaurant in South Africa was owned and operated by an Italian immigrant. Often the real Italian Mama was in the kitchen. The food was real, the vibe was real and the atmosphere was Italian. Pizza was pizza. Not pitt-sa or pee-sa. Today there are second and third generations of these great preparers of good food, operating restaurants. But . . .
Dining at authentic French restaurants was a rare treat for me as a young man. I do recall though, that even before we had tobacco control laws and a ban on smoking in public places, French restaurants did often not allow smoking. I think that this was based on a statement in the “Bible” of French cooking and dining, Larousse Gastronomique. It is an encyclopaedia of gastronomy. In it the compilers noted (as best as I can recall) “Smoking while dining numbs the senses and is simply barbaric”.
A Steak restaurant, or Steak House as they are often called, used to serve meat. Many varieties, and served in different forms, but it was meat.
Fish restaurants served fish. They took pride in the freshness of their offerings and in the wide variety of fish available. I often selected “Fried 74”. I have no idea what that was, but I loved it. I felt important and sophisticated when ordering Fried 74. Today it seems no one knows what that was. Kingklip was always a favourite. Whether grilled or fried, and served with lemon-butter (real butter), garlic or peri-peri, kingklip was a popular choice. Often because it was the cheapest dish on the menu. Today kingklip costs as much as a beef fillet.
What is, is – – – TODAY we find . . .
Music: Nothing authentic. It is either canned mediocre background music which is mostly far too loud and intrudes into any attempt at conversation, or a local radio station. Not only too loud but with inane conversation which I do not want to hear while romancing my date. It is seldom the music of the culture of the food being served.
Indian: Recently I decided that I wanted curry for dinner. There is a highly recommended Indian restaurant near my home. “Fabulous”, “Best curry in town”, was posted on our local community group page. We drove over there and found . . . . an Indian restaurant owned and run by two Greek women.
There is a chain of Indian restaurants owned by a man, purportedly from Kerala, India, but it is run by a white Belgium chef. Go figure!
Chinese: Today the owner could be an Afrikaner and the waiters any one of several ethnic varieties. Often they sell Japanese sushi. Even restaurants owned by Chinese men, do not have Chinese waiters. There are no little Chinese kids running around. I loved them. Legend has it that if you touched them you received good luck. Those small joys are forever gone.
Japanese: Teppanyaki dining is mixed with sushi, fish, steak, and goodness me, occasionally pizza. The chef preparing your meal is not Japanese. It could be Sipho from Diepsloot or Mpho from Tembisa. They perform their duties and display their skills admirably. I applaud that development – but the romance of a true non-English speaking Japanese man, is gone.
Italian: My first disturbing experience was in Cape Town. A really good restaurant in all respects. I enjoyed a superb meal, a pleasing atmosphere and in good company. I called for the owner to compliment him. He was a cockney from London. I expect a genuine Italian guy with a strong Italian accent. This was a real Cockney born within the sound of Bow Bells.
Today, many Italian restaurants are owned and operated by people from any ethnic group. Who cares, as long as the dining experience is great, but it does disturb my experiences and expectations developed as a young man.
French: The French would generally style themselves as serving “Gourmet” food. It sounds French and the root is French, but it applies to a person and not the style of cooking. (Oxford Concise definition N). Now everyone claims to prepare Gourmet Food. Then they serve Sangria – which is Spanish.
Steak: These days everyone wants to be everything to everyone. This lead to the creation of Surf and Turf. Steakhouses served fish dishes. Sometimes better than a supposedly authentic fish restaurant, but it is not steak or meat. One place advertises itself as “Grill House, Butchery, Seafood”. Anything and everything goes.
Fish: I suppose that it would be tough to survive on serving only fish. A once-upon-a-time seafood chain now styles itself as “Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, European”. What on earth is “European”? There are 27 countries in the European Union, each with its unique food offering. Many have several regional cooking styles.
I have seen a restaurant promote itself as “South African Contemporary Sushi”. What on earth is that? What happened to Braai and vleis, Boet?
What modern madness is a Café Sushi Pizza? What mixed national cuisine is Portuguese
Pizza Grill? How do two continents combine with Indian Tapas? Did Charles De
Gaulle ever envisage a French barbeque? Might the French not have created a
fancy and romantic sounding name for their method of burning meat on an open
The world has gone mad.
1. Just for information – I did pass Matric. When I am asked “Which school?”, the answer is SCHOOL. There are many High Schools in Durban. All have names, but only Durban Boys High clams the moniker – SCHOOL.
2. At that time apartheid laws forbade Indians or Asians, however they might have been defined at that time, from owning property. In law, and on paper, my father technically “owned” many properties in Durban. The real owners trusted him and eventually, when laws changed, those properties were transferred into the names of the actual owners.
My thanks to Kay Johnstone for editing my article.
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