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Restaurants with no sell-by date

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I was in an enormously happy and creative mood after attending the Design Indaba in Cape Town a while ago, 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 those 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 don’t get in the establishments of the flashy new tsars of the restaurant firmament. Or do I mean stars? Either way, there’s something fantastically reassuring about knowing that style and quality can be lasting, and that you don’t have to keep endlessly embracing the new in a quest for worth.

The restaurant I chose in Cape Town is Miller’s Thumb, which has been in Kloof Nek Road since 1995. I first reviewed it around 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. And in truth, not much is different nowadays. Cape Town is still famous for having a thousand restaurants without a view of the sea, although some have sprung up over the last few years.

Incredibly, the menu at Miller’s Thumb appears to not 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 a little more difficult, given that I’ve only become a proper resident in the last couple years. Most Joburgers with a sense of history recommend the Portuguese food at the Radium Beer Hall, a venerable institution that was established in 1929. My first visit there was many years ago, and it wasn’t memorable. But Joburgers rave about the Mozambique prawns and chicken livers, so I gave it another, more purposeful bash.

I don’t know… what is it about people in Johannesburg and restaurants? The food at Radium is decidedly average. Nothing wrong with it that a couple of beers can’t drown, but hardly worth raving about. The decor is probably best described as absent, although the appeal to history is made through some choice old newspaper posters. Seriously, Joburgers – 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 Joburger 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.

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