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It’s a long, long way from the capital of the USA to the gritty City of Gold, but for a freshly-transplanted American, Joburg is where the heart is…and the heart of Joburg is an ever-trendy little suburb that serves the best food in town.
By Heather Mason
I landed in Johannesburg on August 6, 2010, via an 18-hour flight from Washington D.C. My boyfriend picked me up from the airport and drove us to our new house on 6th Avenue in Melville.
After dropping my suitcases, we walked two blocks uphill to the Lucky Bean restaurant, near the corner of 4th Avenue and 7th Street. We found a table on the Lucky Bean’s first floor balcony, overlooking that busy corner, and I ordered my first meal as a Joburger.
My long-term memory isn’t great, but I remember that meal with razor-sharp clarity. We shared the ostrich bobotie spring rolls, deep-fried and topped with tart berry sauce, and a generous serving of springbok pie. I had never heard of bobotie and had certainly never tasted springbok, inside a pie or otherwise. I savoured every bite.
The meal was my perfect introduction to South African food, and to Johannesburg and South Africa more generally. Even before that night I’d had a feeling that Melville was where I belonged. My dinner at the Lucky Bean cemented that certainty.
Eight years later I’m still in Melville, still on 6th Avenue, and I still believe the Melville food scene is as good as any other in South Africa. I’ve explored every corner of this crazy city and discovered lots of great eating spots in unexpected places. But if given the choice – for breakfast, lunch, or dinner – Melville is where I want to eat.
Melville is often criticised as “not what it used to be” or “going downhill”. I stopped listening to those complaints long ago. Melville, like Joburg, is always changing, and not everyone copes well with change.
Of course it’s sad when a popular restaurant on 7th Street closes or moves elsewhere. But it happens, over and over and over. I’ve learned to be accepting because I know that when one great Melville restaurant closes, a new, even better restaurant will inevitably open in its place.
My current new favourites include Love Me So, an Asian fusion joint on 4th Avenue – where the legendary Leopard restaurant used to be – serving the city’s best gyoza and ramen. I thought I’d never recover when the Leopard left but now it feels like Love Me So has always been there.
I’m a huge fan of Mooteebar, also on 4th Avenue, the avant-garde cocktail bar where each drink is inspired by South African traditional medicine and the specific ingredients are kept secret.
Like its drinks, Mooteebar’s food is South-African-inspired with headliners like samp arancini, pap and vleis made with pulled beef shortrib, and bunny chow with Zamalek-braised chicken.
Pablo Eggs-Go-Bar is the newest Melville breakfast hotspot, with eager customers pouring out the door on weekend mornings. Pablo’s menu centres around eggs, of course; my favourite is the red shakshuka served with crispy, buttery Yemeni flatbread.
And then there are the old landmarks – the few Melville restaurants that survive the suburb’s year-to-year ups and downs. The Ant, which until the relatively recent past was cash-only and illuminated only by candlelight, serves topping-laden pizza with crust so thin it’s almost like paper.
Picobella, the Italian restaurant on 4th Avenue, is open 365 days a year: It’s my go-to place when Joburg shuts down for the December holidays. The Service Station, in the Bamboo Centre at the bottom of 9th Street, is famous for its quiche-and-salad lunch buffet and always busy despite its famously uncomfortable chairs.
The Lucky Bean, home of my first Joburg dining memory, is still going strong. The menu changes often and my beloved ostrich spring rolls and springbok pie have disappeared. But the Lucky Bean tree outside the restaurant is currently in bloom, and the outdoor seating area beneath that tree is still my favourite place to enjoy a glass of wine at sunset.
A lot has changed in Melville in eight years, but a lot has stayed the same. I love Melville and its food as much as I did on the night I arrived in August 2010. Like the Lucky Bean, I’ll probably never leave.
My Favourite Food Places in Melville:
The Lucky Bean, South African Cuisine. 16 7th St., Melville. Tel. 011 482 5572.
Love Me So, Asian cuisine. 63 4th Ave., Melville. Tel. 060 717 6728.
Mooteebar, South African cocktails and cuisine. 8a 4th Ave., Melville. Tel. 010 900 1399.
Pablo Eggs-Go-Bar, Middle Eastern cuisine. 2 7th St., Melville. Tel. 063 335 9348.
The Ant, Pizza. 11 7th St, Melville. Tel. 076 476 5671.
Café Picobella Trattoria, Italian cuisine. 66 4th Ave., Melville. 011 482 4309.
Service Station, South African/Continental cuisine. 24 9th St., Melville. 011 726 1701.