The Best 9 Drinking Holes in Johannesburg
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Forget the five-star hotels and rooftop cocktail lounges — this is where you should drink in Jozi.
By Nick Dall
Next to a dental surgery center and a pool-care shop on a scruffy side street, Tonino’s offers a much-needed escape from the chaos of a rush-hour thunderstorm. While sipping on a scuffed tumbler of Jameson at the always-gloomy pine bar, I meet Ross Chidinga, a Congolese plumbing rep who’s just lost R400 ($35) on a Manchester United game. Later at the even gloomier pool table, I lose three racks in a row to Ariel — a Hasidic rabbi who manufactures knock-off perfumes.
Johannesburg, the richest city in Africa, is known for its glitzy rooftop bars and plush cocktail lounges. This is all very well, but the venerable blue-collar drinking holes in the old heart of the city are where you should really be quenching your thirst. All that’s required is a reliable taxi driver and an open mind.
It’s the kind of spot where you’ll meet poephols [arseholes] and professors.
Miguel Cabeleira, co-owner of Radium Beerhall
Tonino’s may be the only place where I’ve ever played pool with a rabbi, but nearby Radium Beerhall is older and more polished. It’s the kind of spot where you’ll meet “poephols [arseholes] and professors,” says co-owner Miguel Cabeleira, “… but no rubbish.” Beneath walls adorned with old photographs, trinkets and newspaper clippings, and around a scarred 100-year-old bar (salvaged from the Ferreirastown Hotel) that was at the center of the 1922 miners’ strikes, Africans from all walks of life drink, eat, talk and boogie — there’s live music four nights a week.
The Radium started out as a Lebanese family tea room with a side trade in moonshine, before being bought by a Yugoslav soccer player who “kicked out the scones and old ladies and made it just a bar,” says Cabeleira. When his dad, Manny, bought the place in the ’80s, he replaced the billiards room with a Portuguese restaurant (the “half frango” piri piri chicken is amazing) and started booking gigs.
DO IT: JOZI PUB CRAWL
- A to B: All the pubs mentioned are pretty close to one another. Use Uber or Taxify to get around.
- Safety first: Central Johannesburg can hardly be described as safe. But pubs employ private security guards who ensure that the establishments are islands of relative peace.
- What’s on? Kitcheners has an up-to-date gig lineup on its Facebook page. Radium’s online calendar isn’t quite as well-maintained, but it should give you an idea.
- Hot tip (literally): Add a bottle of the Radium’s legendary piri piri sauce ($4) to your drink order.
Tonino’s and the Radium are both in Orange Grove — once home to Mahatma Gandhi — but there are also some classic places to wet your whistle a few miles to the south. Kitcheners Carvery Bar in the broekie-(panties-)laced Milner Park Hotel started life as the Hansa Hotel in 1898 before changing its identity (possibly around 1915 when anti-German sentiment swept the country) to honor a purported meeting between Lords Milner and Kitchener. (Ironically, Kitchener was a merciless general who is now seen by many as the godfather of concentration camps).
These days, it’s a popular lunch venue (good burgers from $6), and the wallpapered dining room is the unlikely stage for some of the city’s hippest beats. DJ-cum-historian Marc Latilla remembers playing gigs back in 2008-2009, when Kitcheners was still a residential hotel: The “fitter and turner types” who lived there would, he says, “spend the entire night drinking at the bar before going upstairs to bed.”
Latilla, who is currently working on a book about old Johannesburg, is fairly convinced Kitcheners is the oldest surviving pub in the city, but other contenders include the Guildhall (it’s been closed for “renovations” for well over a year) and the Booysens Hotel, which apparently dates back to 1887 (Latilla is skeptical) but is now more conference center than drinking hole.
Also in the running is the elegant, members-only Rand Club, which was founded on Cecil John Rhodes’ (of Rhodesia fame) instruction in 1887, but has been rebuilt twice. Its blue-collar credentials may be sorely lacking (for decades, Blacks and women were denied entrance), but you can’t knock its historical importance.
If you happen to be in town on a Thursday evening, nonmembers are allowed into the Main Bar — just remember to get your suit dry-cleaned first.
(Courtesy of Marc Latilla)
- The Troyeville Hotel is great for a post-rugby pint — Ellis Park Stadium is just around the corner — and some really top nosh.
- The Benders Arms, a favorite among office workers since 1948, has recently relocated to an annex of the historic Rand Club.
- When the Hyde Park Hotel was transformed into a shopping center, the atmospheric Colony Arms was not changed a jot. There is a God.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall