The Best 9 Drinking Holes in Johannesburg - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Best 9 Drinking Holes in Johannesburg

The Best 9 Drinking Holes in Johannesburg

By Nick Dall

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.
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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.

THREE MORE

(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.

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