Why you should care

The butt of many jokes, the scruffy suburb of Parow is having the last laugh.

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After being frisked by the Congolese bouncer, we traipse up chipped tiled stairs toward the mirrored door that is Parow’s unlikely portal to Central Africa. Inside the Ubuntu Lounge, a Burundian barman serves a group of scotch-drinking Rwandans who’ve come to watch Barcelona take on Roma. Meanwhile, beyond the empty dance floor, the DJ — sporting a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word FAMOUS — jives to his own pumping Wednesday-evening beats, occasionally firing off his smoke machine.

For the first 35 years of my life I ensured that my visits to Parow — a light commercial and residential suburb that’s the butt of many a Cape Town joke — were as brief and infrequent as possible. I saw very little use for its used-car lots, cheap apartments and pawnbrokers. But that all changed when I met Dave Cotton, a Vespa-riding adman who makes regular pilgrimages to “Parowdise.” “It’s like traveling abroad,” says Cotton. “But it’s not even 10 miles from my house.”

Parow could hardly be described as a culinary hot spot, but it does have two fascinating eateries.

Named after a German sea captain who settled in the area after a shipwreck in the great storm of 1865, Parow had become by the middle of the 20th century a popular shopping area centered around the important artery of Voortrekker Road. Later, the establishment of the N1 highway and the cruelties of the Group Areas Act (Parow, designated white, was surrounded by non-white suburbs) took the region down a few pegs.

Since democracy arrived in 1994, Parow — with its many small businesses and numerous low-cost housing options — has proved popular with immigrants from all over Africa, making it one of Cape Town’s only truly multicultural ’hoods. The Ubuntu Lounge is one of many Central, West and East African hangouts; there are also plenty of Bangladeshi- and Pakistani-owned cafes and loads of dingy drinking holes and sportsbooks catering mainly to Parow’s whites and Coloureds (the term for the mixed-race people of the Western Cape). Case in point: the Lucky Plaza Pub, where we embarrassed ourselves on the pool table to a jukebox soundtrack that included “Three Times a Lady” and the Afrikaans treffer “Speeltjie.”

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Table Mountain and Lion’s Head watch over Voortrekker Road.

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Patrons in the Ubuntu Lounge at the end of a long day.

Parow could hardly be described as a culinary hot spot, but it does have two fascinating eateries. Harlequin Restaurant (a hideous ’60s lump of concrete, corrugated iron and circus-neon signage whose menu, patrons and interior are all italianissimo) and the Bar-B-Que Steakhouse, a wood-paneled throwback to the way things used to be in South Africa: The “Ladies Ribs” ($12) are big enough for two adult males.

Of course, Parow doesn’t only dazzle after dark. Vendors at the Parow Market — a steel shed that’s open on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays — purvey homemade samosas, used kitchen utensils and bespoke leather goods. Businesses on Voortrekker Road sell everything from guitars and custom wedding bonnets to West African yassa (a dish of rice and chicken or fish) and pirated Korean auto parts. If you look hard enough you’ll find private investigators, karate dojos, stampmakers and rooms to rent by the hour. Not to mention enough charismatic churches to satisfy all the lost souls of Cape Town and beyond.

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The Bar-B-Que Steakhouse is a wood-paneled step back in time.

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The Harlequin Restaurant is an unmistakable neighborhood landmark.

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The Maitland Pawn Shop doubles as a vintage lamp emporium.

As we drive back to the “foreign country” that we both call home, Cotton tries to explain what Parow means to him. “Most Capetonians will tell you to go to Bree Street or Kloof Street or some other street to have a good time,” he says. “But they don’t know what they’re missing in Parow.”

“It’s like the grimy outskirts of Las Vegas … with a whole lot of delicious African spice thrown into the mix.”

GO there: DO PAROW LIKE A PRO

  • Listen: Homeboy Jack Parow, the irreverent Afrikaans rapper with a penchant for oversize baseball caps, is the suburb’s undisputed poet laureate.
  • Drink: Black Label (beer) is served in quarts. Follow it up with a double Klipdrift (brandy) and Cokes.
  • Sleep: The New National Hotel has clean, recently renovated rooms starting from R770 ($63).
  • Be safe: Voortrekker Road is, according to Cotton, “much safer than Long Street,” but it’s probably best to visit in a group and try not to get too sloshed.

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The Bellville municipal swimming pool with Table Mountain in the background.

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