In recent years Yeoville, a Jo’burg suburb founded in 1890, became a place to avoid due to crime and urban decay, which led to the flight of wealthier classes to better neighbourhoods. A once-vibrantly cosmopolitan and bohemian area – which symbolised a changing society to many – steadily became seedy, a place only the brave, the desperate or the foolish would visit. Its trendy cafés, bookshops, some nightclubs and the idea of leisurely night strolls were consigned to history.
Those dark days are gone, however, and great efforts are being made to revitalise the suburb. Fabled Rockey Street, which still boasts pubs, taverns, tuckshops and eateries, continues to be the nerve centre of Yeovil’s nightlife. While somewhat frayed around the edges, the suburb is unmistakably more African these days, thanks to the arrival of many people from neighbouring countries post-1994 in search of a brighter future.
Luckily, they also carried with them recipes for making foods they loved back home. Not surprisingly, then, they spiced up the culinary scene in Yeoville and, indeed, the whole city – and still do. It’s now easy to walk down Rockey Street and pick up delicious foods from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other African nations. In terms of food, all of Africa can be found in Yeoville. If you keep your wits about you when it comes to personal safety in the area, you can truly enjoy plunging into a world that only exists in this corner of the city.
The Yeoville Dinner Club
Owned and run by ebullient cook and former radio man Sandza, The Yeoville Dinner Club at 24 Rockey St offers some of the yummiest foods from across the continent – a classic Pan-African plate. Seating 18 patrons on a long, communal table, the venue serves lunches and dinners from Tuesday to Sunday. It’s essential to book a spot at the table, which costs just R400 per person.
Here you can savour jollof rice, cassava leaf and peanut sauce, okra in lentil curry and egusi with phuthu, chakalaka with pickled mangos and stir-fried aubergine. The menu, which accommodates vegetarians and vegans, changes constantly to keep things exciting.
You can come solo or with a group of friends for some animated conversations over delicious food. When I visited for a Sunday lunch, no topic seemed out of bounds and Sandza ensured that everyone was comfortable.
His eyes sparkle when he talks about Yeoville, his home for more than 20 years. He saw first-hand the area’s decline and, by running his restaurant there, he hopes to play his part in efforts to revive the suburb and make it a must-visit area again. Most of all, he has benefited from the African eateries that have mushroomed around him, enabling him to incorporate various African-inspired ingredients into his own food. “I have really enjoyed eating, learning about and sharing Pan-African dishes in various homes and at parties and restaurants,” says Sandza.
For wholesome ingredients, he enjoys trawling markets in the area, and every recipe he comes across gets his own stamp of culinary creativity, clearly drawing on a rich cooking experience that bloomed into a hobby when he left his Soweto home in his late teens to live in Yeoville. “I started getting into food in the city as a young student after growing up in the house of an enterprising township granny who offered me a lot of fried steak and steamed carrots as a young boy. Since then I have been actively involved in many food innovations.”
As Sandza testifies, Yeoville has a wonderful array of African foods and it’s exciting: “Ethiopian food is like good red wine, Congolese dishes are simply irresistible and Nigerian flavours are a force.” For more information, tel: 083 447 4235 or visit: them on Instagram
Near the corner of Rockey and Bezuidenhout Sts, through a short passage that leads to a wide courtyard, lies La Camerounaise, a gem of a Cameroonian restaurant that specialises in grilled fish (red jack or Portuguese mackerel). The fish is smoked, then seasoned in a special spice that owner Tona Blanche says comes “straight from Cameroon”, and the whole meal is served with fried chips, tangy mayonnaise and chilli on the side. This restaurant is the real deal; you tuck in with your bare hands, which comes in handy for picking tiny bones from the fish, and it costs only R60.
Blanche says she’s simply serving fish the way it’s done back home in Yaoundé, Cameroon. “I opened La Camerovunaise after realising that there were no restaurants catering to the needs of Cameroonians in Jo’burg,” she says. “When I came to Jo’burg from Cameroon, my husband was already here. I tried different businesses before settling on this restaurant.”
The walls of the eatery are painted in the vibrant colours of the Cameroonian flag – green, red and yellow – and the air is always thick with festivity from those watching soccer on the giant screen in the courtyard to others simply hanging out at the bar. Definitely a place worth visiting and the excellent food makes up for the fact that your fingers will smell fishy afterwards (even if you use the liquid soap provided).
Ekhaya Pub & Restaurant
Situated at 35 Raleigh St, opposite the fabled Time Square, this eatery is an institution in Yeoville. Managed by Afworke B Mejet, it’s long attracted the black middle class craving affordable, authentic South African cuisine, such as curry, pap and vleis, mogodu and dumplings. It opens from noon till late, and hosts live jazz sessions on Sunday afternoons. The vibe and the food will take you back to ekasi.
Hello Africa Travel
Just across the road from Yeoville – in Berea, close to Hillbrow – is Ponte City, a cylindrical skyscraper that’s an iconic landmark on the Jo’burg skyline. In a stylishly decorated unit on the 51st floor, Hello Africa Travel, a company that promotes a culture of travelling Africa among black milliennials and small businesses, hosts monthly African-themed dinners that celebrate the cuisine of one African country at a time. From this unit, diners are treated to jaw-dropping views of Berea, Hillbrow, Yeoville and beyond.
The dinners are part of Hello Africa Travel’s efforts to ensure that tourists are thoroughly immersed in the destinations they visit. The venue is leased from Dlala Nje, a local community centre that offers its own eye-opening tours to Hillbrow and Yeoville.
“Ponte is the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere. The idea of hosting the Southern Hemisphere’s highest dinner club was tempting,” says Trevor Chomumwe, Hello Africa Travel’s co-founder.
He sees a strong connection between food and culture. “Food is an important part of culture. Traditional cuisine is passed down from one generation to the next and it’s an expression of cultural identity. Immigrants bring the food of their countries with them and cookingtraditional food is a way of preserving their culture,” Chomumwe says.
Recently, Hello Africa Travel held a successful Senegalese-themed dinner that attracted 35 diners. “We have a lot of Senegalese friends in Jo’burg and have become quite involved in the Senegalese community and culture,” says Gugu Kheswa, Hello Africa Travel co-founder. “You really get to understand the nuances of a person’s culture when you break bread and share special holidays together. Senegalese meals are made for sharing, an important element we wanted to bring to our dinner.”
For these dinners, cooks call the shots. “We give the cooks the freedom to decide on the menu. This usually involves creating dishes based on whatever’s in season and the freshest produce available in the inner city markets so that there is little waste,” Chomumwe explains.
Each Hello Africa Travel dinner costs R550, which includes the meal, a shuttle between Braamfontein and Ponte City, drinks and a talk on the history of Ponte City. This year Hello Africa Travel aims to expand its footprint in southern Africa and continue making exploring the continent easier for Africans by offering travel experiences that “suit their unique needs”. Visit: helloafricatravel.com
Bersu Fekad Bar & Restaurant
Head to 31 Raleigh St, where the dominant fare is Ethiopian, but foods from other African countries are also served. Popular Ethiopian meals include mahberawi, a platter of different Ethiopian dishes served on an injera (pancake). They also make delicious kitty (spiced minced meat that’s served slightly cooked or raw with injera). This Ethiopian joint, managed by Alex Sebsba, is special and will make you feel as if you are in Addis Ababa; all the food on the menu is delicious. Wash it all down with great Ethiopian coffee.
Photographers: Daniel Born