I wrote an article for the February issue of High Life magazine — the in-flight magazine for British Airways — about my favorite quirky places in Joburg. I wish I could direct you to go out and buy the magazine, but I can’t. If you want to read the story you’ll have to book a BA flight in Southern Africa, before the end of this month.
Fortunately, High Life is letting me publish an adapted version of the article on my blog. So here are my ten favorite quirky places in Joburg (plus one bonus place), slightly edited and with my own photos added. (The photos in the magazine were shot by Joburg photographer Marc Shoul, which is quite an honor as his work is amazing.)
I’ve written about some of these places before (many times, in some cases), and I’ve provided links to my original posts where possible. But some of the places are new to my blog, and others I haven’t written about for years or only in passing. (The places are listed in no particular order.)
1) Zebra Inn
252 Market Street, Johannesburg
The Zebra Inn sits in an industrial section of downtown Jozi, two blocks from the shiny new Maboneng Precinct. To visit the Zebra Inn, knock on the battered metal gate, pass through a cluttered carpentry workshop, climb the stairs, and enter a smoky bar surrounded by scores of…stuffed heads.
The Zebra Inn’s walls are covered in taxidermy – antelope, baboon, meerkat, and of course, zebra. The trophies belong to Swazi Werner, the Austrian-born hunter/barman who has owned the Zebra Inn longer than anyone can remember. Maboneng’s hipsters have “discovered” the Zebra Inn, and Swazi now hosts late-night monthly DJ parties.
Stuffed heads at the Zebra Inn.
2) Divine Bakery
55 Mint Road, Fordsburg
Fordsburg is packed with interesting food stalls, pirated DVD traders, fabric shops, and Indian/Pakistani restaurants. There are countless quirky Fordsburg corners to discover but Divine Bakery tops the list.
Converted from a century-old Lebanese Orthodox church, Divine Bakery sells bread, cookies and cakes and serves a mean cup of masala tea. The bakery/coffee shop still feels like a church (the kitchen is in the nave), but the staff and clientele are almost uniformly Muslim, clad in abayas and skullcaps. Stop in for tea and a koeksister and have a laugh with the boisterous regulars.
Regulars shoot the breeze outside the Divine Bakery.
3) Afrikan Freedom Station
Corner Thornton Road and 5th Street, Westdene
The Afrikan Freedom Station is an African meeting place – a venue with no specific purpose that somehow serves every purpose imaginable. One of the few well-lit spots in a tired block of shopfronts in Westdene, the Afrikan Freedom Station is a live music venue, coffee house, soul-food restaurant, art exhibition space, and a salon for progressive thinkers of all shades. An African literature book club meets upstairs.
The Freedom Station’s welcoming, anything-goes vibe matches the personality of its owner, Steve Kwena Mokwena, a filmmaker and artist whose parents lived in Westdene half a century ago before the forced removals of the 1950s.
A typical Saturday at the Afrikan Freedom Station.
369 Rivonia Boulevard, Rivonia
UPDATE: Sadly, Arirang has closed and there is now a Chinese restaurant in its place. Boo.
Everyone knows that Joburg’s most authentic Chinese food is on the eastern side of the city in Cyrildene. But here’s a secret: Joburg also has an authentic Korean restaurant, far from Cyrildene in the northern suburb of Rivonia.
There is an entire hidden Asia-town in Rivonia, with a proliferation of Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants and shops. But Arirang, the Korean restaurant at posh Rivonia Corner, is a particular surprise. On an average evening Arirang is filled with Koreans chowing barbequed meat and watching American baseball (whichever team has a Korean player on it) on television. Arirang has karaoke too.
Korean figurine at Arirang.
5) HEI Café
87 De Korte Street (sort of), Braamfontein
UPDATE: HEI Café has also closed and the alleyway bears no sign that it was ever there. Double-boo.
HEI Café is in an alleyway near the corner of De Korte and Melle Streets – like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, but with a Nando’s next door. There is no sign. HEI Café patrons learn about it through word of mouth (or Facebook).
HEI Café is a coffee shop with a cause, benefiting homeless young people in Hillbrow. Founded by Frenchwoman Barbara Copelovici, who serves delectable crepes and excellent coffee, HEI Café employs student volunteers and HEI beneficiaries. Everything in HEI Café – the art on the walls, the furniture, even the dishes – is for sale. Proceeds support the Hillbrow Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Chalkboard art in the alley outside HEI Café.
6) Spaza Gallery
19 Wilhelmina Street, Troyeville
The Spaza Gallery, on a residential street in the run-down (yet artistically vibrant) suburb of Troyeville, is too funky to be a gallery but is so-named for lack of a better descriptor. The brainchild of artist and educator/curator Andrew (Drew) Lindsay, the Spaza displays urban and rural South African art that most mainstream galleries overlook.
Adjoining the gallery, which is in Drew’s house, is an outdoor sculpture garden on the site of a disused Vodacom tower. The tower still stands, surrounded by wacky African sculptures of all shapes and sizes (and usually a couple of Drew’s dogs).
My pink-haired friend Gail shoots photos at the Spaza Gallery.
7) Collector’s Treasury
244 Commissioner Street, Johannesburg
011 334 6556
The Collector’s Treasury is a hoarder’s dream and a claustrophobic’s nightmare. Well known to Joburg’s book collectors and urban explorers, the Collector’s Treasury is relatively unheard-of among suburbanites who avoid the city centre.
The Collector’s Treasury claims to be the largest used bookshop in Africa (possibly the entire Southern Hemisphere), with around two million books, records, maps, drawings, and miscellaneous tchotchkes. Finding anything specific is impossible without help; the Collector’s Treasury inventory is stuffed into an eight-story building. Even the front steps are stacked with books. Enter at your peril and solicit assistance from owners Geoff and Jonathan Klass.
Random junk at the Collector’s Treasury.
28 Rockey Street, Yeoville
UPDATE: I am sad to report that due to problems with his landlord, Sanza is no longer selling food at Food. Triple-boo! But Sanza has other plans up his sleeve. Stay tuned to my blog for more details.
Food is a tiny kitchen, smack in the middle of one of Joburg’s most frenetic streets. It’s easy to miss. If lost, ask any one of a hundred men standing around where Sanza’s place is. (And politely decline the inevitable offer of ganja. Unless…)
The name of this kitchen is an understatement. Sure, Sanza Sandile serves food – delicious, mostly vegetarian food that reflects the pan-African mixing bowl that Yeoville has become. But Sanza also serves stories, opinions, and a unique view of South Africa that defies characterization. Sanza and his food are worth fighting the hectic Yeoville traffic for.
Sanza in Yeoville (sniff).
9) The Troyeville Bedtime Story
Corner Albertina Sisulu and Viljoen Streets, Troyeville
Along busy Albertina Sisulu (formerly Bezuidenhout) Street, in a shabby park beneath a grove of trees, stands a concrete bed – complete with concrete headboard, concrete pillow, and crumpled concrete duvet. Dreamed up and created in 2011 by artists Lesley Perkes and Johannes Dreyer, “The Troyeville Bedtime Story” is Joburg’s most unlikely work of public art, built on the site of a rubbish heap without support from the City.
This rock-hard pallet is surprisingly inviting, and plays host to picnics, performance art, photo-shoots, neighbourhood slumber parties, and curious passersby simply looking for a quick rest.
Lesley Perkes “wakes up” in the Troyeville Bedtime Story.
10) Hillbrow Boxing Club
Corner Claim and Pietersen Streets, Hillbrow
The mere suggestion of visiting Hillbrow makes most South Africans break into a cold sweat. But there is actually no safer place on earth than a Hillbrow boxing gym.
The Hillbrow Boxing Club was founded in an abandoned petrol station. An old sign outside reads, “Under New Management”. The ring is outdoors and training sessions often attract crowds of onlookers. The coach, George Khosi, has a spirit that draws boxers of all types: amateur and professional, urban and suburban, black and white. The location is convenient, parking is plentiful, and training is affordable. Also, punching stuff feels awesome.
My friend Henrike works out with trainer James Ike. As most of you know, the Hillbrow Boxing Club is more than a quirky place for me. It’s a second home.
Bonus quirky place: Lindfield Victorian House
72 Richmond Avenue, Auckland Park
011 726 2932
Lindfield House wasn’t included in the High Life article because the magazine had already featured it in a recent issue. But it’s one of my favorite quirky spots in town. Read more about it in a post I wrote three years ago. (Warning: This post includes a photo of a human foetus in a jar.)
I don’t want to shock people with the foetus pic. So here is a photo of a Victorian bed with a built-in chamberpot.
I hope you’ve discovered some new spots to check out. And don’t forget to read the High Life article if you fly on BA this month.
Do you know of any quirky places that I haven’t mentioned here? Feel free to pass them along. I’m always looking for new Jozi weirdness.