Third in my Roadhouses of Gauteng series.
The Johnny Guitar Drive In, a roadhouse in downtown Alberton on Joburg’s East Rand, has a long and complex history. I’ll try to summarize what I know in a few sentences.
Nearly 70 years ago, a first-generation South African named Sylvia Kongos opened a roadhouse in Brakpan called the Casbah. Roadhouse, as I’ve explained previously, is the South African term for an American-style drive-in, where you pull up in your car and a carhop serves you from your window.
Sylvia, clearly a very shrewd businesswoman, expanded the Casbah into a successful roadhouse chain. The Alberton Casbah opened sometime shortly after the Brakpan branch (which, sadly, closed in 2020).
Sylvia had a son, John Kongos, who became a teen pop star in South Africa during the 1960s. John (a.k.a. Johnny) eventually moved to London and went on to have a long, successful career as a musician and songwriter. (Sylvia Kongos also once owned the Fireplace Roadhouse in Boksburg, which I blogged about in February. The Fireplace used to be Johnny’s recording studio before it became a roadhouse.)
Johnny has lived all over the world but eventually settled with his family in the U.S. state of Arizona. His four sons are also musicians and formed their own successful rock band, the Kongos, in the early 2010s.
Sylvia was one of 11 children, and over time she handed off ownership of many of her roadhouses to different members of the family. Some of the businesses thrived and some didn’t. The Alberton Casbah had fallen on hard times, and in 2018 Johnny took it over and rebranded it as Johnny Guitar Drive In. The name is a nod to Johnny’s musical success and his family’s new life in America.
If you’d like to learn more about Johnny Kongos and the Kongos family, I recommend this podcast in which the four Kongos brothers (Sylvia’s grandsons) interview their dad.
An Early Dinner at Johnny Guitar
Thorsten and I had been planning our Johnny Guitar dinner date for weeks. I was super excited to check it out — I had never blogged about anything in Alberton before, and the Johnny Guitar neon sign looked fantastic in the photos I’d seen.
Sadly, the power was out in downtown Alberton on the evening we went. This meant no neon signs and — perhaps even more tragically — no milkshakes at Johnny Guitar. The power outage also meant the restaurant’s card machines were down, as were many of the ATMs in the area, and Thorsten and I only had R200 in cash to spend for dinner.
But all was not lost. Fortunately we arrived well before the sun went down and Johnny Guitar looked great in the late afternoon light, even sans neon. And this is a roadhouse, which means R200 (about $14) still buys a decent meal for two.
Johnny Guitar has a typical roadhouse menu — i.e. huge, with every South African/American dish you can imagine. The menu also has a few surprises, including poutine. Poutine, a French Canadian dish, is traditionally made with French fries (chips) smothered in cheese curd and brown gravy.
I ordered poutine for the sheer novelty of eating such an exotic meal in the passenger seat of a bakkie at a roadhouse in Alberton. Thorsten, who had never heard of poutine and thought it looked disgusting (we came very close to having a fight over this), ordered a double chicken burger.
The poutine was delicious, although I ate too much and had a stomachache afterward, and Thorsten’s sandwich was great too. Thorsten did agree to try the poutine and said it tasted okay but still refused to fully endorse it. I decided to let that go.
We really enjoyed the Johnny Guitar vibe, even without lights and milkshakes. And fortunately Alberton is closer to central Joburg than many of the other East Rand roadhouses. So we can easily go back.
Thumbs up to the Johnny Guitar Drive In. Please support it: We need to help preserve these quirky, endangered slices of South African history and culture.
Johnny Guitar is at 57 Voortrekker Road, New Redruth, Alberton. Call 011-907-0379.