I hadn’t planned to blog about pandemic dining (sorry, I realize that’s a horrible term) today. But just a few minutes ago I was chatting with a friend about how few restaurants I feel comfortable eating in right now.

Pandemic dining: The Richmond near Rand Steam
The Richmond, just around the corner from the Rand Steam shopping centre, is one of my pandemic dining favorites.

Although I still love dining out, times have changed since covid arrived and I’m not sure when (or if) things will go back to the way they were. When I enter a restaurant these days, my eyes immediately scan for a table that’s next to an open window/door and comfortably socially distanced from other tables. If I cannot find such a table, a mild panic rises in my chest.

Sometimes I sit down anyway and try to tamp down my anxiety, enjoy my meal, and hope for the best. (I did this a lot in the U.S., where I ate out often with friends and family, and — at least in June and July — the concepts of social distancing and outdoor ventilation had vanished.) Other times I turn around and leave. Mostly though, I just eat at home. When I do go out, I limit myself to a few local restaurants where I know I’ll feel safe.

This is a bit sad for a person who normally loves exploring and trying new things. But we’re 18 months into this pandemic, it’s not ending anytime soon, and we’ve got to do what’s necessary to cope. Right now I’m coping by staying close to home and sticking with what I know.

Here are five restaurants, all located around Melville, Brixton, and the Parks, where I’ve recently enjoyed myself.

1) Café Picobella Trattoria (Melville)

Pandemic dining: Outside Picobella in Melville
Outside Picobella, on one of Melville’s nicest corners.

I hadn’t eaten at Picobella for a long time and then wound up there last Saturday evening, when Thorsten and I felt desperate to get out but couldn’t fathom going anywhere more than four blocks from my house.

It was windy and freezing so we didn’t want to eat outside, but I breathed a sigh of relief as soon as we walked into the restaurant. It was warm and cozy, thanks to the huge pizza oven, and the tables are much more widely spaced than they were before covid (unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera so I don’t have a picture). I felt totally comfortable there.

I’ve always liked Picobella because: 1) It’s super close to my house; 2) It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 365 days a year; 3) There’s a large front porch with lots of tables and a pretty view of the street; and 4) It has great pizza, although I do find Picobella’s menu has good days and bad. I highly recommend the “Veg Dué” pizza (I wrote about it years ago during my “Jozi Pizza Wars” series), with cherry tomatoes, roasted eggplant, pesto, halloumi, and rocket. It’s one of my favorite pizzas in Joburg.

Café Picobella Trattoria is at 66 4th Avenue, Melville. Call 011-482-4309.

2) Blind Tiger Café (Parkview)

Pandemic dining: In the garden at Blind Tiger, Parkview
Blind Tiger’s beautiful garden.

I wrote a dedicated post about Blind Tiger very recently, so I won’t repeat myself. I was there a little over a week ago and it’s still great. The garden is still the best in town, and they have heaters so you can sit outside even when it’s cold.

The Blind Tiger Café is at 62 Tyrone Avenue, Parkview. Call 076-030-4200.

3) The Richmond Studio Café (Richmond)

I blogged about the Richmond way back in 2017, when it first opened, but I’ve been meaning to blog about it again because it’s grown so much over the past four years.

Outdoor space at the Richmond
The Richmond’s funky lighting makes it feel really inviting, even on cold winter nights.

Antoine and his team are constantly working to upgrade the Richmond’s atmosphere and decor, and they’ve outdone themselves during the pandemic. Despite being on a busy, urban corner without a lot of space, the Richmond now has a wonderful outdoor seating area. The coffee bar is completely opened up to the outside, and the few indoor tables are far apart.

Inside the Richmond
Inside the Richmond.

The Richmond started out as a breakfast and lunch place, but it’s now fully licensed and open until 7:00 p.m. on weeknights and 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays. The menu is always expanding and I’ve never been disappointed in anything I’ve ordered there.

The Richmond Studio Café is at 14 Menton Road, Richmond. Call 010-595-1070.

4) Breezeblock (Brixton)

As with the Richmond, I last blogged about Breezeblock in 2017. I loved everything about it and I still do — it’s almost exactly the same now as it was then.

Breezeblock interior
Inside Breezeblock. I took this photo a few years ago; it still looks the same but the tables are further apart now.

Breezeblock is perfectly designed, down to the last spoon and saucer. There is plenty of space inside and there’s a beautiful, walled garden outside. The food is consistently delicious and well priced. The restaurant is open daily until 4:00 p.m. (also for occasional evening events) and is licensed.

Table at Breezeblock in Brixton
The colors in Breezeblock make me feel instantly calm.

I’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but I’m moving to Brixton in about a month and Breezeblock is going to become my go-to coffee shop. I’m so excited.

Breezeblock is at 29 Chiswick Street, Brixton. Call 078-175-2556.

5) Sweet Tea and Chickadee (Emmarentia)

I discovered Sweet Tea and Chickadee right before the pandemic started — I first blogged about it in March 2020 — and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. Sweet Tea and Chickadee was the last restaurant I ate in before South Africa’s hard lockdown started, and the first restaurant I went back to when restaurants opened again.

Biscuit sandwich from Sweet Tea and Chickadee
My first meal at Sweet Tea and Chickadee: An American-style biscuit sandwich accompanied by an American-style sweet iced tea.

Sweet Tea and Chickadee is a small restaurant, but it has particularly high ceilings and there is always at least one door open. There are only a few tables inside and they aren’t too close together. Natasha recently added a deck in front of the restaurant for outdoor dining.

Outside Sweet Tea and Chickadee
Outside Sweet Tea and Chickadee, before the new deck was built.

Sweat Tea and Chickadee’s food is scrumptious; the pastries are the best I’ve had anywhere in Joburg. The café, which was recently licensed, is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays only. It gets very busy on weekends but the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens are right across the street and great for picnics.

Sweet Tea and Chickadee is at 3 Levubu Road, Emmarentia. Call 083-712-4805.

Do you have a local pandemic dining favorite? Tips are welcome.

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