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Gin cocktail from Tonic

Five Fantastic Jozi Cocktail Bars

There’s a cocktail revolution happening in Joburg. New cocktail bars seem to be opening on a monthly basis in this town.

By “cocktail bar”, I do not mean a smokey pickup joint with a disco ball serving florescent cosmos made by a bartender with slicked-back hair and a shiny shirt. (For some reason this was my cocktail bar stereotype until recently.)

I’m talking about classy, cool, thoughtfully designed establishments run by people who are as much artists and chefs as they are bartenders. There’s not a shiny shirt to be found, and the cocktails these bartenders concoct are not of the two-for-one variety. Each drink is a carefully crafted work of art meant to be savoured slowly, like a French meal. Don’t expect to order more than one or two.

So, in a continuation of my long-running Jozi Top Fives series, here are my five classy Jozi cocktail bar picks.

1) Mix

Mix, in Rosebank’s Keyes Art Mile, is the bar I visited most recently so I’ll write about it first.

Mix is inside Mesh, which is a fancy members-only club during the day but open to the public on evenings and weekends. Confusing, I know, but don’t let this put you off. Mix is a stunningly beautiful bar — filled with light and a perfect view of the Rosebank sunset — with equally beautiful drinks. The bar has a great outdoor seating area.

Devin Cross mixes cocktails at Mix Cocktail Bar in Rosebank.
Devin Cross of Mix Cocktail Bar.

Devin Cross, Mix’s manager and creative genius, invited me for a tasting of the Mix autumn drinks menu. I tried them all, which means I now remember very little of what Devin told us about what goes into each cocktail.

I do remember Devin is working toward a 100% seasonal menu, in which every drink is made only with ingredients that grow naturally during that particular time of year. I also remember that every drink is delicious.

At least I have some photos and I know the names of the things I drank.

Majordomo cocktail from Mix, one of my top five Jozi cocktail bars
The Majordomo, which has a smokey, savoury flavor, served with puffed pork rinds.
Butcherbird cocktail from Mix.
The Butcherbird (sorry I drank some before taking this picture), which is a bit sweeter and topped with plump, candied cherries, the thought of which are making my mouth water as I type this.

In between the two cocktails above was another cocktail that tasted like birthday cake (just more sophisticated) and a non-alcoholic cocktail made with kombucha.

Mix is at 21 Keyes Avenue, Rosebank, on the 2nd floor of the Trumpet building.

2) Mootee

I’ve blogged about Mootee before and I think it’s my favorite, mainly because it’s in Melville and I can walk there.

Outside Mootee on 4th Avenue in Melville
Mootee on 4th Avenue in Melville. The facade looks a bit different now than when I took this photo last year — the interior space was recently divided and a sister bar, called Smoking Kills, opened in the space on the left. The right side is still Mootee, just smaller.

I also love Mootee because it’s totally unique — it stands apart from any other bar I’ve ever been to. Mootee’s cocktails are inspired by South African muthi, or traditional medicine, and each drink has a sort of mystical quality.

The original Mootee menu described each cocktail not by its contents, but rather by the feelings/emotions it invokes. I suspect some customers were resistant to that idea, as the newest Mootee menu does list each drink’s ingredients. But the sense of mysticism remains.

blowtorched cocktail at Mooteebar in Melville
A blowtorched cocktail.
Drink in prescription bag from Mooteebar
A couple of Mootee’s cocktails are served in pharmacy bags that emit smoke when you tear them open.

Mottee is a beautiful space — especially the outdoor seating area — and the service is particularly good. Mootee also has an excellent African-inspired food menu.

Mootee is at 78a 4th Avenue, Melville.

3) Tonic

Tonic is a gin bar in Linden. (Gin, especially South African craft gin, is wildly popular right now, which is great because it’s my favorite type of liquor.) There is no better place than Tonic to down a good G&T.

Inside Tonic in Linden
Inside Tonic. The neon sign in the back, I have learned, is impossible to photograph. But it reads: “When life hands you lemons, make a G&T.”

Tonic has a huge selection of gin and every cocktail I’ve ordered there has been both visually beautiful and bursting with flavor. The adjoining restaurant and wine bar, Tanen, is under the same ownership and serves tasty Middle-Eastern-style tapas. Tonic is on the nicest street in Linden, one of my favorite suburbs.

Pineapple gin cocktail at Tonic
A pineapple cocktail that I remember nothing about other than the fact that I loved it.

Basically I love everything about Tonic and that’s all I have to say about that.

Outside Tonic
I love it so much.

Tonic is at 32 7th Street, Linden.

4) The Little Fox

Probably the newest and least known of these five bars, the Little Fox is hidden around the corner from Urbanologi in the downtown 1 Fox Precinct. Walk past Urbanologi on your left, turn left down the alleyway — the Mad Giant Brewery will be on your left — and the Little Fox is a few steps down on the right.

Alleyway at 1 Fox where the Little Fox cocktail Bar is.
This is the view you’ll see when standing outside of the Little Fox.

The Little Fox is, conveniently, directly next door to the Ginologist gin distillery, and hence serves mostly gin cocktails made with locally produced gin.

Inside the Little Fox Cocktail Bar
Inside the bar. You can see the gin distillery through the window on the right.
Cocktail from the Little Fox
A cocktail I drank. As per usual I have no recollection of what it was.

There are a few cocktails made with whiskey and rum, a small selection of wine, and you can order beer and pizza from Mad Giant.

As with several of these bars, spending an evening at the Little Fox makes you feel like you’re in on a super cool secret. Which is great but I feel compelled to tell you about it because I want the Little Fox to flourish.

The Little Fox is at 1 Fox Street, Johannesburg. If you can’t find it, walk to Urbanologi and ask someone.

5) Sin + Tax

Sin + Tax , despite being open the longest, is the most secret Jozi bar on this list. (I’m never sure how to say it out loud. Sin and Tax? Sin plus Tax? Syntax? Someone tell me please.) It’s on Bolton Road, in an alley behind Coalition Pizza, accessible through an unmarked door. The doorman might ask you for the password but just tell him you don’t know and he’ll let you in anyway.

Inside, Sin + Tax is dark and mysterious and all about the drinks.

Inside Sin & Taxes
Due to extreme darkness it’s very hard to take pictures in Sin + Tax. I haven’t brought my camera there since the first time I went in December 2016. So sorry, these photos are ancient.
Julian Short mixes a cocktail
Sin + Tax bartender/owner Julian Short.
No. 9 cocktail from Sin & Taxes
I remember this tequila cocktail well, even though I ordered in two-and-a-half years ago. Drinking it made me realize for the first time that cocktails can be a lot more than just liquor and mixers.

Sin + Tax is at 2 Bolton Road, Rosebank. If you can’t find it, ask.

Do you see a trend here? Much like the underground American speakeasies of the 1920s, these cocktail bars often require a bit of effort to find. I guess there’s something about that quest — like the bar is playing hard-to-get — that makes the first taste of a beautiful cocktail all the more rewarding.

I hope you find all five.

Inside the Artivist in Braamfontein

Artivist: Braamfontein’s Must-Visit Art Bar

In Braamfontein there is a tiny, tree-lined street called Reserve Street. It’s more of an alley really, in a block created by Jorissen and De Korte Streets to the north/south and Melle and Biccard Streets to the east/west. Beams cross over the street, draped in vegetation, creating the illusion of a mini-forest in the middle of this noisy city neighborhood.

On this alley/street is a place called Artivist.

Outside Artivist in Braamfontein
Outside Artivist, on Reserve Street.

Happy Hour at Artivist

I call Artivist an “art bar”, but it’s really a restaurant/bar/art gallery/music venue. I went early on a Thursday evening and found a nice smattering of guests, a friendly and talented bartender, tasty African snacks, and a thought-provoking exhibition by Zimbabwean artist Kudzani Chiurai.

There’s a balcony above the bar with space for more art, and a secret music venue below — called the “Untitled Basement” — hosting regular jazz performances and other hip musical events. (Artivist’s owners, DJ Kenzhero and Bradley Williams, are current and former DJs.)

Since the legendary Orbit Jazz Club is now closed (sob), I’m so happy there is another Braamfontein music venue to fill that void.

Inside the Artivist in Braamfontein
Inside Artivist.
Artivist bar
The bar has great light.
Art by Kudzani Chiurai in Artivist bar
Art by Kudzani Chiurai. Artivist hosts a different solo art exhibition each month.
Bar snacks at Artivist
Cheap but delicious bar snacks: dombolo (dumpling, or sweet boiled bread), and roasted butternut. I didn’t eat a full meal but judging from the drinks and snacks I’m guessing all the food is great.
Artivist cocktail by bartender William Maphoso
Marie-Lais’ delicious coffee-based cocktail by bartender William Maphoso.
The "Untitled Basement" below Artivist bar.
The swanky Untitled Basement, open only for musical performances and other events.

Braamfontein is inhabited by thousands of university students, but William the bartender says Artivist is geared toward the “working class” — i.e., older people who actually work.

In my view, Artivist is just plain classy.

Looking down from the Artivist balcony.
Looking down from the Artivist balcony.

Artivist is at 7 Reserve Street, Braamfontein. It’s open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Follow Artivist on Instagram.

Elevate rooftop bar

Elevate at the Reef Hotel: Joburg’s Secret Rooftop Bar

I have long bemoaned the fact that although Joburg has tons of downtown rooftops with incredible views of the city skyline, hardly any of them are open to the public. The rooftop at the Parktonian Hotel, for example, is open only to hotel guests, and Randlords is only open for events

The Elevate Rooftop Venue, at the top of the 16-floor Reef Hotel, used to be the same — available only for guests of the hotel or for various events at varying times. Not anymore though: Anyone can visit the Elevate bar between 3:00 p.m. and midnight, seven days a week. The view is spectacular.

View of downtown Joburg from Elevate Rooftop VenueLooking out over Anderson Street, Gandhi Square and beyond from the Elevate rooftop bar.

Reef HotelThe Reef Hotel on Anderson Street. This hotel is also a bit of a best kept secret — one of very few nice, affordable, full-service hotels in the CBD, on a safe, quiet street.

Sundowners on the Elevate Rooftop

Elevate’s decor is a bit night-clubby for my taste — all black marble and faux leather furniture — and sometimes the music is a little loud. (I know, I am making myself sound 1000 years old.) But none of this matters. There’s a bar, with drinks and a friendly bartender. And there is the view.

Elevate rooftop barI don’t even mind the branded glass. It somehow makes the view even better.

Seating at Elevate barFiver enjoys a Savannah and the spectacular view on a comfortable faux leather seat.

Elevate viewThis view though.

View from ElevateDid I mention the view?

To visit the Elevate bar, simply walk into the lobby of the hotel and take the lift to the 16th floor. There is usually parking outside the hotel, especially on evenings and weekends, but if you’re paranoid about parking on the street the hotel does have a (very claustrophobic) garage.

There are two restaurants in the hotel: The casual Homestead restaurant on the ground floor and the fancier Grill Room on the third floor.

Elevate still occasionally hosts private events, and sometimes on weekend nights there are parties with a cover charge. If you want to be absolutely certain the bar is open, call +27-11-689-1000.

Elevate viewOne last shot of the view. You’re welcome.

blowtorched cocktail at Mooteebar in Melville

Avant-garde Cocktails at Melville’s Mooteebar

My mom came to South Africa and we spent two weeks traveling around the country doing fabulous things and it was amazing and I didn’t blog the whole time she was here. I think this is the first time in eight years that I’ve gone two weeks without posting, and now I have a huge backlog and I feel totally overwhelmed and I’m finding it hard to start. So before I dive into all the mother-daughter activities here is a quick post about Mooteebar.

Outside Mooteebar on 4th Avenue in MelvilleOutside Mooteebar on a very cold evening in Melville. You might recognize the building as the former home of Café Mexicho, Melville’s now-defunct mediocre Mexican dive. 

Mooteebar needs a place in this blog because: a) It’s in Melville; and b) It’s the most unique and innovative bar in Johannesburg. If you are remotely interested cocktails, no matter where you live in this city, you need to give Mooteebar a try. You will either love it or you will hate it — there are few in-betweens when it comes to opinions on this place. But Mooteebar is worth a trip either way.

Cocktails at Mooteebar

Inside MooteebarInside Mooteebar. The bar also has a lovely outdoor courtyard and roof deck, but it was way too cold for that on the night I brought my camera.

Mootee is a play on the word muti, or muthi, which has many meanings and interpretations but can be broadly described as South African traditional medicine. Muti is a complicated subject, as many people associate it — sometimes legitimately — with witch doctors and black magic and human sacrifice. But muti also encompasses herbal remedies and spirituality and traditional South African culture.

Muti is controversial and I think that’s why Mooteebar’s owners — all of whom are internationally acclaimed bartenders — chose it for their name.

I don’t want to spend too much time describing the Mooteebar menu, as it makes a lot more sense if you experience it yourself. But in short: a) The menu is hand-drawn, with beautiful illustrations conveying the feelings that each cocktail is meant to evoke; b) The actual ingredients of each cocktail are not listed in the descriptions — just the flavor notes and the “intentions” of the drink.

Menu page at MooteebarA page of the Mooteebar menu.

Not everyone likes this menu setup. Some people find it pretentious and weird and just want to order a martini and be done with it. I personally think the menu is fun and adventurous and cool.

Cocktails all cost R85 (about $6.50), which is expensive by Joburg standards but reasonable when you consider each drink is a work of art.

Drink in prescription bag from MooteebarMy cocktail, the Umfazi, was served in a paper bag that releases smoke when you open it. The drink itself was served in a perfume bottle that I poured into the glass myself.

blowtorched cocktail at Mooteebar in MelvilleNice-guy-Kevin asked for the strongest drink and this is what he got. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was indeed very strong and one of the most photogenic cocktails I’ve ever seen. Any drink requiring a blowtorch to prepare is a winner in my book.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the Mashonza, which is served a vessel shaped like a mopani worm and has an actual dried worm on top. But I’ve had it before and definitely recommend it.

Mooteebar also offers a great food menu — I can personally recommend the springbok rolls, the onion rings, and the chocolate milk tarts — excellent service, and the perfect decor and atmosphere for savoring avant-garde cocktails. It’s a huge step up from the sticky, tequila-soaked vibes of Café Mexicho, which used to occupy this space.

Beautiful cocktail from MooteebarOne more shot post-blowtorch.

Mooteebar is at 78A 4th Avenue, Melville. Call +27-10-900-1399. Note the bar is closed on Mondays and only opens at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday.

Read another review of Mooteebar in Wanted magazine.

Outside Toninos in Orange Grove

May Restaurant of the Month: Tonino’s

Tonino’s has been on my hit list forever.

Outside Toninos in Orange GroveTonino’s: Is it a sports pub? A blues venue? A casino? A Portuguese restaurant? A pizza take-away? Yes. All of that.

I first noticed Tonino’s a few years ago during a visit to the fabulous Kalahari Books, which is across the street. The restaurant caught my eye immediately with its bright yellow facade. I made a mental note to check it out sometime, then forgot about it.

Then last month I saw this article in Hello Joburg magazine about Jozi’s top five dive bars, and Tonino’s made the list. I also noticed the restaurant has a buy-one-get-one-free deal on the Entertainer app. (Side note: The Entertainer app is awesome. Here is a post I wrote about it a few years ago.)

The universe seemed to be telling me I should go have fun at Tonino’s. So I did that.

Having Fun at Tonino’s

I first visited Tonino’s on a Friday night with a group of friends. I’m really not much of a bar fly normally, but I loved this place the moment I stepped through the door. The walls are full of character, decorated with interesting pictures and neon signs and old-school car bumpers with functioning lights. The bar area feels divey but not dingy. The crowd is rowdy but not rude, with a nice mix of ages and races. The beer costs R15 a bottle. Also, I hear there is karaoke although none that night as far as I could tell.

The front bar area at Tonino'sThe front bar area.

Back bar area and pool table at Tonino'sThe back section of the bar, with pool table.

We sat in the balcony upstairs and looked down over the pool table, where an ancient man played like his life depended on it and danced funny jigs in between shots. We sang along to Kenny Rogers and enjoyed the beer and it was all so cheap and so much fun that I forgot to use my Entertainer discount. So I had to go back the next week for lunch.

I met my friend Tecla for pizza at Tonino’s on a freezing-cold Tuesday at noon. It wasn’t the same vibe as a Friday night but it wasn’t totally empty, either. The pizzas are tasty and well priced, with thin, very flaky crust. The service was fast and friendly.

Pizza from Tonino'sPizzas from Tonino’s. The smaller size (which both of these are) is perfect for a one-person lunch.

Tonino’s bills itself as a Portuguese restaurant and there are quite a few legit-looking Portuguese dishes on the menu (trinchado, chicken livers, bacalhau, etc.), which I’ll have to try next time.

But even without the food, this is a restaurant worth visiting. It’s…real. I’ll be back.

Tonino’s is at 3 Dunottar Street, Orange Grove.

Read the rest of my 2018 Restaurant of the Month series.

Cocktail at Social Kitchen + Bar

Three Bars for Great Cocktails in Jozi

I’ve never been a big cocktail drinker. With the exception of an occasional margarita at a Mexican restaurant or gin and tonic on a game drive, you’ll rarely see me sipping liquor. I feel like most cocktails are 80 percent ice, and I find myself finished after five minutes and wishing I’d ordered wine instead.

However, I’ve recently been to three new bar/restaurants in Joburg that transformed my perception of cocktails, inspiring me to write my first-ever cocktail blog post. Here they are:

1) Social Kitchen + Bar

Bartender Thami making cocktails at Social Kitchen + BarThami Gobedi, bartender at Social Kitchen + Bar.

Social Kitchen + Bar is notable for several reasons. First, it’s a restaurant inside Joburg’s largest and best known retail bookstore: Exclusive Books in Hyde Park Mall. Second, Social Kitchen + Bar has one of Joburg’s top chefs, Russell Armstrong, and the food is spectacular. (I haven’t eaten a full meal there yet but I’ve tasted some mind-blowing samples.) Third, the bar takes inspiration from its location and offers a creative menu of literature-inspired cocktails.

Social Kitchen + BarThe Social Kitchen dining room which, unlike all the other restaurants in Hyde Park Mall, has actual windows.

Uncle Tom's Cabin cocktailA cocktail inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made with Bulliet bourbon, lemon, orange marmalade, and Angostura bitters. Underneath the cocktail are several other books that inspired drinks on the menu. 

I discovered the Social Bar + Kitchen cocktails during a work assignment, when I went to photograph the drinks for my friend Marie-Lais’ “Other Side of the City” column in the Saturday Citizen newspaper. This turned out to be a most delightful photography assignment, as I sipped cocktails, nibbled delicious food, and laughed a lot while taking photos of the most photogenic drinks I have ever come across.

Bartender Dom de Lorenzo makes cocktailsBartender Dom de Lorenzo crafts a cocktail.

Thami makes a cocktail Thami pours a drink inspired by The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, with Ketel One Vodka, orange juice, and passion fruit.

The Secret Garden cocktailThe Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, was one of my favorite books growing up. The cocktail it inspires includes Tanqueray No. Ten, rose, chamomile, and lemon.

Cocktail at Social Kitchen + BarOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, inspired a cocktail with an actual origami cuckoo.

My only criticism of Social Kitchen + Bar’s literary cocktail menu is that there are no South African or African books included. Apparently that is set to change in 2017 though.

Social Kitchen’s cocktails range in price from R60 ($4.40) to R95 ($7) — not cheap but totally worth it.

2) The Shadowboxer

UPDATE (2019): Sadly the Shadowboxer has closed.

The Shadowboxer is a new restaurant and bar on Greenway Road in Greenside. The Shadowboxer is just up the street from, the bubble tea franchise, and owned by the same people who own Therefore it should come as no surprise that the Shadowboxer serves — you guessed it — BUBBLE TEA COCKTAILS.

Bubble tea cocktail from the ShadowboxerThis is a blueberry tequila sour with blueberry popping pearls. If you don’t know what popping pearls are, well…They’re difficult to explain. You need to find a bubble tea shop and try them out, or just go straight to the Shadowboxer for the alcoholic version.

I imagine there are probably other places in the world that have merged the idea of bubble tea into alcoholic cocktails before, but definitely not in Joburg. I find the idea quite revolutionary.

Strawberry bubble tea drinkAnother Shadowboxer cocktail with strawberry juice, mint, and strawberry popping pearls.

The Shadowboxer’s menu is varied, offering Asian-inspired dishes as well as pizzas, burgers, and flatbreads. I tried the spicy pulled pork steamed bao buns and found them pretty good, although not as awe-inspiring as the hand-cut chips (fries) with delectable dipping sauce that came on the side. I’m keen to try the burgers next time. The Shadowboxer also serves a nice selection of wine, beer, sangria, craft iced tea (yes, that’s a thing now), and non-alcoholic bubble tea drinks.

The Shadowboxer’s cocktails range in price from R35 ($2.50 — what a deal!) to R58 ($4.25).

Sin & Taxes (working name – may change)

UPDATE (2019): The correct name of this bar is Sin + Tax.

Sin & Taxes, which just opened in December 2016 and may be renamed, is a speak-easy: a “secret” bar modeled on the underground drinking holes of Prohibition-era America. It’s a little pretentious but I have to admit, it’s a cool gimmick. Pretentiousness works sometimes.

Inside Sin & TaxesInside secret Sin & Taxes. It’s very dark, as any self-respecting speak-easy should be.

Sin & Taxes is located in the brand-new, ultra-trendy Bolton Road complex in Rosebank, but the only way to get in is to enter Coalition (which serves delicious Neapolitan-style pizza and deserves a post of its own), walk through to the back passage past the bathrooms, and knock on the unmarked metal door. The door slides open and you find yourself in the bar.

Renowned mixologist Julian Short conceived Sin & Taxes, and watching him mix cocktails is a sight to behold.

Julian Short mixes a cocktailJulian mixes my cocktail, the No. 9.

The Sin & Taxes cocktail menu (there are only cocktails for now) is two-fold, with one page of “House Classics” and one page of specialty cocktails focused on a certain topic. The current specialty menu is a travel menu, inspired by Julian’s own travels to different countries around the world.

I chose the No. 9 cocktail from the travel menu, a Mexican-inspired drink: “Blanco Tequila + Joven Mescal + Smoked Pomegranate Shrub + Caramelized Lime Juice + Coriander Leaf”.

No. 9 cocktail from Sin & TaxesThe No. 9, which comes with a tiny clothes pin attaching an authentic Mexican postage stamp. I loved the fruity, smokey flavor of the drink.

Joburg cocktail from Sin & TaxesMy friend Fiver’s selection: the “Joburg Cocktail” from the House Classics menu. “South African Gin + Caperatif + Orange Bitters + Naartjie Tincture”. (Naartjie is the South African word for tangerine.) 

Sin & Taxes’ cocktails are expensive by South African standards. My drink cost R93 ($6.80) and the most expensive drink on the menu is R122 ($8.90), which is the price of a decent dinner at most restaurants. But these drinks are works of art, meant to be consumed slowly. It took me more than half an hour to finish mine; I had to savour every sip.

So go forth, drink, and be merry. And call an Uber when it’s time to go home.