Johannesburg loses eatery with star-studded past

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA,Associated Press Updated at 2013-07-23 20:11:46 +0000


JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The name of the South African restaurant means "the back of beyond," but it was the place to be in its heyday, drawing Nelson Mandela and other global figures who perused a menu of ostrich casserole, deep-fried crocodile cubes and other regionally inspired dishes. Now Gramadoelas is closing after the murder of one of its two convivial owners.

Opened in 1967, Gramadoelas serves its last dinner in Johannesburg's Market Theatre complex on Saturday, and next week auctioneers will sell off restaurant equipment as well as oil paintings, brassware and other decorative bric-a-brac. It is a muted ending for a place where snapshots displayed near the buffet table evoke sparkling memories.

One old photograph shows Bill Clinton, the former United States president, with owner Brian Shalkoff, who was badly injured in an assault in late May and was taken off life support and died on July 1. Mandela, South Africa's anti-apartheid leader, visited the restaurant after white minority rule ended in 1994. Queen Elizabeth II went. So did big names in entertainment, including Elton John and South Africa-born Charlize Theron.

"This was a place where we went to celebrate any celebration that came up," said Nadine Gordimer, a South African author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. "Brian was particularly friendly and always would come around and have something interesting to say."

Shalkoff, 65, was attacked by several men at his penthouse apartment. At the time, he was with his sister and Eduan Naude, the 80-year-old partner with whom he ran Gramadoelas and shared a home.

The assailants viciously beat Shalkoff. They stole laptops and other valuables, but Naude said Shalkoff was the victim of a "vendetta" and had recently received threats.

"They didn't go for me," he said in an interview at the restaurant. "It was him they wanted."

Constable Mduduzi Zondo, a police spokesman, said an investigation is underway and no arrests have been made. He declined to speculate on a motive.

Naude said he did not have the drive to run Gramadoelas on his own and that, before the attack, he had expected a "natural death" for Gramadoelas by the end of the year. The Market Theatre did not want to renew the restaurant's long-term lease because the space will be used for a bigger foyer in line with renovations that include extra audience seating.

With tousled white hair and a genteel manner, Naude said he was not "very sentimental" about the restaurant's closure. Yet he spoke of his love of the place and its diverse clientele, saying: "I actually dread the thought of not being able to come to my restaurant."

The attack happened in Hillbrow, an area of central Johannesburg known for its bohemian edge when Naude opened Gramadoelas during apartheid. Shalkoff joined him a year later. The restaurant moved to another spot for a decade before landing at the city's Market Theatre in 1992, two years before elections in which Mandela became president.

The restaurant's record of welcoming anyone who walked through the door fit with an institution that had won international acclaim for producing anti-apartheid plays and allowing the races to mix freely, on and off the stage.

"Those of us who socialized across the race line, if you like, very quickly got to know places where our guests would be welcome," said Mannie Manim, a co-founder of the Market Theatre.

"The food was very proudly South African. If anything, that was what the Market certainly was in those days," Manim said.

The Gramadoelas menu, originally based on a blend of early Dutch and Cape Malay food, offers bobotie — "a traditional beef mince loaf gently spiced with an egg custard topping, " as well as "umngqusho," a dish of braised beef shin, beans and maize described as Mandela's favorite, and Malva pudding with custard, "evolved from the exclusion of alcohol in the dessert and replaced with Vinegar and Apricot Jam."

The Gramadoelas entrance displays a photograph of South African singer Miriam Makeba; the caption says her form-hugging dress, designed in the 1950s by Naude, was "made of burnt orange two-way stretch bathing costume fabric."

Lew Rood, a tourism consultant, said Naude and Shalkoff were ahead of their time, pioneers who were part of the "earliest 'fabric'" of Johannesburg. The original Gramadoelas, according to Rood, was "a small and relaxing bistro with rich, unpretentious décor, old world charm, friendly service and non-commercialization."

The name, a synonym for "boondocks" or "middle of nowhere," resonated. It is used by speakers of Dutch-based Afrikaans, but the origin is obscure.

"It could be derived from a Malay word, or from Khoekhoe (Hottentot); it could also be a 'root creation,' a word that someone just made up, and which became popular," Andrew van der Spuy, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of the Witwatersrand, said in an email.

At the Market Theatre, the restaurant became a holding tank for luminaries before a performance. After apartheid, though, the complex lost its cachet as an oasis of free expression. It suffered as crime swept urban areas and new options for entertainment became available in affluent suburbs.

"We all took the knock," said John Kani, a South African actor and playwright. "I remember Brian and I and Eduan sitting down and saying, 'What are we going to do? If you don't have audiences in the play, we don't have people coming into the restaurant.'"

A hole is being dug for a large retail and business complex near the Market Theatre, signaling a resurgence in the gritty neighborhood. Gramadoelas and its owners will not be there to ride the upswing.

"They were artists in a context, both of them," Kani said. "It would be sad for me to see those doors close."