Durban Memoires Gastronomique 1967 - 1993

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By Dave Baird - June 2008

OK, let's see. How do I go about setting out these memories? I guess that I need to start at the beginning…

My family arrived in South Africa from Scotland in early October 1967. The immigration people were dead keen for us to stay in Johannesburg, but thankfully, my Dad was determined to live in Durban, and after about ten days we found ourselves on the Milk Train, bound for Durban. The journey was interminable - we made acquaintance with every dorp and lamp post between Johannesburg and Durban. I remember the stop in Pietermaritzburg most of all. Outside the window of our carriage stood a group of boys in grey flannels, blue blazers with gold twin stripes and boaters. These were Marist Brothers scholars, and little did I know it then, but for the bulk of my schooling I attended Marist Brothers in Durban - St Henry's. We arrived in Durban and were accommodated at the Esplanade Hotel.

I am sure that my Dad went into a frenzy of job hunting and such, but for me as a 9 year old boy, things were just one big adventure. Dad found a job at Elgin Engineering and we found a flat to rent in Ogwini at the Esplanade end of Russell Street. The flat was number 144 and had magnificent views of Albert Park, the Berea and the entire length of the harbour. While still at the Esplanade, I recall two flavours that defined my memories - a Bombay Beef Curry and Mountain Dew.

We explored our new home city on foot and by bus and found our way to many wonderful places - Brighton Beach, Durban Beachfront, town centre - all exotic and exciting. Once we moved into Ogwini, a place was found for me at school - St Josephs School in St Andrews Street. This was run by nuns and boys were accommodated up to the end of Standard Two. Thereafter, we were deemed to be a danger to the morals of the girls and dispatched to other schools. At this stage a place was found for me at St Henry's, and this despite the family being "non-Catholic". The connection was that my parents had been very friendly with some of the Brothers at the Marist College in my home town of Dumfries.

Prior to going to school (it was the Michaelmas break) I would accompany my Mother into town to shop for the family. The OK bazaars was our local supermarket and they had a wonderful arrangement whereby shopping could be done, the goods packed into a box, moved by suspended conveyor to a dispatch area and delivered to your home at a pre-arranged time - science fiction for us! The tea room in the OK bazaars was above the doorway exit to Smith Street and my Mother would take me there as a treat…or more accurately because she could not resist their wonderful waffles with maple syrup and cream! My personal favourite there - the pie, gravy and chips (you will find this to be a recurring theme).

Now that we are on the subject of food, let's see what I can remember about the places that we found to eat in the first few years in Durban. I will try to do them kind of geographically, working from Albert Park to the Beachfront…

Albert Park - The Tropicale. The spaghetti Bolognese was unsurpassed - anywhere, ever! And for dessert a Chico the Clown (maybe Coco the Clown) - a decorated ice cream cone.

At the top end of Russell Street, and just into Smith Street there was the Mexican Hat which belonged to the Tomson family - great hamburgers and hotdogs. On the corner of West Street and Broad Street, the Polar Bar, which was open on two sides, closed off by a grid gate at night. Probably the best hotdogs I van remember.

Greenacres Department store, an upmarket tea room, silver service - elegant and formal with great cream teas. Across the road, Payne Brothers department store restaurant, which served a savoury toasted cheese which became a staple of Saturday morning shopping trips. In Greenacres Arcade, the Clover Bar - fantastic waffles and milkshakes. John Orrs Department Store - similar to Greenacres in its attempt to be slightly more upmarket - good food but nothing springs immediately to mind.

I have already mentioned the American Diner style tearoom with its red leatherette barstools and great waffles and pies at the OK Bazaars. In the arcade through Eagle building (the tallest building in Durban in 1967) lurked the Wimpy. Thinly sliced onions and fantastic burgers in a toasted bun, with thin cut chips - and a large Coke, all for the princely sum of just 35 cents!

In London arcade, the Three Monkeys Restaurant - probably the best toasted sandwiches in town! In Aliwal street, the Kings Restaurant - once again, pie gravy and chips to die for. At South beach there was the Pickin' Chicken and the XL. Chicken in a basket was de rigeur at the Pickin' Chicken and the XL did a famous mixed grill - not for the faint hearted. At North Beach was the Cuban Hat and the Nest. I confess that I was more of a Nest person, and their pie, curry gravy and chips haunts me to this day. These were drive in restaurants and in the evenings we would drive there (5 of us in a Morris 1100) and order our food, then after eating stroll along the lower Marine Parade.

Being Scots, the family were soccer mad, and we attended both Durban City and Durban United games during the winter, on Sunday afternoons at New Kingsmead. While the soccer was important for me, the burgers from the catering van were equally important, or, as an alternative, a hot pie from the kiosks. Also, there were the Eskimo Pies (ice creams) sold by the vendors. We also went to see Natal getting regularly beaten at rugby, across the road from New Kingsmead, at Kings Park on Saturdays - and the same burger vans had the concessions there too, as they did at the old Alan Ford Stadium where we went on a Friday night to watch hot rods.

It didn't take my dad lomg to join the Kingsmead Club and the family would often eat dinner there after the soccer on a Sunday night. Sometimes this entailed formal meals, like Tournedos Chasseur or Crayfish Thermidor, followed by a dessert of sherry trifle, all served under the careful eye of Frank, the Head Waiter, and sometimes it would be snacks like samoosas and smoked sausages, usually eaten while watching the Sunday night movie. It was in the Kingsmead club that I was first introduced to the Rock Shandy (soda water, lemonade, dash of bitters and a slice of lemon) - cool and refreshing.

I also used to go with my Dad and brother when they played golf at Windsor Park, and it was a treat to stop at the 9th hole and have a hot pie (Perks or Bakers specials), washed down with a pint of Ginger Beer and Milk. My Dad went on to work for Delville engineering at Mount Edgecombe, and we were then introduced to the Huletts Country Club - the food was beyond compare, whether it was a salad, steak, chicken or seafood - classy and elegant.

As time went on through the 1970's and into the 80's tastes and restaurants changed as I moved from attending them with my parents to taking girlfriends out for meals. The Hungry Hermit in hermitage Street served a wonderful Coquilles St Jacques. The Bali Hai at the Elangeni Hotel served Polynesian food as did the Api Taki in 320 West Street. The Royal Grill was reserved for formal evenings - important birthdays and the like and the meal was enhanced by the wearing of dinner suits. Also in the Royal Hotel was the Ulundi Curry Bar - just exactly what it says, but the classiest curries in town.

The 80's also saw the rise of the chain restaurants in Durban - Steers and Spur - unmatched quality steakhouses. In Davenport Centre, as well as at the bottom of Bluff Road and in Northlands Drive were the Burger Ranch take aways. They served the best range of sauces for burgers - Barbeque, Bermuda Onion, Texan Mushroom, Peri Peri - the list seemed endless. They also did a wonderful foot long hotdog - just superb, with ketchup and mustard. [I truly mourned the closing of the Burger Ranch in Davenport. The first owner I remember was called Manny, who made the most delicious patties, and then was Nelson who bought the place and was smart enough not mess with the recipes. Do you remember that the logo was a funny round little man? I was amazed to find him again on a Burger Ranch in Haifa in Israel in 1987, on Mount Carmel, I think. The were offering Big McDavid burgers at that point. Allan Jackson]

Our weekend nights out would never have been complete without a mutton bunny from Hansas Food Market in Gret Street, accompanied by some red sausages, and a litre of milk, all carefully taken to the Yacht Mole to be consumed, and the yachts used as target practice for the bones from the mutton curry. [Alert readers will have noticed the reference to bones and yachts and remember something similar on my page about bunny chows. Yes, indeed, David and I (and some others) were the guilty ones. Allan Jackson]

Durban was awash with places to eat and I am sure that I have missed out a lot of them. There were great places for bar lunches - curries at the Astra, Athlone, Balmoral, Beach, Willowvale, Plaza and Blue Waters Hotels were fantastic - and cheap. There were fantastic take aways - Uncle Jacks in Clairwood, the Casbah Burger Box and a plethora of places in Point Road.

There was the Swiss Restaurant in Rutherford Street and the bar meals at the Edenroc. While attending Natal University, the refectory produced the best sausage and mash I ever tasted, as well as superlative cheese and mushroom omelettes and fantastic cold meat and salad rolls. I also have hugely fond memories of the scones with cream and jam at Mitchell Park.

I had the privilege of living in Durban for almost thirty years and there never was a place where food was such fun. I hope these memories are accurate, and I apologise to anyone if I missed out there favourite eatery. Next time I will try to recall some of the pubs clubs and disco's of the 1970's and 80's

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