For many South Africans the steakhouse was their first restaurant experience. It is where they learned the rituals of dining out, of menus and ordering, even if they didn’t always learn how to behave.
It is where many gained their first work experience and their first income. It’s where suburbanites had birthday parties and school farewells. Often, it was here that their first great romance culminated in the date that finally consummated their love. Later on, the first company dinner, the anniversary and mother’s night off from cooking.
Over time, the family-run grill was professionalised and largely replaced by the steakhouse franchise, such as Spur and the American western theme has endured. Others were converted into bistro-style restaurants.
There are, however, still a few survivors from the Sixties. Until recently, there was the tiny and somewhat gloomy Wooden Shoe Steakhouse in Sea Point. It has recently been spruced up and, in keeping with its Austrian heritage, it was renamed Salzburger Grill. Unfortunately, it has gone to the opposite extreme and now has as much charm as eating in a morgue.
There are two other remnants. Neither is clinging on for survival and both are, in fact, thriving.
The first is Buzbey Grill, complete with retro signage outside and a weathered Art Deco light inside. The walls have black-and-white photographs of Charlie Chaplin and stars of the silver screen. This was a swanky place in its day, with its copper-wall backdrop and gold ceiling.
On the counter near the open kitchen stands an antique silver cash register that still works and behind the counter is the secret to the longevity of the place — chef and patron Jimmy Kyritsis, who has been at it for more than 20 years.
Hands-on and indefatigable, he has managed to make his business grow while keeping a large and loyal clientele.
People dine early at Buzbey Grill and still believe that putting rice grains in the glass salt cellars will keep the crystals dry.
The Greek salad today is as it was understood in the Seventies, with lettuce, carrots and celery sticks. Other nostalgic attractions include the prawn cocktail, crumbed mushrooms on iceberg lettuce, and “angels on horseback” — smoked oysters wrapped in bacon, deep fried and served in an escargot plate.
For mains, there is chicken Kiev and chicken cordon bleu, and steaks with brandy-based sauces are the speciality. There is also Roquefort sirloin and entrêcote Madagascar with green peppercorn and cheese sauce. The steaks are popular because it’s good-quality meat, though I found the fillet meat strangely sweet.
And for dessert, what else but cassata replete with glacé cherries?
The second of the immortal steakhouses is the quirkily named Nelson’s Eye Grill and Restaurant, across the street from the Mount Nelson Hotel.
Nelson’s Eye has undergone several renovations using wainscotting to keep the old style, and extensions have been added to serve as function rooms. Pictures of the rear admiral adorn the walls together with paintings of ships and great naval battles.
I didn’t get a reply to my inquiry about the origins of the name, but according to the website: “Our founder has long since disappeared into cholesterol heaven and when we tried to make contact with a relative who may know the reason for the name, we were told to bugger off. So, we don’t know …”
Testosterone goes hand in hand with cholesterol and the restaurant has televisions for sports events.
As you’d expect there is avocado Ritz, garlic and blue cheese snails, and angels on horseback here too.
You might not get the most manicured cut of meat, but the beef itself is hung for seven days and wet-aged for up to 21 days. Steaks come in sizes ranging from 230g to a whopping 600g T-bone. They are expertly grilled and served the way old South Africa liked it, before carpaccio entered the vernacular, before fastidious chefs started slicing the meat in the kitchen into delicate medallions.
You have a choice of being served your steak on a board or on that effeminate alternative, a china plate.
And finally, if you’re feeling particularly wistful about the past, they actually have Peppermint Crisp dessert on the menu.
Buzbey Grill, Three Anchor Bay Road, Sea Point. Tel: 021 439 5900.
Nelson’s Eye Grill and Restaurant, 9 Hof Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 214 232 601
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 12 July 2013.