It wasn’t the first time I’d entered the camp playground of Beefcakes restaurant in Green Point’s “gay ghetto”. I was once again struck by how much of the clientele were apparently heterosexual, predominantly vivacious, young females. Tourists and the public promenading Cape Town’s fanwalk seem to find the place irresistible.
Referencing the classic 1950s North American diner, Beefcakes is made-up in Miami pastel colours with white tables, mirror balls, tinsel and flamboyant amounts of ice-cream pink. The tank-topped waiters are young and buffed, half of them straight, though with today’s young things even the straight come across faux butch. They like to huddle and horseplay among themselves in-between service.
It was in the 1950s that the widely-held image of the gay male as an effeminate, limp-wristed, lisping sissy started to change. Gay soft porn magazines like Physique Pictorial (photos from which feature on the menu at Beefcakes) went for lads that were smooth, blond and boyish, but tanned and muscular. Poses imitated body builders.
Around the same time, mainstream culture was also busy sexualizing and commoditizing the male body in a way previously unknown. Not bothering about your looks had in the past been a signal for virility for men. By the 1990s, the ‘metrosexual’ had not only stolen the limelight but the most desirable women too.
Capitalism has the remarkable ability to aggregate subcultures and co-opt countercultures. It does this through money. The advertising industry quickly cottoned on to “gay window” ads, i.e. ads that capture the gay market, but turn on the straight market too (as pioneered by Calvin Klein). The consumer power of the gay market has inevitably led to acceptance, even imitation. Beefcakes was featured last year on CNN’s Marketplace Africa segment on the pink dollar.
Gay subculture has had a substantial impact on almost every aspect of mainstream culture – from apparel and pop music to our legal system, gender equality and civil rights. We’re a far better world for it. Governments that actively persecute gay people are the most likely to violate the other basic human rights of their citizens, including those of ethnic and religious minorities.
In the West, the gay sensibility is now nearly invisible, completely subsumed in our consumer culture. What was once a rebellion against typecasting has become the new stereotype.
As Susan Sontag observed in her Notes on Camp, gays “have pinned their integration into society on promoting aesthetic sense”. It helps that proprietor Grant Eglin has an ad man’s background. When I first met him many years ago, he was running underground campaigns for Ogilvy Mather. He is now serving “the best buns in town”. Together with his brother Andrew, they have been adept at using social media and tagging to promote their thriving establishment.
Its burgers rate with the very best in town, a bewildering variety all available in beef, chicken, lamb or ostrich. These include: Greek God, made with tsatziki; F.A.B. for feta, avocado and bacon; Hunk of Meat which is 200g of prime sirloin; Muscle Mary with double the beef and bacon; and Rent Boy – “just the basic meat between two perfect buns”. There is even a chocolate burger for dessert – a donut covered in chocolate and filled with cream, strawberries and granadilla. Or you can “bugger the burger” and have chicken quesadillas and tortilla wraps.
Some nights are riotously gay with body-shot desserts, when liqueurs are consumed directly off the waiters’ naked abdominals and muscular crevices.
Since upstairs has taken off with the straight crowd, the Eglins have opened a gayer bar with topless barmen in the basement. The “locker room” is modelled on a college sports changing room with metal locker doors lining the walls, a punch bag, team photographs and a set of open showers. There are some raunchy photos of the staff showering on the restaurant’s Facebook page. The locker room takes 50 people and is popular for private functions. I should add there is a rocking horse in the centre of the venue.
Upstairs, the restaurant hosts a number of events with Bitchy Bingo, drag and cabaret shows.
Beefcakes is a friendly, fun place with a wide appeal. If you’re a gay male, despite the beefcake image it actively promotes, you don’t have to be bubble-bummed and gym toned to feel welcome. You can even be straight.