A few years ago, Maboneng (meaning ‘place of light’) comprised Market on Main, Arts on Main and The Bioscope, all standing in a row. Now, bright as the name implies, the precinct stands for much more food, art and design on the east side of inner-city Johannesburg. It is a feat of responsible property re-imagining, and constantly surprising proof of the extent of people’s creativity. It blazes bright with astonishing sights and tastes. A walking or wheeling tour is the best way to get an idea of where to eat, drink and gawp, so grab an e-bike from a stand and embark on the most diverse food journey of your life.
Market on Main never stops attracting new food and art folk, their wares and their wallets. On Sundays it fills and overflows upwards, from the art installations in the olive-tree-filled courtyard onto on the roofs and platforms dotted with galleries.
Within the courtyard is sizeable indoor-outdoor restaurant Canteen, famous for its beef and lamb burgers. Take the entrance to Smack Republic, through the honey-smelling micro brewery, up through the owner’s art studio and onto his outdoor patio, with your Smack beer and some food from the market.
Beyond the courtyard, on the street, are more art galleries and the sunny, wood-panelled Mama Mexicana, for some seriously good chilli poppers and enchiladas.
On the corner of Berea Street is coffee roastery Origin, which is a good stop for barristery and coffee accompaniments. Past more international art places on the next corner is Jhb Culinary and Pastry School, started by Kelvin Joel, who turns people’s lives around and trains them up as patisserie chefs. It’s a very slick and glassy space; sit in a window seat with WiFi, a supply of good coffee and petit fours, or in the shaded courtyard for meals prepared and served by future chefs.
Then move past Spark, the new-concept school for littlies, and get to Common Ground, a playpark for adults for parties and wandering. In the corner is Grain, a concept shop for interesting wood designs and other healthy types of food, with real everything. Their famous beetroot bread (used in interesting toasts) is high in demand. A relaxing place with excellent food in what was once a tip.
Spaza doors in bright green house shops like Kikonzo, where you can sample the aromatic dishes of the day at tables and bright chairs, and Kopi, which offers cuppas of chocolate, coffees, teas and waffles. The three on the next corner serve a variety of different kotas with chips, very cheaply.
The next block, Access City, with its pavement gym, is still being finished. A leather clothing shop separates it from @360, where the food is more pap-and-chicken-style and super inexpensive.
Just around the corner is the cutest little shop with cupcake stencils on the walls. At Heart Cupcakes you build your own, so there’s no-one to stop you choosing chocolate, filled with chocolate, topped with the same, and sprinkled with chocolate! Take away a freshly squeezed juice to wash it down.
Another block to the west and we’re among buildings being developed and sold off to artists for accommodation and studios. Aerial Empire features Rolling Cherry, a cool retro roller rink complete with karaoke bar. Keep an eye out for the opening of Time Anchor Distillery, which makes artisanal spirits, in September.
Looking down the road you can’t miss the Zebra Inn, crammed with not-very-PC décor of real animal heads. The bar, Lucille’s, is incredibly popular, serving steaks-and-chips-style food. A few doors away is La Musa, a jazz-lounge, grill and bar. (Try the bubblegum martini.)
Opposite a heritage landmark is MOAD, the Museum of African Design, which often has an artist-in-residence – there’s always something worth seeing. Then there’s one of the most worthwhile cafés in Joburg, The March Hare,with the bar built out of books, doors for tables and chaise longues with human profile backs. The coffee is superb, served Alice-in-Wonderland-style on a book or a piece of lawn in precious china, and the eccentric cocktails are unbeatable.
The next entrance takes you down a path to another great find, Poolside, a properly cheffed, everything-made-on-site restaurant and bar next to a geometrically odd pool. Tuck into platters while reclining on a white lounger or at a yacht table (for finer dining).
Maverick Corner opposite holds Lenin’s Vodka Bar, which features vodkas from 12 countries, meatballs and snacks. Between the corner fashion shops is James XVI, a tiny Ethiopian injeera-and-wot restaurant.
Move one door along and we’re at the Fabulous Burger Boys, with their wide-mouth burgers eccentrically named Swart Gevaar (beef in sout marinade), Oh Deer! (venison), and No Doubt Trout. Soul Souvlaki, once a stand at Market on Main, has been transformed into a container shop nearby, selling all the creamy garlic-dripping Greek foods you can imagine.
The apple-green candy container on stilts is that of Cocobel, the spot for waffles, hot chocolate, ice cream, frozen yoghurts and delicious granitas (red rose, apple or kiwi with pineapple depending on the day).
From here on theatre and entertainment clubs are thick on the ground in Fox Street. Pop into the Happy Water oxygen bar to revive yourself – it’s almost next to Uncle Merv’s, a fold-down hole-in-the-wall famous for sarmies and seemingly unhealthy gooey, outrageously piled-up, iced concoctions – until you read the good-for-you ingredients. From here you’ll note the fragrant curries on the air from nearby Yogiberry, where you should try the curry-egg breakfast and blackcurrant iced yoghurt.
A street down is Che Argentine Grill, one of the area’s most exciting restaurants. The food is fanatically sourced and cut. Everything – except the bread, and that’s made by a countrywoman – is made from scratch on site, even liqueurs, and the meat is cooked on a raised fire before you. The décor is a treat for jaded eyes: old saloon furniture with chicken wire and black-and-white movies.
Round here there’s no supermarket, there’s a grocer. A really hip one: Rafael’s Food Emporium. Get the fresh stuff, local produce, deli goods, grass-fed and dairy products, including organic chickens with everything except their feathers. Piles of wooden crates hold packages and cans. It’s a fun place and even has a pizza oven and a little summer courtyard for longer visits.
Getting back to where Maboneng started, up a block, we pass Little Addis, a funky place with a raffia clock giving Ethiopian time on the ceiling. It’s good for coffee ceremonies too. Next is Eat Your Heart Out, a fun Jewish-foods place with scrummiest salmon latkes.
Before we reach the Decades Hotel, there’s Pata Pata, Miriam Makeba-vintage and a rather glam place for visitors to be introduced to real South African foods, like mogodo, dombolo and the famous Pata oxtail dish. The other side of the hotel is Chalkboard, where you order your pizzas and drinks before going into The Bioscope, the well-curated must for cinephiles.
The next narrow street holds the Main Change building with its many design and marketing offices, the coffice supreme, Open, and Living Room, the eco-café-restaurant on the roof – one of the prettiest restaurants imaginable.
Across the way is shisa nyama spot Sharp Braai and, at the end, Blackanese, which has also expanded to make room for the crowds. The latter is a quirky must-do destination, famous for sushi that’s not at all Japanese, rolled with South African game meats, fruit and other specialities. (An epic prawn braai is held here on Sundays.)
And just like that, we’re back to where we started, at the first metal Maboneng signs hanging high.