As Africa’s busiest port, Durban offers a unique melting pot of cultures and traditions, including African, European and Indian. The city’s weather is warm all year round and its people similarly sunny in disposition. Nowhere is this more reflected than in the city’s food – a heady mix of spices, techniques and ingredients and cuisine that’s earthy, generous and big hearted. Meals in Durban are often eaten outdoors, even with fingers by the adventurous. We asked local Frank Chemaly to recommend 20 foodie things you simply must do when visiting Durban shores.
The city wakes early and the best part of the day is the bright, fresh morning. Slip into the quiet cool of the courtyard at Quarters Boutique Hotel for perfect poached eggs; Parc Café in Glenwood attracts the hip set with the likes of camembert croissants with lemon curd, or banana bread French toast; and if you want your rise and shine with the sand between your toes, head to Circus Circus Beach Cafe.
If may look like a warehouse in unfashionable Umbilo, but there’s a definite buzz about the Factory Café above Colombo Tea and Coffee, with its hulks of old coffee roasters, hoists and pulleys. The kids have injected new energy into this venerable old business and the coffee is scooping awards. You could also head up the highway to Stretta, which SA’s top barista Craig Charity calls his theatre, and sip on his home-roasted Lineage coffee. Or just chill to the soft static of 70s and 80s vinyl at the Bean Green in Glenwood, where the beans are roasted in-house.
Get into the engine room of the city’s spicy cuisine with a visit to the Spice Emporium in town. More than just a spice shop, the store offers herbs, flours, nuts and sweetmeats, with staff always willing to help you navigate its many byways.
Afro’s Chicken is setting the beachfront alight: head for South Beach and look out for the little yellow container between the sea and the grass. Here Mathew Hancock serves the most succulent chicken burgers in town with crispy hand-cut tjips. They can be hot (peri-peri) or koel (lemon and garlic). Have a seat on the promenade, eat from your cardboard container and watch the passing parade.
The Durban Food Market (last Saturday of the month) is a good spot to stock up the larder with great olives, midlands cheeses, venison, duck, honey and the likes, while the I Heart Market (first Saturday of the month) is perfect for the hungry: think strawberry chillers, Polish apple pie, macaroons, and the best falafels in town. The Shongweni Farmer’s Market (every Saturday) caters for both, but you’ll have to get there early – it’s over by 10am.
Chuck & Bob’s is a tiny little charcuterie overlooking Mitchell Park that produces some excellent coppa, porchetta, salamis and cheeses. Take a seat for lunch and indulge in green eggs (pesto) and ham, or a Cumberland sausage hotdog.
Durban’s Glenwood Bakery is taking bread to new levels. Michelin-starred chef Adam Robinson started a revolution with his sweet potato and rosemary bread and superb sourdough. Bag a gourmet sarmie in the shop or stop by on Monday nights for pizza – yes, there’s a queue. Don’t leave without two packs of cheese straws; one won’t make the trip home.
On a balmy winter’s day, head north for a relaxed outdoor lunch right on the sea’s edge. Take to the deck at Mundo Vida in Umdloti for some Italian inspiration, or enjoy east-meets-west inspiration with Linda and Russell Berger’s Spice at Westbrook Beach. The Terrace at the Salt Rock Hotel is a great place to crack into a superb crab curry.
There’s nothing subtle about the heady spice and chilli mix that goes into the curries that have made the city famous. When you order an authentic Durban curry you’ll most likely need a glass of water too. The Britannia Hotel in rundown Springfield is an institution that serves an authentic taste of Durban.
No trip to Durban would be complete without sampling the city’s signature street food, bunny chow. It’s hot, it’s messy, and its popularity has spread around the world. For the original deal, pop into Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, where they’ve been churning out quarter veg and sugar bean bunnies for more than 80 years. For a mutton classic, hit Gounden’s Restaurant and Takeaway, hidden in blue-collar Umbilo, and for a real street-food experience, go to Nita’s Curry Den. Look out for the pink shack amid the factories of Overport, where Aunty Nita cooks her chicken or bean curry from scratch each morning. Get there early because when the curry runs out, she shuts shop.
Few do light, fresh and outdoor lunches better than Freedom Café, an ultra-chic container in the gardens of the Concierge Hotel in Greyville. Here pop art, artisanal food and an eclectic clientele blend effortlessly. For a more well-heeled variation on the theme, pop into Remo’s Villagio in Umhlanga.
Go traditional with your meat braaied over the charcoal fires, while relaxing to a warm township vibe and the beats of A-list DJs. At Max’s Lifestyle in Umlazi, tourists and locals mingle effortlessly. S’bu’s Lounge in KwaMashu may be little more understated, but the vibe is good.
Head up the highway to Makaranga for tea and scones in the most amazing garden setting. Exploring the hidden recesses and secret gardens of this boutique hotel is a feast for the senses. For the best cheesecake in town look no further than the Circle Café at the city’s Jewish Club (closed Friday afternoons and Saturdays).
While the sun doesn’t set over the ocean at Durban, it doesn’t mean sundowners are out. Sip cocktails in the delightful bordello kitsch of the Lighthouse Bar at the Oyster Box, where you just never know who you might meet. Relax on the lawns at Elements in the Beverly Hills next door for one of the best sea views on the coast. If in town, head for the Elangeni pool deck and cool off with a Tanqueray and tonic. The Golden Mile is your oyster.
For good old bangers and mash or beer-battered fish and chips with a modern twist, all washed down with a range of local craft beers, head to Unity on the Berea. Their Cowbell bitter has a huge following. Also make a plan to visit Robson’s Brewery, the home of Durban pale ale, in Shongweni.
Camden 031 at the Comedy Club is a funky, young spot that offers extremely simple fare: superb steaks, chicken and prawns, some bar food and even s’mores. Unplugged gigs keep regulars entertained during the week and the laughter rolls on weekends.
What would your time at the coast be without great seafood? Neighbourhood trattoria Al Firenze does it better than most: think fresh mussels in a spicy tomato broth, langos gleaming with succulence, and whole fish cooked in the pizza oven. Jack Salmon Fish House offers a feast of the sea while you’re looking out over the ocean.
For dinner with drama, feast at Andrew Draper’s award-winning Harvey’s Restaurant. Fun, funky and über-stylish, it’s the foodies’ hot spot. You could also hit Graham Neilson’s 9th Ave Bistro for modern twists and favourite bistro classics – a recipe that’s won Eat Out awards in the past. Jonathan Jones at Quo out in Gillitts offers a stylish spot that showcases the Pacific Rim with flair and exceptional value for money.
Sip French champagne and relax to chilled jazz vibes with the high rollers at The Chairman. It has no known address or telephone number and it’s not signposted – it’s only for those in the know. Put on your glad rags and look out for the red carpet halfway down Point Road; follow it and you’ll find a heady mix of retro chic and cotton-club glam, stirred with an African smile.
Head for Spiga d’Oro on Durban’s bustling Florida Road and slurp up hearty pastas just like mama used to make them. The perfect regmaker.