Longing for time long passed, keeps the customers coming back.

It’s not an exaggeration or an insult to say travelling to the East Rand of Gauteng is a bit like travelling to the past. Change might not be entirely unwelcome but thank goodness there are havens where the people of the East Rand can escape to and find comfort in – comfort in a time long gone but almost magically preserved. These havens are not museums and library shelves laden with newspaper archives from a different time. They are the roadhouses which continue to survive and thrive in the East Rand when others like these have long since shut down in other parts of Gauteng.

Doin’ the best they can

Roadhouses have had to adapt to changing times in order to survive.

Roadhouses are eateries where convenience and culture come together – think about the movie  Grease for a visual impression (but more on that later). Patrons drive up to the establishment and park their cars in the massive oversized lots situated in the front of the restaurant. Unlike traditional restaurants, customers remain in their cars waiting to be served. Waiters and waitresses saddle up to the driver’s window and offer the patrons menus before taking their orders. 

The food, once ready, is delivered on trays to the parked cars with their hungry drivers and passengers. This is the most convenient aspect of it all – being able to tuck into professionally prepared food which tastes just like home in the comfort of your own car.

Casbah, the friendly ghost

The Casbah Roadhouse is the oldest of the three having managed to stand the test of time.

 “She just competed in an Eisteddfod and she did really well so we’re treating her with a little prize,” Matthew Wittington, a customer at the Casbah Roadhouse in Benoni, Ekurhuleni says pointing to his pig-tailed daughter sitting in the back seat of his car. The treat? An ice-cream sundae bigger than her face and sure to make her queasy later.

The facade of the Casbah Roadhouse in Benoni, Ekurhuleni. The restaurant has remains in business thanks in part to being swallowed up a shopping centre which brings patrons to its yard. Photo: Sanele Msiza.

Wittington’s daughter, April, is only six years old, but coming to the Casbah is already a longstanding tradition passed down to her by her father. The elder Wittington has many memories of going to roadhouses with his own father.

Matthew Wittington, 22, receiving his order from Dudu Sibeko, a longtime waitress at the Casbah Roadhouse. Photo: Sanele Msiza

“When I was a kid I used to go to roadhouses like every month or so,” he says.

The staff outnumber the customers by a significant majority on this particularly slow Saturday afternoon. They spend most of the afternoon lounging on the retro spot’s picnic benches outside. The waiters on duty in comparison, almost fall over themselves trying to attend to their customers and one in particular bounces around the parking lot, frenetic and friendly, making sure all his customers are taken care of.

Tiisetso Molefe has been working at the Casbah since March this year. Twenty-five years old, his youth contrasts sharply with the fading signs signalling the food on offer at the roadhouse.

“I love communicating with people,” Molege says. Working at the Casbah gives him the opportunity to do just this every single day. He aspires to be a famous gospel singer and with pictures of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley adorning the restaurant’s walls, he is hardly lacking in aspiration.

Sundown at the Fireplace

The Fireplace Roadhouse with locations in both Boksburg and Brakpan looks like something straight out of the 1950s. That’s because it is having been founded in 1958.  This chain of roadhouses is now owned and operated by Manny Neto and his sons and holds a special place in their hearts.

The walls of the diner at the Brakpan location which sits atop the kitchen of the roadhouse is decorated with oversized frames from the Betty and Veronica comic book series and signs in neon lights designate the men’s and ladies’ bathrooms. The tables and chairs, all made of wrought-iron, are painted in shades of pink, white and blue. This combination immediately signals to patrons just what sort of style they are emulating. It is not the 1950s of South Africa the roadhouse is trying to recapture. The diner is designed to look like the sort of establishment Danny and Sandy would feel at home in.  There are booths big enough to fit all the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies too. This roadhouse though predates the iconic movie Grease by a good few years.

Sweet treats like chocolate waffles are a staple of roadhouses across the East Rand.    Photo: Sanele Msiza

 “I think people come here for the comfort food and for old time’s sake too. We’ve owned the Fireplace since 1980 and I see the same faces still coming in every so often,” Neto begins.

“And you see over time they start coming with their kids and even their grandkids. So it’s great we have that play area,” he says; referring to the children’s play area erected in the centre of the diner.

Robin Alexander, a burly older man sat waiting for his food in an imposing white bakkie agrees.

“I like to bring the grandkids but not my own kids ’cause they just end up drinking too much!” he says with a laugh. The sun is setting and the quiet parking lot air is peppered with bursts of laughter from the different cars.

FEATURED IMAGE: The spirit of the 1950s is captured in the decor of the diner of the Fireplace Roadhouse in Brakpan, Ekurhuleni.  Photo: Sanele Msiza.