Arriving at the Saxon Hotel requires a series of grand entrances: the imposing 20-foot gate through the high walls that separate the grounds from Johannesburg’s suburban expanse; the meandering drive through the lush gardens; the foyer to the hotel with its enormous ostrich egg chandelier.
And for the foodies, a lift up in a private elevator to the dining room of one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants.
Luke Dale Roberts x The Saxon, named after the chef who’s routinely rated among the best in South Africa, is remarkable on many levels.
There’s the extensive wine cellar, the racial diversity of the diners and of course the food on the eight-course tasting menu. Plates arrive with artistically dished shrimp ceviche served under thinly shaved long-stem broccoli and lamb cooked on skewers inside two concrete pots that look like mortars without pestles.
But perhaps most remarkable is the tiny victory that the restaurant, which opened in May 2016, represents in Johannesburg’s sibling rivalry with Cape Town.
Dale-Roberts’ The Test Kitchen in Cape Town was rated Africa’s best restaurant in 2016 and landed 22nd in the world. Luring him to open a restaurant at the Saxon is a coup of the sort that eases Johannesburg’s curious case of second-city syndrome.
Johannesburg is the richest and biggest city in South Africa, but even residents who love it labor under the weight of relentless comparisons to its beautiful sibling on the coast.
“A friend of mine summed it up perfectly. If Joburg and Cape Town were on a dating website, Cape Town would be the blonde in the bikini and Joburg would be the one with the really great personality,” said Laurice Taitz, publisher and editor of Johannesburg In Your Pocket City Guide.
In certain respects, it’s an unfair competition. No other city in the world can boast Cape Town’s natural setting, at the confluence of two oceans and the iconic Table Mountain smack in the middle of the city. The surrounding winelands are filled with picturesque fields that host some of the finest dining in the country.
“In reality Joburg can never compete with Cape Town’s incredible natural beauty, except perhaps for its brief jacaranda seasonal fling in spring when the older suburbs are covered in a haze of purple blooms,” said Taitz.
“This is historically a mining town, founded on a hunger for gold, a magnet for adventurers and risk-takers, and while there may not be much of that shiny mineral wealth left, scratch the surface of this city and you’ll find a richness of people and experiences. The place has an energy and a heartbeat not found in seaside towns.”
Embracing the city’s core
What’s changed over the past decade is Johannesburg’s willingness to embrace its essentially urban character. The city’s reputation for crime has slowly eased, as police statistics now show the city is safer than Cape Town.
That reality has fueled a desire to return to streets and sidewalks, creating a new life outside of the high walls that surround many suburban homes and shopping complexes. The resulting mix of a younger generation of people has sparked a new creative life in the city’s inner core that animates galleries, theaters and bookstores.
A few neighborhoods have become noted destinations in themselves, drawing in international tourists and visitors from outlying parts of the city.
Braamfontein anchors part of the city’s renaissance, aided by good neighbors such as the University of the Witwatersrand and the Constitutional Court. The university maintains landmark museums such as the Wits Art Museum and the Origins Centre, an artistically inspired exploration of early human life in the area.
At the opposite end of the neighborhood, the Court (built on the site of a prison that once held Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi) also acts as a tourist draw and an events space within the old barracks.
The blocks in between have thrived as student accommodation filled old buildings, new sites such as the Orbit jazz club attracted a creative class and coffee shops and cafes filled the sidewalk storefronts.
On the east end of downtown Johannesburg, the Maboneng precinct has also harnessed the arts to transform an area of old warehouses into a vibrant neighborhood.
Developers first transformed an old liquor warehouse into artist studios, which attracted both the internationally famous such as William Kentridge (whose charcoal drawings and sculptures can fetch $1 million at auction) and newcomers setting up old-school paper-and-ink printshops.
Slowly the transformation reached out to neighboring buildings that now house the Museum of African Design, trendy restaurants and bars and a boutique hotel.
Braamfontein and Maboneng have changed so quickly that they’ve inspired more growth in the Johannesburg CBD.
Stretches of once-tony streets such as Eloff and Commissioner are dotted with new treasures. The Joziburg Lane complex at 1 Elofff has created loft apartments in an old car storage facility, with shopping, artist studios and artisanal food stalls on the ground level.
Young fashion companies such as Urban Zulu have set up shop on Commissioner Street. The craft brewery Mad Giant has opened a beer garden and upmarket tapas restaurant called Urbanologi, right across the street from the once-notorious Johannesburg Central police station.
The changes downtown are even making their way to the walled-off suburbs.
In Rosebank, best known for its shopping mall, art galleries have created a destination of themselves. The Goodman Gallery, Everd Read and Circa are connected by a new Keyes Art Mile, with galleries and restaurants that are among the city’s hottest places to see and be seen.
This block used to be defined by a Caltex garage. Now a new building rises just over the line of the hills, where top chef David Higgs has opened a new restaurant called Marble.
The food focuses on open-fire cooking, a modern twist on traditional ways of South African cooking, with a décor from the fires of a kiln. Artists like Peter Mthombeni created ceramics that line the walls and fill the tables. The balcony stretches the length of the building and looks over the leafy hills of the city’s northern stretches.
It’s the kind of view that one day might encourage Johannesburg to think that it’s beautiful, too.