Joburg might be known for its gritty history, but bona fide dive bars with low lighting and cheap booze are an increasingly rare commodity (blame it on the forces of gentrification). We sipped and swigged across the City of Gold to find these worse-for-wear watering holes where you can warm up with a stiff drink every night this winter.
The one with provocative art
Grime factor: 2 stars
Value: 5 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars
Amid the swank food sanctums sprouting around Melville, Smoking Kills Bar is an unfussy hidey-hole firmly entrenched in part of the space that African tale-inspired cocktail bar, Mootee Bar, used to be in. It has all the hallmarks of any self-respecting dive: reasonably priced cocktails (all between R60 and R70) and craft rums, a retro TV playing grainy reruns of soapies and cartoons, soulful music, scuzzy bathrooms and smokers. Despite the name, you’re allowed to smoke indoors (there’s no outside seating anyway) and the neighbourhood crowd takes full advantage of this. There are also nicer touches, such as an artfully grungy wall marked with graffiti and anarchist tags. The owners – the same guys who launched Mootee – consider themselves some wanky Ernest Hemingway wannabes who live by the motto, ‘drinking rum before 10h00 makes you a pirate, not an alcoholic’, so you can expect a menu of seven cocktails all made with one common ingredient: Havana Club rum. Sidle up to the bar and let one of the well-seasoned mixologists serve you a Not a Piña Colada, made with rum, coconut water, salted pineapple syrup and absinth fizz, or a Chronicles of Banana Man – a creamy concoction of rum, banana, yoghurt, port and angostura bitters. There’s also a handful of easy eats perfect for drinking, including a Cuban sandwich layered with Swiss cheese, pulled pork and smoked ham, and warm churros with chocolate sauce. It’s dark, it’s boozy and it’s open till 02h00 every Wednesday to Sunday. What’s not to love?
78A 4th Avenue, Melville
071 346 8804
The one with the history
Grime factor: 4 stars
Value: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 3 stars
The Radium Beerhall has been warming the hearts and tickling the livers of Orange Grove residents since 1929, even managing to survive South Africa’s political systems that were later abolished. Originally opened as a tearoom with a double life as a shebeen that sold liquor to black customers who were barred from drinking ‘white man’s booze’, it’s literally the mother of Joburg dive bars and is responsible for much of the nightlife we now take for granted. It’s as unapologetic as a disgruntled Kaizer Chiefs fan: the dim interior is crowded with pictures and memorabilia of the neighbourhood hangout’s long history, red-and-white tablecloths, a lot of wooden finishes and bargain buckets of beers. This boozer can compete with restaurants in the culinary stakes, offering Mozambican prawns steamed in beer, Portuguese sirloin pan-fried in wine and garlic and more. If you’re questioning its dive–bar status, locals say there are always one or two older guys sleeping at the bar. We’re convinced!
282 Louis Botha Avenue, Orange Grove
011 728 3866
The one with character
Grime factor: 5 stars
Value: 5 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars
News flash: The Jolly Roger of 26 years ago ain’t The Jolly Roger of today. Yet somehow this go-to for thrifty Parkhurst dwellers feels almost exactly like it did back then. Its shambolic fittings – dark-wood paneling, old pictures on the walls, blaring big-screen TVs, jukeboxes and slot machines – along with its mishmash of weathered regulars and new-to-the-neighbourhood kids creates a warm, come-one-come-all vibe. Order a bucket of four Castle Lights for R110 and a shot of tequila or Jägermeister for R22 each from the cramped bar, pop some punk on the jukebox and bask in the lack of obnoxious coeds – a rarity around these parts on Joburg. Its biggest draw, half-price pizzas on Wednesdays and Sundays after 17h00, is tough to top. There’s something innately satisfying about the well-made pizzas that are fresh out the oven – think the Basil Mania (salami, tomato, basil and avocado), Garage Days (mushrooms, avocado, banana and chilli) and Quatro Stagioni (ham, mushrooms, olives and artichokes).
10 4th Avenue, Parkhurst
011 442 3954
The one with seven draught beers on tap
Grime factor: 3 stars
Value: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 2 stars
Glugging down pints of Guinness shouldn’t be reserved solely for St Patrick’s Day! Irish pubs are dime a dozen, but few possess a history as star-studded as the Irish Club. Opened 17 years ago by the Irish Ambassador to South Africa, the warm, Celtic ambience is a year-round affair, complete with a fail-proof combo of IPAs, bitters, tapas baskets and burgers. There’s a reason this place feels so authentic – just about every square inch was schlepped from Ireland. The trimmings may skew sacred, but the older Linden locals are plenty rowdy. The club’s motto, ‘céad míle fáilte’, translates as ‘100,000 welcomes’ and hints that it gives customers a good time – and it indeed succeeds. It keeps regulars happy with its legendary burgers, which some swear are the best in the area, and the prices are reasonable across the board. Open from 14h00 to 23h00 most days, it provides many opportunities for the late night (or, uh, afternoon) rock star in you to make an off-key public appearance.
Corner of Salerno Road & 5th Avenue, Linden
083 267 6327
OTHER TOP-NOTCH LOWBROW SPOTS
Colony Arms is a ragtag place with eight draughts on tap and a friendly crowd of regulars. It’s the kind of place you can end up staying in all night. On Karaoke Saturdays between 19h30 and 20h30, you can get selected doubles and mixers for just R30.
345 Jan Smuts Ave, Craighall
Put alongside other dives, the drinks at Grand Slam Sports Diner aren’t cheap – the cheapest bottle of wine is R240 – but the mussels and chorizo combo and death by chocolate brownies are worth going for.
Corner of Elm Street & Sycamore Drive, Edenvale
Rumours Rock City is an integral stop on the West Rand’s quintessential down-and-dirty night out. The live entertainment bar has a dancefloor, seating in every corner and even a band practice room.
Corner of Valley Lane & Weltevreden Road, Cresta