In any word association game, ‘Zoo Lake Bowls Club’ does not immediately spring to mind as an obvious association with ‘gastropub’. I’d probably sooner associate the word with some disorder of the digestive system.
The Zoo Lake Bowls Club has been around since the 1930s, built as it is on ground bequeathed to the good people of Johannesburg. More recently, pubescent schoolboys in pursuit of an illicit pint regarded themselves as preferred beneficiaries of that bequest. The underage drinking issue was exacerbated by rumours late last year that the Gupta family had identified the bowling green as the site for their next helipad. These matters appear to have been resolved, but the future remains uncertain (something to do with the council and the expiry of lease agreements).
Speculation has it that the club is one of SAB’s most favoured clients (the raucous hordes who gather there on a Friday explain this phenomenon) but it is equally well-known for its grub. Could one, by some passable stretch of the imagination, call the Zoo Lake Bowls Club a gastropub? That depends, of course, on what is meant by a gastropub. The OED defines it as ‘a pub that specializes in serving high-quality food’. Of course, this begs the question of what is meant by ‘high-quality food’. Here, the terrain is much more subjective. This is probably what led the Good Food Guide to drop the term ‘gastropub’ from its 2012 and all subsequent editions. The reason proffered by the consulting editor is that the term has lost any meaning it might have had and that it had ‘come to define an establishment’s ambitions’. So what’s wrong, you might ask, with using an ambiguous label to define one’s ambitions? Doesn’t Jeremy Mansfield call himself a chef?
In theory, the Bowling Club, as the name implies, is a sports club. Indeed, one can occasionally spot the odd bowlers, typically distinguished by their slightly asymmetrical balls, with which they play. There is also no doubt the occasional game of bowls played on the green abutting the patio. But it is fair to say that when patrons talk of the jack, as they do, they generally mean Daniels.
This is not one of your Brazen Head/ Keg/McGinty’s faux pubs, but most of what might define the genuine article is to be found. Indeed, this is the real thing. The bar area has probably changed little since the 1930s (but for the TV screens) and for the rest, Tudor-style wooden beams hold up the bar and support the walls, with battered bar tables and stools to complete the ambience of a typical English pub.
Pub it might be, but some of the defining elements of a restaurant are to be found in the area adjoining the bar – tables set with candles, white tablecloths with checked overlays and single-page laminated menus. The décor is confused – sports trophies compete with African masks and nondescript prints. This is not the pub grub of the pork pie and ploughman’s variety. The menu extends to what one could expect in an establishment that might pretentiously call itself a steakhouse. On special was eisbein, at R65. A 250g rump steak with an egg and chips comes in at R55, a crumbed pork chop and chips at R30. A steak roll will cost you R25, a pizza R30 and a chicken schnitzel R35. OK, so the menus were sticky, the checked tablecloth had character (a couple of cigarette burns) and the flooring was what used to be called Ozite carpet tiles. But at these prices, who’s to complain?
At these prices, there’s nothing to lose by shooting for the top end of the menu – I chose the Portuguese fillet steak (with ham, egg and chips) at R70. The Little Woman opted for the rump steak, egg and chips at R55. The fillet was a very good piece of beef, cooked to order and served with a delicious red wine, pepper and cream-based sauce. The rump steak was twice as good and more than half the price of a similar and recent offering in a nearby establishment operating at the upper-end of the pub grub market. Any steakhouse would be proud to serve the chips that accompanied the steak. For dessert, I tried the crème brûlée, if only to see what was possible for the R17 price tag. The dessert was decently brûléed but overcooked, and lacked any evidence of intimate acquaintance with a vanilla pod. But that would equally describe many crème brûlées I’ve known, all of them drawn from the R40 to R50 range.
The wine list is limited – the emphasis here is clearly on the beer. But again, at R14 for a draught, why drink mediocre wine?
Despite the notional requirement of club membership or being signed in as a guest, admission criteria can’t be too demanding. At the next table was a couple who would have delighted Jerry Springer, loudly and proudly discussing as they did her thrush and the size of his banana (her words, not mine). Otherwise expect to find a mixed bag of professionals, students and the odd barfly who has gravitated to table.
This is obviously not fine dining (it doesn’t pretend to be) but is there some residual appeal to the discerning? To ask the OED’s question – is this a pub that specialises in serving high –quality food? Absolutely nothing wrong with the food. As I’ve noted, this place would give a few establishments that more ambitiously call themselves restaurants a run for their money. Is there value for money? No better deal to be had anywhere in the city. Is it a gastropub? Depends on what you mean by that. But who cares? I’m with the Good Food Guide on this one – the term is probably even less meaningful in a South African context. What I’m less sure of is that I could produce the same at home for the same price, even with the benefit of the Woolies weekly special.
You’ll like this if you’re after a good pub-type meal in an unpretentious setting at prices that represent a 50% discount on going rates.
You won’t like this if what you really want to do is play a game of bowls.
The Zoo Lake Bowls Club was reviewed by Like Father Like Son.