On weekends, tables overflow into the streets and you won’t find an empty one at Mzoli’s, a restaurant in Guguletu township where you pick out your own meat, have it braaied for you on the spot, and then eat it (with your hands).
I went to Mzoli’s for lunch early on a Tuesday with a friend and totally missed the dancing, drinking, and vibe that make this now-famous restaurant a Cape Town-area attraction.
There was one advantage to my timing. The quietness gave me a chance to talk to some of the people who work at the restaurant and to some fellow diners with a big appetite who were just coming off the night shift.
One thing you should know before you go: Mzoli’s is not fancy. No frills here. As you enter the restaurant, you pass under a sign that says, “Mzoli — it all comes together with a castle” — meaning the beer.
You enter what looks like a butcher shop with meat on display in a refrigerated case. You get to choose what you want to eat — ground beef, lamb chops, boerewors, T-bone steak, pork shoulder, chicken, brisket, the very popular pre-cooked lamb stew, and more.
The chicken at Mzoli’s goes by various names — roadrunner chicken, aka village chicken, aka free range chicken, my hostess, Musa Dube told me.
In answer to my question, Musa — no job description — said, “I do whatever,” but as she showed me around Mzoli’s, I got the feeling she runs the place.
Mzoli’s — the restaurant — is also known by various names — Mzoli’s Place, Mzoli’s Meat, or Mzoli’s Butchery. We picked out our meats and had a choice of side dishes that included pap, chakalaka, steamed bread, and samp and beans or umngqusho, a Xhosa staple.
“The Zulu people don’t use spoons and forks,” Musa told me. “Usually we use our hands. The Xhosa use spoons.”
We were led back into the restaurant where a cook took our trays from us and began braaiing our meat on a massive barbecue grill. On weekends, there can be eight huge grills going at a time.
In the kitchen, Chef Bukiwe stirred lamb stew spiced “with a bit of curry” in a huge pot. The lamb stew usually sells out in an hour, she told me. She dolloped servings into 100 Styrofoam containers. “There’s an order for 100 pap, 100 bread and 100 chakalaka for noon,” she said.
Tourists flock to the restaurant as do locals, and they come for the music, the food and the experience, Musa said. On weekends there’s a variety of live music to accommodate all, but Mzoli’s has become known as a venue for kwaito and deep house music.
Owner Mzoli Ngcawuzele started the restaurant in 2003 with start-up funding from the Development Bank of South Africa, which supports black-owned businesses. By 2006, Mzoli’s had grown from lamb offal being sold out of Mzoli’s garage to one of Cape Town’s most popular hangouts. “But as big as it looks, it needs to be bigger,” Musa said.
The most amazing thing about Mzoli’s is the price of the food. Here’s a sampling of prices per kilo — that’s 2.2 pounds: lamb was 97 rand ($8.25 USD); T-bone steak was 86 rand ($7.31 USD); brisket and beef sausage were 60 rand ($5.10) each a kilo! And the prices included the cost of cooking.
Customers come from around the corner, from all over Africa and beyond, Musa said. They arrive in tour buses or cars, by foot and bicycle.
While we waited for our food to be cooked, we sat down at a table on the covered outdoor patio, where we were invited to join fellow diners, the Mukombo brothers.
“This is where all the tourists come,” said Stalin Mukombo, who runs a 24-hour taxi service. “The barbecue sauce on the meat — people love it. They say you don’t get it anywhere except Mzoli’s.”
Stalin and his brother Isaac offered us some of their food while we waited for ours to arrive. A few tourists occupied other tables on the patio, but most tables were still empty. “This is how we eat,” Stalin said. “We eat together on one plate to feel that togetherness, that family spirit. Usually people use their hands.”
On weekends, Mzoli’s serves more than 5000 guests. A mister sprays them with water to cool them down under the hot corrugated iron roof and plastic side flaps.
“This is the hot spot. Everyone wants to come here,” Isaac said.
In the front of the restaurant, it was getting busy as we left. Pindiwe Mzoli — wife of the restaurant owner — served customers who lined up four and five deep at the meat counter.
Cape Town is full of amazing dining opportunities. Mzoli’s is that and more. It’s an experience.