There are a few things in the world that seem to bring people together. On Sunday I found three of them: beer, meat and music.
Welcome to Mzoli’s Place, which has been called Cape Town’s church of meat.
Mzoli’s is part restaurant, part butcher shop and part dance club. It’s also a place where people from all walks of life in Cape Town get together to drink some beer and eat some meat.
The crowds at most bars and restaurants in Cape Town tend to be relatively homogenous considering how multicultural the city is. The coffee shop I’m in right now, for example, has an almost all-white clientele. Mzoli’s is one of the few places I’ve found that destroys that mold.
More on that in a minute but first let me set the scene for you.
Mzoli’s is located in Gugulethu, a black township of about 100,000 people located 20 minutes outside of central Cape Town.
Technically it’s a restaurant, but it’s likely not like any restaurant you’ve probably ever been to.
Sundays are the most popular day to visit and by the time we arrived at 12:45 there was a line snaking down the block.
We stood in line for close to 90 minutes, although even the queue was a cultural experience. The party vibe started in the streets as people milled about drinking beer and hawkers tried to sell sunglasses, hats and t-shirts.
Mzoli’s itself is a one-trick pony. You can buy meat there and that’s about it. If you want beer, bread, salad or anything else you have to bring it yourself. You even have to bring your own napkins, knife and cups (I didn’t see a single person using a fork or plates).
You can easily find beer at nearby shebeens, a roadside stand or from the mamas who live on the block and sell bottles out of their front doors. Technically you’re not supposed to drink on the street but that rule is mostly overlooked for people hanging outside Mzoli’s.
Once inside we were funneled to the meat counter. You walk along and point out which cuts you want as they are piled on a large metal tray.
The clerk picked out our selection of steak, boerwors, ribs and lamb, seasoned it and added a cup of Mzoli’s special braai sauce. After weighing the pile and paying, I carried the tray to the next room where cooks were grilling over four giant wood-fired braais.
The braai room was easily over 100 degrees, full of smoke and has a smell that rivals the best barbecue joints in the states. There were several employees whose sole jobs were to bring in wheelbarrow loads of chopped wood to fuel the fires.
We made our way to the dining area, which is more dance club than dining room. People sat at long plastic tables grabbing at piles of meat as others danced to the DJ in the empty spaces between tables. A few guys with drums wandered around the room playing along with the blaring African house music.
It was easily the most diverse crowd I’ve seen at a Cape Town establishment. Foreign tourists with cameras, African hipsters with trendy haircuts, Gugulethu locals, white and colored South Africans all sat together, danced and shared drinks.
As the afternoon went on the rain picked up and the covered area grew more crowded as people crammed in for shelter.
We were jammed in shoulder to shoulder but nobody seemed to mind. At one point a dude behind me literally chugged his drink (a bizarre combo of grape soda and Hennessy) just so he could use the glass to pour me some cognac.
Finally it was time to get our meat from the braai. There isn’t any real way to alert you when the food is ready; you just have to guess how long it will take judged by seeing when people who were just ahead of you get their food.
An employee did his best to manage the chaos as hungry patrons yell out their order number. He made a mental note of a few returned with large bowls of cooked meat for the orders that were ready. It’s a bit like roulette – you have a number and hope you win.
Numbers around ours seemed to be coming up so for about 15 minutes I stood around yelling out “692! 692!” hoping my bowl of meat would arrive. It finally did and I ventured back through the crowded dance floor holding the meat above my head.
By this point we were all starving and didn’t hesitate to rip in with our hands. Not that it mattered, anyway; tearing apart chops and ribs with your hands is standard practice at Mzoli’s.
We gave some women sitting next to us a few ribs and part of a steak for helping to save seats while I retrieved the food. They happily offered up some of their extra pap, a polenta-like dish that is common in South Africa.
My South African friends all let out a big smile when I mentioned I spent the afternoon at Mzoli’s. It is widely considered to be one of the best parties in town.
It’s so encouraging to see people from around town heading to a township for an afternoon of food and dancing. There is still some petty crime (a friend there with a diff
erent group that day had to chase down someone who reached through a fence and grabbed a purse) but in general the neighborhood felt safe and welcoming.
Another friend tells a story of parking outside Mzoli’s on a past trip and seeing an old man walk out of his house. The man approached my friend, gave him a big hug and said “it’s so nice to see white people coming to visit our neighborhood.”
One guy in our group was from Johannesburg and admitted at first he was a bit nervous about venturing into the township. After a few minutes at Mzoli’s, however, he looked around and remarked how great the energy was. By the end of the day he made us stop to buy a t-shirt commemorating the trip.