Emzini in Westdene is a family friendly restaurant serving soul food

Its owner veteran chef Richard Griffin believes in cooking food the classical traditional way.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

For some time now, I mean even before Covid-19 struck and disrupted several industries, and without doubt, the hospitality industry the most, it was hard enough to find a decent restaurant, and I mean decent, for a family lunch around Johannesburg.

Now with Covid-19, it is even harder in Johannesburg to find one. Here I am not talking about the restaurant chains, the Franchise type steakhouses and the like dotted everywhere. I admit though that they have a role to play in the food chain. It is just that they are not my cup of tea when it comes to a family dining experince. Eating out is not necessarily only about good food after all, for it is also about the ambience, as in the look and feel of the place, and with whom else are you dining, as in the other patrons besides your party.

 Here I am talking about independent, often owner run restaurants that serve decent food, the type that one would enjoy at home, and the patrons are the right patrons for a family set up. In and around Johannesburg, there of course  several other places at which to dine. But these are unfortunately  are often overcrowded places, with an a mixed crowd of patrons, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But again unfortunately these places barely  pass for restaurants where in fact food is an excuse for selling alcohol. You have seen these in Melville, in Maboneng, in malls in Sandton Rosebank, and other places where food is in fact not the main item for making  real money but alcohol is and food is just an excuse.

Richard Griffin the owner of Emzini Restaurant in Westdene

In this vacuum for a good eatery suitable for a family set up here comes, Emzini in the little and self-contained medium suburb of Westdene, west of Johannesburg.

Since last year, around December, I had heard  rumours about this place, where one can really enjoy soul food, slow cooked and as tasteful and as healthy as the food one often eats at home. That rumour ignited my curiosity for sometime ever since it broke out in food and arts circles..

Then this past weekend, on Saturday February 5, 2022, I assembled my party of four, family, and headed westwards. That day I had skipped breakfast to prepare my stomach by denying it food in the morning and prepared my taste buds and cravings for what I had been told is a selection of soulful and good food in an ambience that feels like home, with other families around, enjoying their dishes in no hurry.

And indeed after driving on Empire Road for about 10 minutes from Louis Botha, we passed Campus Square, then the University of Johannesburg, and in two minutes we, were at Emzini, Corner Motor and Lewes Road, opposite the Westdene Dam.

What a gem of this place. The location is perfect and in fact this corner premises, that was empty for sometime after another restaurant vacated the place about nine or 10 years ago,  has been crying out loud for occupation. It now has a desirable occupant.  Emzini is suitably situated in a suburb or between the suburbs of Westdene, and Sophiatown to the West, Brixton to the South and Melville to the East. Geographically, this  makes  the eatery a suitable place for a family oriented dining experience in this area. The ambience is stunning.

The court yard is perfect to sit and dine especially, when the weather permits it. On Saturday we were blessed with such weather in Johannesburg, and so my family chose the courtyard instead of inside the restaurant. Not that the inside of the restaurant is any different. The interior décor outside, just like inside is rustic in character. The courtyard is also adorned with pot plants and rustic chairs and tables, creating an inviting natural environment that in fact calls for occupation to those driving  past  or walking  on the street outside.  The fact that there are pot plans everywhere and the Westdene Dam is in full view from the restaurant, an atmosphere of wilderness exudes around you as you dine. In fact you could be dining in  Magaelisberg  estaurant for that matter.

The parking is also enough as there is an elevated piece of land, a sort of island near Emzin that can park a number of cars within view of their owners as they dine. This is important in a city like Johannesburg where crime is an issue.

On Saturday, My family Instead of ordering off menu, we had arranged with Richard Griffin, the owner to use his discretion to prepare his best dishes for a family of two adults, one teenager and a five year old. After all the chef knows his best dishes as we wanted nothing but the best dish as we  kept ourselves hungry for this experience on that day.

And indeed, Griffin, a man who will never stop talking about his gem, which is more than a restaurant really. The establishment is conceptualised and looks like a community project, operated run for the benefit of the neighbourhood as well as to fill the stomachs of anyone hungry for real good food in Johannesburg. After all Griffin, the owner is a retired chef who cooked a storm from the age of 13, starting in Cape Town, going all the way to exotic countries like Morocco, Syria, Israel, Malawi, Zambia and… and….

“The point is we have lost our taste buds to bad food, fake food over the years. We now hardly know what good food is because of what is happening in the local hospitality industry. Here we wanted to cook food the natural way, the traditional way that food used to be cooked in our homes as we grew up. But because of the commercialization of food preparation, such as fast food, we have unfortunately lost that flair and flavor of cooking,” Griffin said.

Griffin spoke about how he started cooking in his mother’s kitchen and ended up working in family restaurants for years.  His mother who unfortunately passed on in June last year, was the matriarch of the family eateries that they ran for decades.

“In fact this is the first restaurant that I am running without my mother as she passed on in June,” he said. Born and bread in Cape Town, born of an English father and a Canadian mother, Griffin becomes animated when he speaks about food and how good food should be prepared. He comes out as someone born to cook and cook he does and does it so well, that Emzini should be one of the best kept food experience secrets for an interesting family dining experience in Johannesburg. Here you do not just eat to satisfy a craving good soulful food or to chase away hunger.  At Emzini you experience the food, and If you are lucky to chat to Griffin as we did on Saturday,you would inevitably  even feel like you are experiencing the cooking itself in the kitchen while you are in fact seated at your table. Such is the passion Griffin has for the art of cooking that his explanation is infectious to the audience.

. As he went on and on about how South Africans in general and Joburgers in particular are denied well cooked food in a highly commercialized  hospitality industry  environment  for profits, I felt like stopping him and ask him to bring our food. This is because the more he passionately spoke about the food and how it is important to prepare it the right way, I seemed to be getting hungrier and hungrier by the second.  After all is it Bob Marley who sang the lyrics a hungry man is an angry man?  And when Griffin eventually  stopped talking and disappeared  into his kitchen, I felt relieved and excited.

Sooner than later, a waitress came back, after serving us drinks, and this time she was carrying a tray of large amounts of sumptuous food: a huge burger, a huge pizza, calamari, and…and….

At this stage, I felt a bit embarrassed and checked out the other tables occupied by other families, mainly from the neighborhood to see If they were noticing our piles of food on our table. Thank goodness they did not. They seemed to mind their own family business and themselves were deeply into their food too.

Emzini is really a  place for foodies, for families looking for a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy food as they carry on with their family talk without feeling that there is someone invading their conversation.

“We opened this place in December and at the moment we are running at 50 percent food and 50 percent drinks. In most restaurants around  Johannesburg, there is more drinking of alcohol than serving food. Here we are community oriented and some of our menu is influenced by what the community around us wants,and so we keep on changing our menu as per demands from the community. The place to start with, was started with the community in mind. In fact we took 15 people from within the community and put them in our kitchen and said let us cook. They now work in the kitchen,” Griffin side with pride.

He should be because before he started this restaurant, he was working with communities in Soweto, running projects within that community, which empowered them during the pandemic or as a result of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has caused a lot of problems in communities, with many people losing not only their lives but jobs and livelihoods as well. We were worried about the situation even as we opened in December as there is a lot of uncertainties around  this disease and what may happen next. However the response from the surrounding communities and the neighbourhood has been great,” Griffin said.

The food at Emzini is also reasonably priced, a good value for money.

.Emzini is open 11am Tuesday to Friday, and
7am Saturday and Sunday, and is closed on Monday. Booking is essential and to book call 067768455.

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