Moyo: the African experience

21 July 2003

There are not that many venues in Johannesburg that offer an all-African dining experience. One of the best is Moyo in Melrose Arch – but be prepared to wait up to a week for a table, as Jo’burg residents and visitors have discovered the restaurant in a big way.

The brainchild of Jason Lurie, Moyo offers customers a touch of Africa from Ethiopia and Tunisia in the north right the way down to Zululand on the south-eastern coast of South Africa. In Lurie’s words: “Moyo is more than just a restaurant.”

Lurie, a large, bustling man, has packed a lot into his 35 years, and combined it all skilfully in his restaurant. He has his finger in many pies, besides qualifying as a development economist: music, crafts, the record industry, and a healthy love of food.

Moyo is a five-storey restaurant that offers customers an entirely indigenous experience, with unique, locally crafted decor on every floor set against pleasing shades of ochre walls, providing wonderful textures. Every level has its own atmosphere and ambience, but there’s lots of copper evident throughout the restaurant: on table tops, shapes in the walls and gorgeous lamps. There’s also lots of mosaic – on table tops, walls and steps.

Says Lurie: “My original idea was to do something authentic as urban Africans, to reflect contemporary African art, food and culture.”

Moyo certainly does that. Every level of Moyo is a feast for the eye – there’s a cosy wine cellar with daily wine tastings, set behind a curtain of threaded stones and wire; a huge rock that was revealed when the floors were being dug, with a fine trickle of water dribbling over it; and a magical Moroccan tent on the lowest level. And on every level there are interesting ornaments and furniture tucked into nooks and crannies to marvel at, right down to a long wall inlaid with stones.

Every night there’s a feast for the ears with a varied schedule of local musicians entertaining customers, some moving from table to table and explaining the origins and mechanics of their instruments.

But it’s probably the minute attention to detail that lingers after the Moyo experience – the wishee washee lady who comes around to your table and, while washing your hands with rose water, sings a washing song made up by the Moyo staff; the romantic nooks called “gigis”, behind a beaded curtain; or the charming waiters and waitresses in their African tunics, with delicately placed white dots on their faces, giving them a mystical quality.

Cooks and chefs
Moyo has 35 cooks and two head chefs, and its own bakery. Lurie originally selected recipes while travelling in Africa, but Moyo also relies on consultants who investigate new African recipes. The hotter dishes have been adapted to suit South African tastes.

And the menu has been compiled to reflect the eclectic range of African cuisine: stuffed baked onions; seared calamari; pickled citrus prawn salad; Egyptian rose petal Semmit bread with sesame; Zulu cabbage, tuna mayonnaise jaffles; and toasted South African “sarmies” (sandwiches).

And to complete the Moyo experience, you can buy an item at the shop adjoining the restaurant. Or you can book a party for a great evening in The Tent, and savour the experience as a group.

Moyo in Newtown
Lurie has just completed converting space in the foyer of the Market Theatre in Newtown to a new Moyo, and is in the final stages of placing diners on a metal bridge over railway lines to a warehouse complex behind the Theatre.

“Newtown is very exciting. I grew up with it as a musician. I would like to be part of bringing people back to the city,” says Lurie. He feels that the “city is going to happen”, with a range of new developments taking place, particularly in Newtown, like the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

Lurie has looked at possible Moyo venues in Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria, but “the space must be right” before he will commit himself to opening a new Moyo in another city.

For Lurie, who was born in Yeoville, Johannesburg is a city where “anything is possible. It has a mining village mentality, with lots of risk-taking, and the infrastructure and institutions to make it possible”.

Regarding the risk of the novelty of Moyo wearing off for Johannesburgers, he has a confident answer: “Novelty doesn’t wear off quality, only off gimmicks.” Moyo has been open in Melrose Arch for one-and-a-half years. Prior to that, Lurie ran a small Moyo restaurant in Norwood for two years.

So, catch your bit of Moyo magic. In the words of one of Moyo’s waitresses, Joyce Leeuw, 48: “It’s fabulous here. I love the vibe and atmosphere, it’s always buzzing.”

Source: City of Johannesburg website