Classics: The Radium Beerhall

As the first in an episodic series on South Africa’s great evergreens, a revisit to The Radium Beerhall on Louis Botha in Jo’burg. Established in 1929, it’s been on the scene, in the same place, for 89 years, and what makes it an essential establishment is its mostly unchanged nature. It comes from a time before today’s “restaurant design”, where almost every food and beverage spot is packaged to within an inch of the definition of what they are meant to be for their specified market. Even worse, so many establishments nowadays default to the “generic” – flytraps to catch all comers – with purposefully little obvious personality, so that no-one baulks or objects. Newer “hipster” joints are possibly the worst culprits, taking counter-culture iconography (café racers, skate) and repurposing it as cute sanitised titillation. 

The bar at Radium. Image courtesy of the Radium website.

The Radium is a neighbourhood bar, and since the 1980s, a drinking hole that serves Portuguese food. Its bar counter is the portal experience and, as it’s the first thing you see, goes some way in keeping the space defined. (Notice, in contrast, how newer places often hide their bars, many of which are merely service or waiting areas rather than actual bar counters.) 

In 1983, David Williams wrote an article for Frontline on how “traditional drinking places” were drying up in Johannesburg. The Radium features as one of the last in this (very white middle class) tradition. He wrote: “… it’s the best pub in Jo’burg. This is because it’s a genuine ‘local’ in an old suburb that has been revitalised through the hard work of the inhabitants.” I think all readers who know the modern Louis Botha will be chuckling at this – the intervening years have not been kind to the street and it’s in serious need of a new round of hard work. But the constant is The Radium. It’s still a local.

Like the still centre in the storm of life, people come back here even after leaving the surrounds, or the city, or even the country. And character draws characters, like the one-eyed lady sitting at the bar, swinging to the music, or the jazz singer crooning while alternating between a drag on a cigarette and an oxygen mask.  

Since Manny Cabeleira, who moves through the space to slap regulars on the back to this day, took over in 1986, there has been more and more emphasis on food (he removed the pool tables of yore to add dining space).  While the bar counter menu is a classic of the genre and democratic in price, once you move into the back spaces or upstairs, the menu and prices are typically in line with the restaurants in suburbia, which is a bit of a surprise. Everything here comes with a side salad and the chips are fat and crisp. Stick to the Portuguese classics and you’re likely to have a decent meal.

Williams also wrote these provocative lines: “Pubs, like governments, reflect the personality and the culture of the people they serve. Consider Johannesburg in this way, and you see a curious South African paradox. Generally, we combine political conservatism with a reckless desire to destroy whatever social and architectural relics are older than twenty years in design or evolution. The boring suburbs and the satellite Reef towns are top heavy and stodgy, while the vibrant city that fathered them slowly dies.”

The other places he wrote about are gone. The Guildhall. The Richmond Hotel. Sacks’ Hotel. Most of us would not even remember them. He was bemoaning the links to the past being severed by their closure in the early 1980s – that’s 35 years ago. It’s quite something that the Radium still stands to represent that curiously comforting space that a neighbourhood pub can be, one where the years have added a patina of character that modern, themed “bars” will never have. The expiry date on contemporary places is usually as obvious as their “theme”, and their coming and going doesn’t even surprise us anymore.

The Radium Beerhall

282 Louis Botha Ave, Orange Grove, Johannesburg

011 728 3866