We’re seated comfortably on bar stools at a table in the open courtyard area of The Artisan. Located at 12 Gleneagles Road and wedged between Greenside strip staples Topo Gigio and The Office, sits this not-so-new kid on the block. It’s a restaurant and bar formerly known as Gin that’s undergone a complete renovation in recent weeks. Henry Cock, part owner of the restaurant, is wearing sweatpants, a T-shirt and flip flops as he takes a seat to talk to us. It’s the grand opening of The Artisan. Henry is evidently tired but speaks about the transformation of the restaurant in a way that makes you forget the importance of the evening.
“So, Gin sucked.”
Pretty much. But there was a time when ‘let’s get messy’ was a hashtag and the sticky floors, cheap booze and potential to be young, wild and reckless made Gin a standard for a night you could only wish you remembered. Many people have long had a love/hate relationship with Gin, mostly because it was a restaurant that turned into a fully fledged pub at night. It offered free entry, cheap alcohol, a tiny DJ booth that was responsible for some big bass until 3am, graffiti’d bathrooms only a drunken eye could accept and no dress code. You really could find anything and everything in the dark corners of Gin on any weekend, from the students testing their limits with alcohol (most of them clearly getting in over their heads), to people seated inside enjoying a drink or attempting to bust a move in a crowded room whilst trying to avoid shards of beer bottle glass, to blatant drug use. And at 3am when the lights would come on, everyone would literally be swept out of Gin and onto the pavements of Gleneagles road, along with shards of glass and cigarette butts. There were drunk people sitting on pavement curbs sobering up or finishing of their beers. Some people could be seen clutching onto a wall for dear life trying to keep vomit at bay, whilst others opted to call it a night and stumble into their cars. These were the people that loved Gin but hated what it did to them.
“It was bad mix. It’s not about getting shit-faced for R30. It’s not about partying till 3 in the morning and drinking until you can’t drive anymore.”
It’s hard to imagine Gleneagles Road without the flashing blue lights that illuminated the strip in an effort to maintain some semblance of order. Unsurprisingly, with Gin becoming synonymous with general unruliness, the bar and area lost favour with Greenside residents, the police and party goers looking for the fun without the fuss. It wasn’t long before the owners of Gin started receiving calls from angry residents. Word on the street was that Greenside was going the Melville way, which ironically had people scampering from Greenside to Braamfontein for some solace.
“Greenside did get a bad rep. It got a bit dodgy. It got a bit kak. We’re trying to change that around.”
The Artisan has been in the pipeline for more than a year, evolving with the tastes of the owners and Greenside regulars. The fact is, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll only ever looked good in movies and you can’t plead ignorance when acting a fool forever. And, let’s be honest, blaring music and crowded spaces aren’t how youthful bliss really looks.
“You grow up. The tastes have changed, it’s all about the loungey-type music and pavement culture.”
The idea behind the Artisan was informed by what customers and locals really wanted, as well as realising the potential of the strip with its under-used wide pavements. According to Henry, the strip has potential to be a lot more like Parkhurst. The transformation of Gin to The Artisan is just the start in uplifting the strip, making it friendlier, brighter and more inviting. If you’re looking for a little bit of Gin in The Artisan, you’re only going to find it on the cocktail menu in the form of Gin’s signature cocktail, the ‘Gin & Sin’. It’s safe to say this restaurant and bar just did a 360 on us – it’s nothing like its predecessor.
With the gentrification and rejuvenation of places in Johannesburg like Jeppestown and Braamfontein, restaurants and bars everywhere that have stubbornly stayed the same are becoming less attractive amongst the competition. With specialist restaurants and bars popping up everywhere, competitors need to have some kind of edge – they need to be one of the best at one thing at the very least – unless they’re content with relying on regular, loyal customers. This might be the reason that longstanding venues on the strip seem to be dragging their feet into Greenside’s transformation. In contrast, The Artisan stands as an example of a place that’s embraced current trend. It’s Greenside’s new addition, just the breath of fresh air Greenside has been needing.
“We’re all about good food, good drinks, a good atmosphere and good vibes. We’re not gonna have dress codes and we’re not gonna crowd it out, but we just want to keep out the bad elements.”
True to its name, The Artisan’s interior is mostly handmade and custom-built, created by stereotypically burly, bearded men from Stripped Collective who transform wood, steel and glass into tables, lights and bar counters. The broken plaster mural behind the bar, by graffiti artist Justin Badenhorst, looks like the artist took to the brick and chipped away tiny pieces until the image of a miner appeared.
Similarly, the menu reflects the ethos of simplicity made exceptional by a keen attention to detail. Simple, light meals compliment 1920s-inspired artisanal cocktails and craft beers. From a limited but adequate selection of burgers, salads, sandwiches and nachos, the sandwiches are a sure win. Meals are served on wooden boards, which are perfectly suitable as cutting boards because that friend that wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to eat when you ordered, will probably change their mind when the meal arrives. Your first instinct will be to tuck right in – don’t let utensils hold you back at this ‘no fuss’ restaurant. Classic combinations, like bacon and feta, are given a twist with pestos and sauces specially made by chef Michelle whose recipes are top secret and make for drool-worthy meals with just enough carbs to line your stomach without making you feel too stuffed.
The Artisan Menu
If a gourmet ciabatta sandwich doesn’t pique your interest you’re going to have trouble peeling yourself away from the bar counter, which boasts craft beers and cocktails that make you forget about chasing the alcohol-induced blackout and drink for taste instead. Miracles do happen. This is one of the few places in Johannesburg where you’ll see words like ‘homemade vinegars’ and ‘homemade syrups’ in the ingredients lists of the cocktail menu. I’m impressed by the attention to detail that goes beyond the generic colourful drinks with enough alcohol to set alight. Here, drinking is an art, something that’s mostly been limited to specialist watering holes like Liquid Chefs. The ‘Gin & Sin’, Gin’s old signature cocktail, is a visual treat but comes in a martini glass without the stem, so gentle now my fellow butter fingers. The ‘Carpenter’s Ol’ Fashioned’, a classic cocktail that’s recently been popularised by the ‘Mad Men’ series and the movie ‘Crazy, Stupid Love’, is a citrusy delight that packs a serious punch, so a word of caution to those out of practice – take it easy. The clear winner is the ‘Sidecar to Work’, a brandy-based cocktail with vanilla and maple vinegar which the photographer and I actually fought over. This is coming from a person that always hated brandy. If you’re just popping in for one drink, this would be the one to have.
A word of advice – this is not the place to revive your Gin alter ego. It’s also not a place for your Gin drinking budget either, which makes sense for the quality of food and drinks you’re getting. Now that we’re done drowning out the angst of our young adulthood in a multitude of unhealthy ways at Gin, we can take a seat at a table and enjoy a delicious meal, a tasty cocktail and good conversation, perhaps reminiscing about the time you sucked face with a stranger in the very same courtyard.