This fine old heritage building sings for its supper by housing a busy restaurant.
There’s something about old buildings: they have rounded edges and lots more space, and their colours are warmer because of the use of wood and natural materials.
Mike’s Kitchen Parktown is based in a fine home called Eikenlaan, after the avenue of oaks planted by its first owner, James F Goch. Designed by architect JS Donaldson, it was completed in 1904 and proudly displays a blue plaque, which confirms its status as a protected heritage site.
Today, painted a crisp white with a dark green roof, Eikenlaan is kept immaculately by the restaurant, which has been open since 1982.
Donaldson planned the stately home – now part of the Randlord Mansions Route which the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation features on their city walks – with the steeply pitched roof and wide verandas that were in vogue for homes in the warmer British colonies.
When The Citizen spoke to Manuel Pieta, the owner of Mike’s Kitchen Parktown, he pointed out that he would never go to a restaurant simply for the architecture – it would have to have excellent food and service, too. At the same time, he concedes that the ambience of the beautiful old building his eatery is located in, adds to guests’ enjoyment.
Goch, brother of the more famous former Joburg mayor, George Goch, came to Johannesburg in 1886, according to Blue Plaques of South Africa, which keeps a data base of all the buildings that have been awarded a blue plaque as a listed heritage building. An industrious man originally from Swellendam, he ran a watchmakers and jewellers and dealt in property.
In 1978, the city council bought the mansion and it was in line for demolition to build the motorway. But, according to the Blue Plaques website, a petition with 12 000 signatures saved Eikenlaan and in 1982, it began operating as a Mike’s Kitchen. The city has always owned it.
In 1999, Pieta, on a search for a business, took over the lease and says he has never looked back. “The unique site, the historical significance, the gardens, all make it a special place for our customers,” he said.
In fact, whenever I have visited, it has been packed to the Oregon pine rafters with lively, chattering patrons. This does have to do with the setting – lovely gardens with tables under gazebos and umbrellas – but the restaurant has for years also maintained an excellent menu and standard of fare.
From the creamy peri-peri chicken livers and haloumi batons on the list of starters, to the Falklands calamari and mozzarella mushrooms, exotic salads, ribs, steaks and burgers, to the peanut butter and marshmallow milkshakes, everything is super-yummy. It is fully licensed, with a good wine list and a choice of craft beers, too.
When I go there, I always have the ladies’ fillet with vegetables – spinach and pumpkin – with a blue-cheese salad. And I have never been disappointed.
There is an intimate bar with lots of wood panelling and a small balcony, where you can have a warming whisky or a cooling beer to suit the changeable weather.
The 1904 building lends itself well to its present function and Pieta says the business takes care of the maintenance of the entire 4000m² property. “The city [council] comes to re-evaluate the building once a year. I wish they would be more involved because every heritage house from time to time needs a structural overhaul. We are very aware of our responsibility to the building.”
Heritage is good business and entrepreneurs all over the country are investing in older properties to participate in protecting them while reaping the benefits. The City of Joburg has a heritage section that works to conserve any building over 60 years old.
Pieta says that on a recent visit to Portugal he noticed a lot of activity restoring old buildings, with much attention to detail and craftsmanship. “Retaining old buildings is critical. They have soul and spirit, they are relaxing to be in – much more rewarding than being in a shopping centre with its glass and aluminium,” he said.