A classic hotspot comes back to life in Melville

Ba-Pita dates back to the late ’80s in Yeoville.

If like me, you were born in the ’70s, you’ll remember how amazing certain foods and drinks tasted. Two that immediately spring to mind are KFC and Coca-Cola.

However, it seems some restaurants have lost their appeal. But once in a while, an eatery comes along that, even decades after it shut its doors and then reopens, still remains true to its original atmosphere and menu. I’m talking about Ba-Pita in Melville, Johannesburg.

Having re-launched in the bustling 7th Street (which is often referred to as Jozi’s answer to Cape Town’s Long Street), I had to pop in – if anything, just for nostalgic reasons.

Ba Pita restaurant in Melville, 17 May 2019. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Ba-Pita dates back to the late ’80s in Yeoville and, as the country celebrated the first democratic elections in 1994, it became the venue du jour for like-minded
Yeovillites who immigrated to Johannesburg from across the country.

Whether for its artistic/bohemian atmosphere or its delicious, yet ridiculously affordable, Middle-Eastern fair, Ba-Pita became the meeting point for struggling artists, musicians, authors, media people, and thespians alike.

Gerald Elliott said he bought Ba-Pita in 1994 from the original owner, who opened the restaurant in 1986 – and the timing was perfect. “It was my first restaurant and it just happened to be in Yeoville which, was also the cultural hub of Joburg at that time,” says Elliot.

A colourful image of the original Ba-Pita, taken by photojournalist Oscar Gutierrez, hangs in the entrance to the new restaurant as a reminder of the eclectically dichotomous crowd that the establishment attracted during its Rockey Street period.

Gerald Elliot and his partner Toerie van der Merwe at Ba Pita restaurant in Melville, 17 May 2019. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Sitting down with Elliott and his business partner, Toerie van der Merwe, I remind them how, were it not for the affordability of their menu back then, many artistic types would have gone hungry. From the 95c bottomless coffee to the R20 freshly-made hot pita bread served with a side of deliciously creamy homemade hummus and mixed olives, it’s easy to gauge why Ba-Pita’s poorly paid Yeoville patrons were always happy and well-fed.

And, almost 25 years since those heady and vibrant days, not much has changed for Ba-Pita – except, of course, the décor, which Elliott says had to adapt to the times. “Toerie and our designer, Elizabeth, actually talked me out of working too closely towards to the original décor,” says Elliott.

And from my pita, hummus, and falafel starter at the new venue, followed by a slow-cooked beef shin on a bed of preserved lemon-infused bulgur wheat, the attention to flavours and detail have not changed. If anything, the menu is even better than ever. Van der Merwe, who used to be a customer in Rockey Street, plays a major role in the creation of the new items on the menu.

Ba Pita restaurant in Melville, 17 May 2019. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

“While staying true to the authentic offerings of the original Middle-Eastern hot spot menu, we have also added a few new items such as the beef shin. But you can still get your favourites such as kebabs, shawarmas and our fresh-made hummus,” says Van der Merwe.

And, without skimping, Ba-Pita remains as affordable as ever. My starter of fresh-baked pitta with a side of hummus and falafel plus a 750ml craft beer cost a
mere R100.

“It’s this kind of bang for your buck that has seen the hugely diverse crowd of people come through our doors since we opened in Melville. Combine the crowd with our delicious menu, affordability and of course our awesome courtyard, and you have the perfect setting,” says Van der Merwe.

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