Harare’s city centre is often avoided by a great many residents of the city, but they are missing out on a number of culinary treats.
Despite the almost chaotic crush of parts of the CBD, there are times when it’s easy to get in and out and it’s well worth the effort to do so.
It was just such an easy time when a guest and I went into town to have lunch at the Sandawana, the ground floor dining venue in the Cresta Jameson Hotel.
We ate there on the Tuesday of the Heroes’ weekend and travel into and out of the CBD was quick and relatively easy, although I must say there are never times any more when the city centre can be considered ‘quiet’ any more. We parked in the hotel’s own private car park, in the lane behind the building, and the walk to the hotel entrance was very short.
While Meikles Hotel and the Bronte Hotel have both been running longer, Cresta Jameson is one of the longest-established hospitality venues in Harare, and will this year celebrate its 60th anniversary.
When it first opened it was in the middle of the boom period of the 1950s, when the fairly quiet street from which it took its name was being transformed into the “millionaire’s row” of high-rise office blocks that we know so well today.
The original hotel was half the size of the present one, the doubling of rooms taking place in the 1970s; in the 1990s the cladding that gives it the current interesting external aspect was added on.
A great many leading hoteliers of the past were managers there and the current manager, Emily Mumba, joins a list of hospitality luminaries such as the late Jan de Haast, Gordon Addams (now owner-operator of Inns of Zimbabwe in the Eastern Highlands), Barry Pickett, Glenn Stutchbury and many more. Emily was not on duty when we dined there, but we met up with functions executive Richard Chauke, with whom we chatted and found out lots about the current refurbishment programme being undertaken by Cresta Hotels to bring the hotel to peak operating condition.
The restaurants in Cresta Jameson are also well-known establishments, with the currently non-operational Tiffany’s on the first floor having been one of Harare’s most popular dining venues for decades. Sandawana on the ground floor takes its name from the story surrounding emeralds mined in southern Zimbabwe, and has been a busy and popular venue of its own for a great many years, too. On most days the principal offering here is the Chimbi Chimbi lunch — a $6 treat that gives access to a buffet of traditional Zimbabwean food, and this is attracting large numbers of folk who work in the CBD. On quieter days, such as when we ate there, the a la carte menu is available and this has a small but interesting array of offerings, and this is what we made use of.
We did not have starters, and for mains my guest had pork chops while I had chicken breast. Both were excellent, and very generously portioned, too. They were accompanied by potato wedges and vegetables, and my chicken was prepared in a lemon and herb butter, while my guest enjoyed the accompaniment of two sauces with her pork chops: a barbecue one and a mushroom one; she said both were very tasty. We then moved on to desserts: a simple trio of ice cream for me and a lovely chocolate cake with cream and custard for my guest.
The chops were $15 and the chicken breast $10, and the deserts were $3 and $4.
There were not many people eating there when we dined and it occurred to me that if more folk from the suburbs knew of the good style and quality of the food, as well as of the ease of getting in and out of the CBD, it might well have been busier.
The a la carte menu is also available during the week if the traditional buffet is not your choice. On Sundays, like on our public holiday, only the a la carte menu is on offer. Guests in the hotel make full use of Sandawana, as it also serves breakfast and dinner. Delegates at conferences eat their lunches upstairs.
Service seems good and we were hosted by the very pleasant and helpful Wilma Sharamunga. We did not meet Chef Admire Tsikwa that day, but we heard he and Cresta group executive chef Brian Ndlovu are working on a new a la carte menu for Sandawana, in keeping with the need to offer guests occasional changes, while maintaining favourites on the list.
Richard told us of upgrading of bedrooms and public areas, and of the fairly recent complete renovation of the elevators in the seven-storey building. Although the upstairs swimming pool is no longer in use, the top floor private chapel is still open to guests, a unique feature in Harare; in fact, the only other hotel in Zimbabwe that I know to have its own chapel is The Victoria Falls Hotel.
There are plans to reopen Tiffany’s, too, and I hope when that happens resident from all around the city will come along and see if it is as good as it always used to be. Who can forget the very active 80s and 90s, when Gordon Addams hosted regular theme weeks there, with people like Noreen Welch entertaining guests and themed styles such as Scots, Russian, West African and many more were created as culinary and cultural feasts?
Another busy part of the hotel is The Usual Place, the buzzy public bar that has been open for most of the hotel’s life, though under different names. Here guests enjoy drinks and — on Fridays — entertainment, and generous food platters are served at $6.
I suggested to Richard that the hotel should engage the City of Harare with regard to taking over part of adjoining Park Street as a private parking area for the hotel, something that might also lessen the passing flow of vehicles and people that would be good for the hotel.
The fact of the matter is that the city fathers and mothers should be taking urgent steps to clean up the city centre, getting the level of vehicle traffic down and moving vendors to controlled sales areas, as well as sorting out broken pavements and the like.
Many parts of the CBD need urgent attention and its incumbent on the municipal authorities to get the area into a level of order and tidiness that will attract businesses back from the suburbs.
It is appalling that almost half the rental space in the CBD is empty and it’s a huge indictment of the City of Harare and any other authorities who should be making the area welcoming and orderly. I hope all businesses in the city centre who want to remain there and see a return to pleasant conditions of operation will join forces to pressurise the authorities to get their act together.
Sandawana at Cresta Jameson is a delightful corner of Harare’s hospitality offering and is well worth a visit. Enquiries and bookings can be made to (024) 2 774106-18. It is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with Chimbi Chimbi available Monday to Saturday.