It isn't often that a chain of restaurants (other than those of the drive-through, happy meal variety!!) survives and thrives for over 40 years. When one does, it's hardly surprising that it enters the national consciousness of a country, which is exactly what Spur Steak Ranches have done in South Africa.
Ask any South African if they have a Spur memory, and I can guarantee that they will come up with a couple. Some of you reading this had their first date at the local Spur as the restaurants were prime first date territory for the more discerning South African teenager in the 1980s. Some of you will remember going to the Spur for birthday parties, where the kitchen staff would always appear at the table at the end of the meal bearing a cake with sparklers and singing happy birthday to the squirming delight of the birthday boy or girl. My brother still has one of the cumbersome but quite iconic wooden boards that the restaurants use to print menus on to this day. I remember having my first addictive taste of Tex-mex food at the Spur, back in the days when they had to add a pronounciation guide to the menu ("kes-a-DEE-a" as opposed to "kwes-a-DILL-a" and "ha-la-PEH-noh" instead of "ja-la-PEE-no"). I fondly remember sitting at the Grahamstown Spur preparing for court cases and drinking one bottomless cup of coffee all afternoon. And show me a South African who does not go a little misty-eyed at the mention of Spur onion rings and Spur pink sauce!
The first Spur Steak ranch was opened by Allen Ambor (who is still the company's executive chairman) in Cape Town in 1967. Since then, 240 South African and 29 international franchises (including some in London, to my utter joy!) have opened and the company continues to go from strength to strength. They have proclaimed themselves the "official restaurant of the South African family" and if you are looking for a kid-friendly sit-down restaurant with an unchallenging menu (and excellent steaks!), you will struggle to do better in South Africa. Most (if not all) the Spurs have an enclosed kiddies play area and will provide crayons and colouring-in pictures for children. There is also a children's menu available and the decor is also likely to provide the kids with some amusement.
Yes, the decor. What is slightly surprising (even disconcerting for first-time visitors!) is that the theme of these restaurants is… ersatz native American, rather than even vaguely African. From the restaurant names (Flaming Arrow, Apache, Big Creek, Silver Eagle) to the decor (cowhide print leathrette banquettes, adobe-style walls, vaguely Aztec-themed light fittings) to the logo (a native American in a feathered headdress) to the menu (aforementioned Tex-Mex) – it all has a native American slant to it. Most South Africans have long stopped seeing the inherent weirdness in this, but first-time-visitors may be bemused! But let's face it, we don't come for the decor – we come for the food!
The menu ranges from starters such as peri-peri chicken livers, nachos, buffalo wings and their famous crumbed mushrooms, to Spur burgers (the cheese, bacon and guacamole is my favourite), to Tex-Mex (faijitas and quesadillas) to schnitzels and outstanding ribs. But the main reason we go to the Spur every time we go home is the steaks. There is a full range from T-bone to sirloin to fillet to the premium lazy-aged rump, all basted in Spur basting sauce and cooked to perfection – these guys really do know their stuff when it comes to steak. A steak also provides the perfect opportunity to try out some classic Spur sauces, such as monkeygland, cheddamelt and peppamelt. But don't despair if you're not big on red meat - there is also a selection of excellent seafood (including the butter-soft calamari pctured below) and salads, with my personal faourite being the Salad Valley salad buffet (my plate if pictured at the top of this post) which also includes bread and hot vegetable dishes. And if you still have room after all that, Spur's chocolate brownies and log cabin waffles are justifiably famous – and there's always a Don Pedro for the not-so-hungry.
Portions are generous and prices, although relatively higher than they were when I was a student, remain competitive and are positively cheap by European standards. A steak will set you back about ZAR90 and a burger about ZAR60 (all come with chips/rice/baked potato and onion rings). I have often joked that Spur service is the best-trained in South Africa and although this may no longer be strictly true, Spur does stand out as being a company that puts all their waitstaff through a structured training programme, ensuring that the standard of service is consistent across all the branches. Managers are also always on the floor and visible, should you wish to speak to them. The service may seem a little over-familiar to those used to more European (read: stand-offish) service, but Americans will feel right at home
So you have a "taste for life" (as the company logo says), or just a taste for a good steak or burger at a reasonable price, the local Spur is definitely worth a visit.
Spur Steak ranches
To find a branch near you, use the Spur branch locator.
This post is part of a new series for 2010 called Sundays in South Africa. I know, it's Monday – so sue me! As the entire football-conscious world knows by now, the FIFA World Cup 2010 will be taking place next month for the first time ever on African soil – in my home country of South Africa! The country is, of course, anticipating a huge surge in visitors and I know that many people will see the cup as a reason to visit a country they have long been meaning to visit, and use the tournament as a jumping-off point for visiting other, non-football South African destinations. With this in mind, as well as my backlog of posts about my South African trips, I will be trying to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe, every Sunday in the run-up to the tournament. I can't pretend it is going to be a comprehensive guide to South Africa – but it will certainly be enough to give you some ideas! Click here for previous posts in the series.