When you walk into the Guildhall, it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust. The pub’s interior is so dark that at first the old wooden bar blends into the darkness. Then there’s the smell, not unpleasant or even musty. Vaguely smoky, like a subtle reminder of the way bars used to smell before smoking was banned indoors.
Upstairs, things brighten up. French doors open onto the metal wrap-around balcony, with views over Library Gardens and the Cenotaph to South Africa’s war dead. Across the street is the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, in the old City Hall building, which bears a certain resemblance to the Guildhall’s building.
That’s because they, and the old Post Office, were all built by Mattheus Meischke. The resemblance is more than passing. Urban legend holds that he erected this building and named it for himself, using bricks that mysteriously went missing from the construction site for the properties on the other side of Market. (He also owned the transport company that delivered them).
One of the first things he did with his new building was get it a liquor license, the first ever issued in the Witwatersrand, and the Guildhall Executive Bar and Restaurant was established in 1888 (so says the lettering on the window).
It would have been an exceptional location at the time, right opposite what then was a the tram terminus. The racing fraternity used to meet at the wooden bar, and the pub quickly became the biggest in the city.
The location is still superb, aided by the Rea Vaya stop right out front. The whiff of tobacco in the air comes from the ardent refusal of some patrons to stub out their cigarettes indoors. The menu offers pretty standard South African cafe fare (a few salads, a fish, a calamari, pastas and pizzas). A quarter chicken and chips with a Coke will set you back R51. The periperi is among the best in town.
The walls upstairs are decorated with vintage photos of Johannesburg’s early days, but the mood is far from that time. The crowd is decidedly mixed, the mood relaxed, the service friendly.
Monday – Saturday 11am -12am, closed on Sunday
Getting to the Guildhall
42 Harrison Street, Johannesburg
Rea Vaya: Library Gardens Eastbound stop lets you out right in front.