The Polo Bar at The Westcliff Hotel – Review – 19th February 2013

Pink-hued and perched on top of the Westcliff ridge, The Westcliff Hotel has become a Johannesburg landmark of luxury.  Most have visited at one time or another during the establishment’s illustrious history, and many have followed its fortunes over the years.  Formerly owned by the Orient Express Hotel Group, The Westcliff has now been sold to a private buyer.  Orient Express will officially vacate the premises around mid-2013.1   A group of us recently went to The Polo Bar – the casual bar and restaurant of the Hotel – for drinks and dinner.

In terms of aspect and situation, The Westcliff surely reigns supreme, with some of the most magnificent views to be found in Johannesburg.  We have spent many a balmy night sitting on the Terrace, overlooking the sparkling infinity pool and admiring the distinctive Joburg skyline – concrete eyesores and those little quirks which give it so much charm included.   As for ambiance, The Polo Bar is relaxed, with old school décor, soft lighting and a treasure of memorabilia relating to South Africa’s history in the game of Polo.  It all feels very colonial, darling.

We started off with a round of drinks inside the bar, lovely to relax on those worn leather sofas and catch up.  We had beer and wine, but there is also quite an interesting cocktail menu, and a good selection of fine whisky.  We then went through to our table, inside but overlooking the pool.  The waiter gave us menus, and I was unsurprised to see that these had not changed a bit (I last ate at The Polo Bar in 2009).  There is a selection of tapas for starters, with pasta, salads, seafood and meat dishes for mains.

Three of us ordered the smoked salmon and potato cakes for a starter – they sounded light and flavorsome.  What a disappointment.  Uniform potato cakes (like those you buy frozen from a supermarket) with only the tiniest hint of cooked salmon inside.  There was not a ribbon of delicious, fresh, smoked salmon in sight.  Stodgy, served with a bowl of Wellington’s Sweet Chili Sauce, I cannot find a reason to recommend this dish.  Our other friend ordered much better: fried calamari with homemade chili jam.  The calamari was gold and crispy, smoking hot.  The fish itself was tender and tasty.  However, the homemade chili jam had the distinct flavor of Wellington’s Sweet Chili Sauce.

For mains, I had the beef burger of prime beef with avocado, cheddar and bacon, served with chips.  The burger component of my dish was absolutely delicious.  The patty was rare, tasty, tender.  All the accompaniments, strong cheese, smoky bacon and the cold, refreshing avocado worked well as an ensemble.  The burger bun was a little charred and generously buttered.  I was surprised at how good this burger was, possibly one of the best I have enjoyed for a long time.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the McCain Home Fries which accompanied the burger – obviously made from frozen.  And oh, woe is me, this became much more evident when another diner received his fries and they were still freezing in the middle (admittedly the menu does not claim that the fries are homemade).  Others at our table had pasta and chicken breast burger.

For pudding we shared the ginger crunchie cheesecake with candied dried fruit relish.  It was very enjoyable, and the delicious, rich ginger and soft, creamy cheesecake was a pleasing combination.  Candied fruit added a burst of sweet and strong, complimentary flavors.  One of our table ordered the crème brûlée trio.  It was a little odd, three ramekins plonked on a plate.  When asked about the flavors, the waiter replied that the trio was mostly vanilla.  Nevertheless, the little custard bowls were said to be quite lovely.

In my opinion, the service at The Polo Bar has often been its downfall.  Several times I have been for drinks and waited thirty to forty minutes for service, and the same length of time for the bill.  Many have made this observation about The Polo Bar, and it could be the reason why some have stopped going at all.  On this particular occasion, the service seemed a little better than previously.  We didn’t wait an unreasonably long time for anything, and while it could have been improved in some aspects, the service did not taint the evening as it has in the past.

It seems unlikely that there will be much of a swansong for the Orient Express era, going out with a barely-audible fizzle rather than a bang.  It is also clear that very little has changed at The Westcliff over the years.  Efforts to mix it up with different chefs or dining concepts seem to have gone largely unnoticed – so the changes ahead have a great deal of potential – though little is yet known about plans for renovation and refurbishment.  If the Polo Bar, and indeed The Westcliff Hotel as a whole, holds fond memories for you, then it might be worth visiting again in the next few months.  For old time’s sake.

You can contact The Westcliff on + (00) 27 11 481 6000

This review was sent to the restaurant on 28th February 2013

  1.  Hotel and Restaurant Website.  2012.  Westcliff Hotel signs agreement to sell.  http://www.hotelandrestaurant.co.za/tourism/breaking-news-the-westcliff-hotel-signs-agreements-to-sell/