||It's been serving scrumptious food for over four decades, with queens, presidents, actors, celebrities and ordinary folk breaking bread at its tables; Gramadoelas is a Johannesburg institution.
The visitor books will in the future belong to a museum, recording great South Africans who have visited and recorded their impressions.
Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu, Miriam Makeba, Helen Suzman, Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer, Phillip Tobias ... all have been there, eaten royally, and left their marks in three large, A3 books.
"There" is Gramadoelas, one of the city's most enduring restaurants.
The owners, Eduan Naudé and Brian Shalkoff, sub-title their restaurant "Exotic African Restaurant at the Market Theatre". The food might be exotic but the ambience in the restaurant, with its high ceiling, eclectic mix of paraphernalia and large bay window on the eastern end of the old market building, captures a slightly chaotic elegance, and a comfortableness that almost feels like home.
The two are pretty famous, not only here but across the world, with queens, presidents, actors and singers frequenting the place - and not on a one-off basis but every time they are in town.
So, what's it all about? Being in the business for 41 years, since 1967, is what. You know your market very well after all that time. You are also pretty relaxed within yourself, and know how to make your customers feel pretty relaxed too. Of course, tasty, creative dishes help as well.
Naudé and Shalkoff have two whole heads full of memories of experiences of which others only dream; like having a restaurant in London patronised by actors Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, where the pair would argue, not too differently from their passionate head-banging in the movie Taming of the Shrew.
Naudé opened his first restaurant in London in 1959, with tongue and groove pine walls and benches - very much frowned-upon by his snooty neighbouring restaurant owners in King's Road. He called it the rather unimaginative The Casserole. "It was unpretentious and served simple cooking like chicken pies. People came in hordes," he recalls.
He ran the restaurant for two years, and returned to Joburg in 1967, when he opened the original Gramadoelas in Hillbrow, before the Hillbrow Tower was built, but opposite where the tower was later built, in Goldreich Street.
Naudé chose the name "Gramadoelas", after spending a lot of time thinking about the correct name for the restaurant. It's a Khoisan word meaning "in the back of beyond", he says.
Shalkoff joined him in Hillbrow, and they moved into a flat in one of the suburb's iconic art deco buildings - Clarendon Court - where they still live.
Shalkoff was thrown into the food business "in the deep end". He recalls his first cooking experience. "I was making my first steak. I washed the meat, a piece of rump, and threw it into a pan containing three inches of hot oil. There was a mammoth explosion," he laughs.
He had a French girlfriend at the time, Jacqueline van Heerden, "a brilliant cook who was prepared to part with her secrets".
Gramadoelas served Cape food like bobotie and sosaties, with Naudé consulting his aunts and sisters to get recipes. He also used the great book by Afrikaans poet and writer C Louis Leipoldt, Cape Cookery.
Hillbrow and Joubert Park
The Hillbrow Gramadoelas remained open until 3am, to accommodate the actors from the Civic Theatre who needed to unwind after shows.
It stayed in Hillbrow for 15 years before moving to Bok Street in Joubert Park, remaining in this cosmopolitan suburb for 10 years. Then, in 1992, the Market Theatre invited it to become the resident restaurant at the theatre, where it has remained ever since.
Naudé has collected old recipe books over the years, and some of his tried and tested recipes are still on the menu, but that doesn't mean there have been no new additions.
"You can't change too much but we have added new recipes, like mogadu or tripe," he says.
There is also mopani worms, crocodile steak, mielie bread and ostrich fillet. "The menu needs a little vibration from time to time," says Shalkoff.
And, it seems, the buppies have found the place. "The buppies like our restaurant, which we're very grateful for."
Last 25 years
You know that someone is having a great time when they say the last 25 years have gone like a month. Time hasn't stunted their memories, though; they come tumbling out - the Clintons in 1994, Queen Beatrice of Denmark a year later, Kenneth Kaunda, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sir Richard Branson, the queen of England in 1999.
Although she didn't eat much, she was "very chatty, very friendly, a big giggle". And very punctual, they recall - on the dot of midday she walked into the restaurant.
Shalkoff says of this meeting: "I feel very good about it. I [had] wondered if I would ever meet someone like this, and what I would do if I did."
The first time Madiba came to eat at Gramadoelas, shortly after his release from prison in 1990, he walked in and said: "So, it's the man with the food." Shalkoff turned around and was greeted by Madiba's outstretched hand and famous smile.
Some time later Madiba came to the Market Theatre for a preview and private dress rehearsal. A woman was eating at Gramadoelas, but jumped up to catch a glimpse of the famous man. She stepped forward to greet him, and ended up being invited to go to the show with him. "I couldn't believe it; I've never experienced anything like that," says Shalkoff. "[But] those kinds of things happen here."
Both agree that the higher the rank of the diner, the easier it is to communicate with them. Possibly a condition of their having to make small talk with strangers so often in their lives.
Tobias, the world famous scientist and beloved Joburg resident, is one of the city's most enthusiastic supporters of the restaurant. "I've always loved the warm atmosphere there which Eduan and Brian have cultivated over the decades," he says. And they've managed to carry that warmth and friendliness with them to different locations, he adds.
Tobias knows because he used to patronise the restaurant when it started up in Hillbrow in the 1960s - he used to live next door. "I was almost a habitué of the restaurant - when my servant was off duty I would often slip down there for my Sunday evening meal."
He was so fond of the restaurant that he had his 50th birthday party there in 1975, inviting some 250 people to enjoy the celebration. "It was a huge party and most successful. There were huge cauldrons of curry, rice and many other dishes, and sambals that accompanied them," he recalls.
"Gramadoelas has the pleasantest of menus extending over more than 40 years. I have many, many happy memories of the restaurant," he says.
A serious challenge
Moyo moved next door in 2003 but has not offered a serious challenge to Gramadoelas. Whereas Moyo's business relies on theatre audiences, being a newcomer to Newtown, Gramadoelas has a well-established clientele, not coming into Newtown for the theatre necessarily, but for the Gramadoelas experience.
That clientele includes the French ambassador and foreign affairs officials from South Africa and England.
It's easy to get into a rut when you're successful, and be reluctant to change things that work. But this doesn't apply to Naudé and Shalkoff. Besides the a la carte menu, there is a range of buffet menus - banquet, African, and small. Sprinkles of Morocco, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Senegal can be found on the menu.
And there is the one that perhaps many will try - Madiba's favourite umnqusho braised beef shin, beans and maize.
So, what's the secret of their success? "Persistent and hard work," says Shalkoff. "We don't have accounts, we pay cash for everything and take the discount. We watch our cash flow." And they have consistently put in 16 hours daily for years.
But I think it's something else as well - this couple has been together for 41 years. That stability counts, for their personal happiness and for the consistency of good food and good service at Gramadoelas.
That good food is produced by several chefs, two of whom, 63-year-old Edward Mthembi and 40-year-old Thembi Khumalo, attest to how much they love their work. "I love my boss," says Khumalo, referring to both Shalkoff and Naudé. He's been at Gramadoelas for 25 years. Mthembi says he'll be at the restaurant until it closes.
Such is their confidence Shalkoff and Naudé generously list the other restaurants in their neighbourhood on their website, described harmlessly as "Our Neighbours". And, if that's not enough of a service to their customers, they also detail their famous recipes.
But making them at home just won't be the same as going to Gramadoelas.