THE old picture this week was taken in 1975 and shows two landmarks on Durban’s beachfront, The Cuban Hat and The Nest – two roadside diners that had entertained and fed generations of Durbanites in the ’50s through to the mid-’70s.
On Friday and Saturday nights, they would often be the meeting place for Durbanites after the movies or as the bars on the city’s Golden Mile closed.
The original caption, dated January 10, 1975, notes that the two buildings “may disappear at last this year, if the Administrator of Natal backs the Durban Corporation plans to demolish the buildings and sell the sites in leasehold”.
In Facts about Durban, local historian Gerald Buttigieg writes: “The Cuban Hat and its neighbour The Nest were two very popular drive-in locales on the then Lower Marine Parade. They were especially popular in the late ’50s/early ’60s, when own car transport became an essential must-have among young adults. These were the days when young adult life changed considerably. Initially any form of car was better than none because it enabled you to get to ‘where the action was’ ‒ parties, socials, ‘sessions’ and get-togethers. The fact that you could pick up your mates or girlfriends and go together as a group made life good.
“The two were most popular. They were free, the refreshments were affordable and invariably your friends would happen to be there as well. Combined, they were not overly large and Friday and Saturday nights they were fully parked-in and business was excellent. The two sites also became the meeting place for motorbike groups which in those days were to a large extent a ‘separate breed’.”
The original Cuban Hat building dates back to 1953 and was believed to have been designed by architect Arthur Alcock.
Such were the times enjoyed at The Cuban Hat and The Nest that an entire Facebook page has popped up called the Cuban Hat Society.
Dion Futerman posted a menu from the early 1970s.
“Who can forget those great pies with curry gravy (55 cents) and chips (30 cents extra), as well as the double thick milkshakes (70 cents) ‒ which were really double thick. And for a nibble after a surf, anchovette toast (18 cents). Treating your ’date’ on a Saturday night with a T-bone steak (R3.25), served on a tray hung on your car window,” wrote Futerman.
All raved about the quality of their pies, many maintaining they were the best in Durban.
Another person called Ivan remembers going to The Cuban Hat after the drive-in cinema.
“It was affectionately known as the puking cat but, surprisingly, the food and drink offered was actually of fairly good quality,” he writes.
The Independent on Saturday’s Tanya Waterworth, in a look at Durban’s roadhouses, wrote last year that The Nest and The Cuban Hat were known to get a little rough in the early “bottle and throttle” hours of the morning.
A biker (who preferred to remain anonymous) recalled one evening at The Nest when his hangover was already setting in, “the guy playing the guitar was so awful, I paid him R5 to just not sing any more”.
While at The Cuban Hat, Gordon Hall told the story on Facts About Durban of drug squad police officers, who tried to trap one of the waiters into selling them dagga.
“They told the waiter they wanted some grass. But the cops weren’t quite as undercover as they thought, as the waiter went out behind the kitchen and scraped together some lawn grass and put it into a packet for them.
“The cops got miffed and charged him with fraud. His defence was that he gave them exactly what they asked for, so the magistrate threw out the case. Things were simpler back then.”
In the current picture, Shelley Kjonstad battled to shoot from the same position, as the current Joe Cools building has been built much further forward onto the promenade.
Joe Cools itself will have memories for a whole other generation of Durban party animals. The high-rise buildings visible in the old picture are still standing. On the left is the Parade, which is today dwarfed by The Palace Hotel. On the right is the Marine Sands, but, in between, is a very different high-rise beachfront.
The Independent on Saturday