A flair for peri-peri prawns

2008-01-02 00:00

It’s a balmy evening. Right at the far end of the Avenida de Marginal — Maputo’s Sunset Boulevard — Emmanuel Petrakakis’s famous art-deco-styled restaurant, the Costa do Sol, is crowded with Joburgers, Japanese, Chinese and expats from Portugal. It’s no cliché: the place is humming.

Mano, as he is better known, is supervising the delivery to table after table of platters of seafood that include the crab cakes and garlic prawns which have given the restaurant its international reputation.

Gone are the days when the road from the city centre to the Costa do Sol was so bad that patrons had to travel there by truck. These days, the Havana Transport Company, set up by a South African entrepreneur to cater for the ever-growing tourist trade, takes people there in a chauffeur-driven fifties-style car.

Petrakakis takes pride in the fact that his family stayed in Maputo through thick and thin. His father, Gerry, arrived from Crete in 1938. “There was a depression in Europe,” says Petrakakis. “Many people came down to Africa.”

Petrakakis’s uncle was already living in Maputo, then a Portuguese colonial town, where he was running a hotel.

“My father borrowed knives, forks, cutlery, tables and chairs. He found these premises, started off with a tea licence and gradually built it up into a restaurant and hotel.

“It was really off the beaten track,” Petrakakis continues. “Maputo effectively used to end about nine kilometres away. That was where the urban infrastructure, including water and lights, came to an end. This was the bundu. But it had its advantages. We were able to buy a shovel of prawns for 20 cents.”

Things were tough for the restaurant during World War 2. “It was just a small building in the middle of nowhere. People used to come out hunting for guinea fowl. The road was sandy and in those days, cars were always getting stuck.”

Gerry Petrakakis kept the restaurant open 24 hours a day, and, during the thirties and forties, this started attracting the late-night crowd who frequented the city’s casino. To them he was “the Greek with the snacks”.

“He was a short man, full of fire. He loved entertaining and his guests loved his prawns, chicken livers and calamari, all done in the Greek way with garlic and olive oil.

“He created a unique vibe, a Hemingway, Casablanca-type of atmosphere that fitted in with the Latino culture of Maputo at the time. Besides the pavement cafés and restaurants, there were cabaret shows, night clubs and even official houses of prostitution, giving the city an air of colonial decadence.

“The Costa do Sol was famous for its dancing — many evenings would end with Brazilian and Spanish showgirls dancing on the tables, applauded by the early morning crowds. Then they’d all head for the beach for a swim, or just to see the sunrise,” recalls Petrakakis. “It made for a heck of a weekend.”

His eyes light up when he talks about his childhood at the hotel. “We lived here and we worked here. Our family had no private life.”

He gestures affectionately towards some of his Mozambican waiters. “Some of the people who work here are the grandchildren of people who worked in the restaurant when my father was here.”

His was an idyllic childhood, spent mostly on the beach. “My parents would send a prego to the beach for my lunch.”

When Petrakakis was a teenager, things started changing. Portuguese colonialism collapsed in 1974 after a decade of armed struggle. At the time, Petrakakis was attending St John’s College in Johannesburg as a boarder. In the first three years of independence, Petrakakis’s father became very ill. “He smoked too much and got throat cancer.”

The new leaders of Mozambique established a one-party state allied to the Soviet bloc. The next decade was characterised by civil war, sabotage from neighbouring states and economic collapse. There was a mass exodus of Portuguese nationals back to Portugal.

“There was fighting in the suburbs and people just stayed indoors. There was a national curfew and the army had come out to keep order. Houses and cantinas were regularly invaded and farms were occupied,” says Petrakakis.

“Our family was lucky, for two reasons. Firstly, we were Greek and not Portuguese, so we were not targeted. Secondly, we had always maintained a good relationship with the local population. They protected us. They slept here with us.

“My parents always considered themselves part of the community. This made people feel that we were not the targets, but that we were part of the change. During that time of turbulence, we were not threatened. We carried on working throughout the upheavals, but often there were no clients at the restaurant.”

As Mozambique went through its civil war, the Petrakakises continued running the restaurant with some of the waiters. “During the hard times, when there was revolution and chaos, when we would be lucky to serve six tables, we sometimes had 400 people sleeping on the premises. We would serve food in the restaurant and then hand out milk and bread to the people living outside.

“At one stage the whole fishing village lived on the premises for about two months.

“My father stuck it out because he loved Mozambique, he loved LM. He loved the people and what he had built here. This place represented decades of hard work. At the time of independence, he was a man of 70 who no longer related to Europe. He was an African.”

After high school, the young Petrakakis studied financial management and got a job in Durban. In 1981 he returned to Mozambique to a job with Unesco. “It was a completely different country from the one I grew up in. There was lots of experimenting going on with socialism.”

His mother, Dona Maria, now widowed, continued running the restaurant through some more difficult years. There was no tourism in the new Mozambique. When she could no longer manage, Petrakakis took over. “I have tried to keep its originality, to continue to serve food that reflects the culinary culture we have always had,’’ he says.

Today, the restaurant, which hosted Axis and Allied spies in the thirties and regularly served meals to the likes of Joe Slovo, Ruth First and Albie Sachs in the revolutionary years, is firmly back on the tourist map and serving up its same famous menu for movie and music stars such as Danny Glover, Tom Jones and Leonardo Di Caprio. The old Portuguese and South African customers are also returning. “They come on a memory lane kind of trip.”

Petrakakis clearly has no regrets about staying the distance in the country of his childhood. “Next year, when we turn 70, we will be one of the oldest restaurants in the region.”

As we wind down the interview, Mano repeats a conversation he had while on a visit to Europe: “I was debating which was the richest country in the world with some Swiss and Americans. I said ‘Mozambique’. ‘So what is the GDP of Mozambique?’ one asked. I said, ‘It is the highest in the world. We are a nation that is colour-blind, benevolent and humble. These are the most valuable things on Earth’.’’

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