The Phoenix: so much more than a PE hotel
In the historic district of central Port Elizabeth, just around the corner from the grand Opera House, you will find The Phoenix Hotel. Located in the street named after South African acting legend, Winston Ntshona, its tagline reads “where real people meet”. And it is a place people have been meeting for nearly two centuries.
The hotel’s roots can be traced to at least 1837, but many present-day customers will be most familiar with The Stage Door pub within the hotel, which was built by current owner Warwick Ofsowitz in the 1960s when the establishment was synonymous with theatricality, live music and raucous merriment.
Walking through the front door of The Phoenix Hotel is like taking a few steps back in time; you can almost smell the history and hear the singing. It is no wonder that in the late 60s, the hotel is said to have sold the most beer per square foot of any establishment in the city. The second-floor section facing the street is certainly as old as 1890, but it could be even older than that, and still boasts its original wood flooring. In the passages, old window frames have been spruced up with vintage posters and pictures, making for charming hanging artworks.
Every nook and cranny is filled with antique trinkets and colourful, quirky collectibles, and the walls are lined with black-and-white photographs of well-known international actors and local personalities from times gone by.
The American singer and actress, Eartha Kitt, who was known the world over for her distinctive singing style, peers down from the stairwell leading up to the nine, themed bedrooms. And there is PE’s Frank Rogaly, who is purported to have made his theatrical debut at the Opera House in 1915, when he was only seven years old. He is fondly remembered for his instrumental role in saving the much-loved building from demolition, which led to it being declared a national monument in 1987, the year he died.
A young, ‘moustached’ Warwick also makes an appearance alongside the handsome actor Ian Hamilton, who played in the TV series The Villagers. The now 73-year-old reminisces about British actress Shirley Anne Field who he says was probably the hotel’s most famous guest in those days, and how things have changed since then, but also stayed the same.
“Many actors used to stay here and eat supper before heading to the theatre. They used to sing in the bar with the Irish musicians. We even used to sell music sheets and give the money to charity,” he says with a smile.
Still today, The Phoenix Hotel raises money for charity, by asking restaurant customers to add an optional extra R3 to the bill when they are given a take-away box. The funds raised go to three local Port Elizabeth charities on a rotation basis every four to seven weeks. It is this restaurant, called The Cantina because nothing matches – at all, which attracts the most interest from locals and tourists alike.
When you feel the sawdust under your feet, and look around at the American-themed décor, you will know you have never been anywhere else like it before. Well-loved for its laid-back atmosphere, delicious pub-style specials and friendly service, this spot very seldom has tables free in the evenings.
For more than 20 years, Warwick has been bringing suitcases full of decorations, ornaments and curios from America to fill up his favourite dining room. The theme has slowly evolved over the years into what it is today, with the restaurant serving Mexican food at a stage (which the PE public was not quite ready for, Warwick admits). It was also transformed into Polly’s Fairdeal Saloon, a steakhouse with servers in cowboy suits and holsters with guns. If you look closely, you will still see the name painted on one side of the hotel building.
From American number plates lining the pillars of The Cantina to table cloths patterned with the American flag, war posters to muscle cars, and old radio players to bicycles hanging above one’s head, there is a little something to intrigue customers of all ages. The jukebox takes pride of place, belting out one of the hundred records on offer through speakers around the room. It is an exact replica of the original jukebox, but is now powered by CD technology, says Warwick.
From Uitenhage to the United States
Warwick’s is a remarkable story. His grandparents hailed from Lithuania, and not much is known about how they ended up settling on a smallholding outside Uitenhage, except that his grandfather had been a tailor for the Russian army and is believed to have been well over 100 years old when he died. Despite humble beginnings as petrol attendants in Uitenhage, Warwick’s parents went on to own the Swartkops Hotel.
Their son admits he was not a very good school pupil, but had dreams of becoming a doctor and headed off to Ireland’s Trinity College to study. It wasn’t long before he had to return to South Africa, however, to work in the hotel when his father fell ill.
He brought back with him his love for live Irish pub music, and as he began to acquire his chain of six hotels, including the Uitenhage-Phoenix Hotel, The Claredon PE and The Phoenix, he invited Irish musicians out to the Eastern Cape to entertain his guests. He admits, however, his buying of the hotels was for a specific reason; to stake his claim on a number of liquor stores.
He adds that the 1960s liquor industry was controlled by “old people” who decided on fixed blanket prices for liquor.
“I said this was wrong. I said we should rather open up the market and compete,” Warwick says, while explaining that he opened the first real liquor discounter in Port Elizabeth - a bottle store behind the law courts in Prince Alfred Road.
When he was offered a job opportunity with a brewing company in the United States which he just could not refuse, he and wife Maxine packed their bags and headed for Baltimore, Maryland. He sold most of businesses in South Africa, but he just could not part with his beloved Phoenix Hotel.
The father of two grown-up daughters has now lived in America for 40 years, but travels to South Africa and Malawi to check on his business interests as often as eight times a year. He has incredible stories to tell his customers about his experiences on two continents; about Trump and American politics to plumbers falling through the roof on two of The Phoenix hotel guests some years back, at a most inopportune time.
Where two worlds come together
These days, The Phoenix is best known and most popular for its restaurant’s deliciously affordable specials which can be enjoyed in The Cantina or in The Stage Door, which still boasts live music a few times a week.
When he is not in town, Warwick has a very capable and reliable staff of 36 who manage the hotel seven days a week.
Antonella Gatya, the assistant hotel manager, has been at The Phoenix for 19 years. She started as a dishwasher in the kitchen and worked her way up to restaurant manager and eventually to her current position. Lyn van der Riet has been working behind the bar for 28 years and is in no hurry to leave any time soon, and Ruan de Nysschen and Clarice Poulton have been servers in the restaurant for nearly three years and are soon to be married.
“The staff is what makes this place special. I never have to worry about a thing,” he says.
Warwick believes the establishment is a part of a lot of people’s history.
“It is a place which means so much to so many. There are people who met here for the first time, they got married and now they bring their kids here. There are so many memories within these walls,” he says.
Warwick adds that when one of his regular customers found out that servers, Ruan and Clarice, were getting married, he even offered to sponsor their wedding rings.
“If you stay in business, you’ll see everything; love, comedy, tragedy, the works. This hotel, it’s just part of me. Where can a guy go at 73 years old and talk nonsense to people?” Warwick says with a shrug of his shoulders.
“But I think the most important thing for me is the incredible people who have worked here over the years, who have helped to build this place to what it is.”
Warwick admits he is not an easy boss, but he hopes he is a fair one. He also hopes that there will be someone who is willing to keep The Phoenix Hotel going once he can no longer do it himself.
“I’d really like to find somebody who sees what I’ve seen in it and wants to build more memories for themselves and others over the years,” he says.
There are many loyal customers and staff, tourists and foodies who hope so too.