She-ben brings South Africa to Vinegar Hill

With chic, innovative, African-inspired restaurants popping up seemingly everywhere lately, it was just a matter of time before Charlottesville got its own version.

Just weeks away from opening, The she-ben is an authentic, upbeat new South African eatery that has already completely transformed the space formerly occupied by the Vinegar Hill Grill in the most overlooked shopping center in town. That might soon change.

Inspired by seven years in Zimbabwe and four in the catering business, the Slawski family-­ Walter Sr., his Zimbabwe-born wife, Desirée, and their sons, Walter (25) and Alex (23)-­ decided about a year ago to bring the flavors, colors, and textures of South Africa to Virginia.

They signed a lease back in the fall and have been running American Dream Catering out of the restaurant's kitchen for the past 40 days, while busily preparing for She-ben's debut.

Pronounced "shabeen" and roughly translated as "beer bar," the restaurant's exotic-looking name refers to any kind of juke-joint or music- and-booze-filled meeting place. Even without the music and crowds, the huge leather couches, reclaimed oak floors, rustic wood beams, colorful rugs, and mahogany tables of this shabeen made us want to hang out until spring.

In South Africa, we're told, shabeens aren't usually licensed to serve alcohol. But this one will certainly will be. A hand-hammered copper bar glistens like an altar.

In addition to offering Guinness on tap, She-ben has the honor of being one of four restaurants on the east coast (along with winners like Madiba in Brooklyn, Jiko at Disney World, and Ten Degrees South in Atlanta) to exclusively showcase South African wines. Dish had the good fortune to drop by during a tasting orchestrated by Carter Nevill of Cape Classics, a leading importer of South African wines.

"With a 300-year tradition enhanced by a recent renaissance in winemaking technology, South African wines combine the best of the old and the new," he tells us. "They are easy, approachable, and the perfect complement to the subtly complex flavors of She-ben's South African curries."

Gilbert Baboulène, a classically trained French chef with some impressive experience (Hotel du Rhône in Geneva, Keswick Hall here), is currently putting the finishing touches on She-ben's bistro-style menu. Curry corn chowder and ginger salmon with mango salsa are a few of his personal favorites, as well as homemade sausages and breads.

Reflecting the cultural diversity of the "rainbow nation," South African cuisine is an exquisite mélange of Indian, Malaysian, Dutch, and Portuguese flavors and ingredients. So how did this Bordeaux native, who has been working with the Slawskis since they started catering, feel about the sudden genre change?

"As a French chef, you can adapt," he says. "You know how to play with flavors. It's not really a big deal."

Baboulène admits to having been nervous at first, however. "When Walter first told me about his plan to open a South African restaurant, I was mostly worried. Now that everything's coming together, I'm mostly excited."


East-West off the map

 As further proof that only the fittest of restaurants can survive a harsh Virginia winter, East-West, the Asian fusion place which took the place of Petra, which took the place of Farruggio's, is no longer part of the Water Street restaurant scene.

It's not easy being the new kid on the block, especially when your neighbors are heavy-hitters like Metro, Oxo, Bang, and Mono Loco. But what is it about this seemingly ripe restaurant spot that makes it so unlucky for so many hopeful– even talented– restaurateurs? Is the building cursed? Interior too small? Bad feng shui?

Locals will soon have another chance to test their theories. Next up? An Italian eatery called, simply, La Cucina. No signs of a transformation yet, but we'll certainly keep you posted. Poltergeist or not.