background 1background 2background 3background 4
background 3background 4background 5background 6background 7
Back to articles

What’s Cutting in Zim?

Way off the beaten track of most of the continent’s cocktail bars, Zimbabwe has a colourful and enthusiastic drinking culture, with drinking even being called the national pastime. So, if fancy mixed libations are not the average Zimbo’s cup of tea, what exactly are they drinking, and where?

25 September 2023 · 12 min read
Leah van Deventer

How people imbibe in the Jewel of Africa

To discover what’s cutting in Zim (that’s “what’s happening in Zimbabwe”, for locals), we chatted to Paul Cutler, a South African industry consultant who moved to the neighbouring Southern African country in October 2021.

“I came here to launch a bunch of cafés under the Nush brand,” he begins. “Then six months ago, I took a consulting job to open The Three Monkeys Harare. Next is a traditional township food experience, a high-end cocktail lounge, and a farmstall-type deli and wine shop. Lots happening here!”

Cutler’s work trajectory is indicative of the diverse nature of the Zimbabwean drinking experiences on offer, where a wide selection of preferences is catered to. A former British colony, achieving independence in 1980, the area was once called Rhodesia, after British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. While there remains a small minority of white Africans, the population of 16 million is primarily comprised of Bantu-speaking people of colour. The majority here are Shona and Ndebele, but there are 16 official languages, English and Shona being most widely spoken.

“The culture is diverse, and to some degree ethnically diverse, but pretty much everyone drinks,” observes Cutler. “There is a Muslim minority here, who obviously doesn’t, but for the most part everybody does.”

Another thing Zimbos have in common is the manner in which they congregate.

“Of the things that surprised me the most, when I first moved here, is how people gather in such large groups, across all cultures. So, when we opened this restaurant for example [The Three Monkeys Harare], it was common to have three, or four, or five, or six tables of 25 to 30 people at once,” notes Cutler.

Bucket Bars

This love for hanging out in large groups has given rise to the wonderful Zimbabwean marvel of bucket bars, named so because almost everyone orders beers in buckets – usually six local beers apiece, chilled with ice, but occasionally imports.

“Almost everywhere does buckets, but off the top of my head, there’s one called The Tin Roof – in an affluent suburb called Chisipite – which literally started as a tin roof.”
“Say, Wednesday through to Saturday, from lunchtime, they do a basic food menu. So, the older folk will go for lunch, and drink until early evening. Then there’s like a change of guard, when eventually they disappear, and a younger crowd turn up at around eight or nine in the evening, and then drink through to the early hours of the morning.”

Bucket bars are typically rustic, indoor-outdoor spaces with trestle-table furniture and open fires scattered around in winter, in what Cutler thinks are possibly repurposed tractor air filters.

“It’s like a metal cage kind of thing, and there are about five or six of those around,” he laughs. “It’s festive. And you’ll see: it’s always big tables, ten people, 12 people, 15 people, all gathering together.”

The day’s sport would habitually be shown on TV at these venues, while there might also be a quiz night mid-week, or DJs on the weekend.

Shisa Nyama Shebeens

Although shisa nyama shebeens are not unique to Zim, being found in other Southern African countries too, with the penchant for group hangouts, here they really flourish.

Essentially, they’re upmarket taverns where meat is cooked over the fire, “shisa nyama” literally translating to “burnt meat”, but the meat won’t actually be burnt!

Originally, the concept was designed by butchers to increase sales, where they would make braais on the weekends, and people could buy a cut of meat and get it cooked on the spot. Add bucket beers to wash it down, and some live music to dance to, and patrons have a good reason to stick around. Like the standard bucket bars, they’re vibey and lots of fun, as well as loud and raucous. Emagumeni Helensvale is a good example of this.

Open-fire Cooking & Carpark Drinking

As you venture out of town, both these options get replaced by a Zim phenomenon like no other: carpark drinking. This is exactly what it sounds like, where people fill their cooler boxes with drinks, go hang out in parking lots and make merry. The carparks of choice are generally adjacent to simplified roadside shisa nyamas, so ones where there are fires going and meat cooking, but that don’t have taverns attached.

“Like you grab a chop off a braai and then gather around with your mates in the carpark; drink out of your boot and play music from your sound system,” chuckles Cutler.

This relaxed bring-your-own-booze option can be seen in the cities too, if, say, a venue doesn’t have a liquor licence.

“There’s a Portuguese chicken place around the corner from my house. They don’t sell alcohol, but you can bring your cooler box – you can bring five cooler boxes if you want! – and sit there, have a chicken burger and drink all your own beer. You can stay there for the entire day. It’s crazy!” declares Cutler.

City Clubs

For those looking for something more glamourous, there are nightclubs; these typically only fill up around 1am, and go on until six or seven in the morning.

“There’s a few really nice big clubs around town that are ultra-modern … lots of UV lights, different sections. They almost all play house, afro-house, maybe some amapiano, that kind of music,” shares Cutler.

Again, the culture is to hang out in large groups, but here that would generally mean in a semi-private space.

“Very few people just go into a club and mingle. They normally book a big table, in a cornered-off area, and do bottle service. It will be ten, 20 people in a VIP area,” notes Cutler.

Special Occasion Places

If you’re celebrating something, or want to have a day out, there are places for that too. Cutler’s consultancy gig, The Three Monkeys Harare, is the new sister outlet to The Three Monkeys Vic Falls, home, of course, to the famed waterfall on the Zambezi River. Both of these are destination venues, rather than your average neighbourhood restaurants.

“It’s a bit too big for that. The one in Vic Falls is very tourist orientated. So, it’s actually become part of the things to do in Vic Falls, because there’s not that much to do there. You go river rafting, bungee jumping, look at some elephants and go to Three Monkey’s for nachos and a beer,” he explains.
“The one in Harare is also kind of a destination, because it’s on a beautiful farm with a big fountain in front of it, and lawns, and you feel like you’re out of town. It’s a bit more of a special-occasion place, just because of the scale of it. We get a lot of wedding proposals and birthdays, and family gatherings,” he adds.

Neighbourhood Restaurants

Speaking of neighbourhood restaurants, Cutler says,

“there’s a strong, generic sort of burger, pizza, salad thing. They would normally have a small local beer and international beer selection, maybe a couple of wines and then usually cheaper spirits.” “Then there are quite a few Chinese restaurants, and a couple of great Thai restaurants, and a couple of great Indian restaurants as well. But there’s a lack of creativity in booze, so you’ll see the same products available.” “Something that bothers me is that if I go to a Thai restaurant, I really want to drink a Thai beer. If I go to an Indian restaurant, I really want to drink an Indian beer.”

Cutler views this an opportunity, however.

“I’m seeing a lot of gaps for potential businesses. So, ramen hasn’t come to Zim yet, and when it does, we can start doing Hibiki whiskies and plum wines, and Japanese beers … then I think there will be a little bit more traction.”

Luxury Lodges

Of course, we cannot discuss drinkeries in Zim without touching on luxury safari lodges, however they’re not for your average local, but geared for tourism, business and politics.

“It’s an elevated drinking experience,” says Cutler. A lot of business meetings happen in lodges, a lot of private dinners happen in lodges, those types of get-togethers. And normally where there are politicians, there is high-end liquor. But often they’ll take an 18-year-old whiskey, mix it with lemonade and off they go!”

Outdoor Events

A common theme you may have noticed in Zim is plenty of outdoor socialising, which is not surprising given the country’s subtropical climate and the generally chilled nature of the people. It makes sense then that locals will flock to casual alfresco events.

“Zimbabweans love outdoor events, so all the horse racing events are very popular. Outdoor markets are also massive – everyone has a beer or a G&T there,” Cutler ends.

Be sure to look up events at Borrowdale Park Racecourse before you go! ———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.