For years, the Central Business District of Nairobi, or more intimately known as “Town,” has been the dark center of Kenya’s capital and the genesis of the term “Nairobbery.” The high foot traffic, narrow laneways and little police presence creates a haven for opportunists and petty thieves. Town may be the last place you’d expect to find good culinary gems, but trust me, aside from the usual well-guarded hotel institutions and popular restaurants such as Trattoria and Ronalo’s, there are others and they’re definitely worth the trip.
Foot traffic is crucial for restaurants and bars, and undoubtedly, Town definitely has that going for it. In fact, some of the most successful restaurants are those serving the same meals, on the same plastic plates, served by the same people and at the same prices as they did more than 15 years ago when they first opened.
If you’ve been following my culinary journey for the last few years, it should be no surprise that KK Restaurant on the ground floor of Bruce House, Standard Street, receives the first mention. It is not where you want to lounge and linger; rather, it’s a place where you just want to get what you’ve come for and go. In this case, Kienyeji Chicken Soup. I love chicken, my favourite being free-range birds – known as kienyeji in Kenya – because they simply taste better. What do I love more than chicken? Slowly- simmered chicken soup.
The Kienyeji Chicken Soup, a staple on KK’s breakfast menu is cheaper than your City Council parking fee. It arrives in a plastic bowl that’s scratched and has clearly seen better days, with a large quarter piece of chicken bobbing in the steaming milky stock with colourful vegetables floating about. A white or brown chapati that’s warm in the centre and crisp around the edges or toast accompanies the soup. All the finger-licking, chapati-dipping and tongue-wagging from fresh green chilies that goes into indulging in a Kienyeji Chicken Soup – I love it all. It is so brilliantly rustic, and yet leaves me swooning every time. I miss this soup when I wake up in unfamiliar beds at beautiful hotels in Europe. I long for this soup when I rub the sleepiness out of my eyes at home. I’m unsettled at my desk until I’ve had my daily breakfast serving – it’s true, ask my colleagues. I think of Kienyeji Chicken Soup fondly, no matter where I am in the world.
“Roooosieeee.” “Roooosie… matumbo na chapo.””ROOOSIIEEE stew na ugali.” Until I started dining at Petma Restaurant on Kaunda Street, located on the ground floor of Traveler’s Building, I’ve never heard the name Rosie called out so many times in my life. Meet Rosie: The chef of Petma on Kaunda Street (there are three locations in Town), and probably Nairobi’s most famous Rosie. The 30-something chef stoically serves up some of Town’s tastiest Kenyan classics at incredible fast-food speeds despite the chaos that surrounds her.
Burnt orange paint, exposed air ventilation ducts, French bistro- styled tables without the marble or the charm, music blaring from the ceiling speakers, two large televisions dedicated to Nat Geo and a local news channel, and waitresses calling out their orders to Rosie with their squeaky voices– the heaving atmosphere of Petma during lunch service is not for everyone. My usual is Matumbo (tripe) with Mbuzi (goat) soup – make sure you ask for it otherwise you’ll get a reddish gravy that tastes like Royco and food colouring – but what keeps me coming back is the vegetables! Sukuma Wiki perfectly sautéed until tender but still dense and crispwith every bite, and its lush deep shade of green preserved. Don’t you hate it when vegetables are overcooked to a tasteless pulp? In fact, the only vegetable that should be overcooked, which Petma does so well, is Managu (solanum).
A word of advice; to get a seat, make sure you head to Petma right before the lunch rush begins to ensure you’ll be served the best or “top layer.” If you’re in a bad mood or have a headache, the controlled chaos will probably make it worse, so go another day.
If you find yourself still in Town after the last two culinary gems, head to Kaldis Coffee House on Kimathi Street for some of the best steak around. The first step to cooking any great cut of meat is to first buy a great piece of meat and at Kaldis, they do, considering I still thoroughly enjoyed my tasty Sirloin even when it was severely undercooked and on another occasion, overdone. They still need to work on their understanding of doneness. That being said, the little bit of charring and the chef’s plentiful seasoning adds a delicious crust that keeps the meat juicy and tender at the centre, making this one of the most delicious and affordable steaks in Town.
I would stay away from the curries as they taste of uncooked spices, leaving a grainy texture in your mouth. Most of the drinks, except for the iced teas, are incredibly sugary. In some cases, specifically the mocktails, you’ll even see a
layer of settled brown sugar at the bottom of your tall plastic glass.The rest of Kaldis’ menu reads like most other cafés, but they offer larger portions for a cheaper price. The décor experiments in earthy and dark themes. Tall ceilings welcome diners and service is usually fast and charming.
DINING IN TOWN
In my perfect world, Town on a weekend would be transformed into an urban haven where pedestrians and cyclists share the street with a vibrant farmers market – highlighting the best in arts and crafts – and the air filled with aromas of titillating street foods and delicious restaurant offerings. All of this in front of a backdrop of some of Kenya’s most historic buildings. Town is the last frontier for Nairobi’s culinary scene. Though many business owners are abandoning Town in favour of new glitzy buildings in up-and-coming urban neighbourhoods, some recognise the opportunity in reinvesting in tired restaurants.
Restaurant owners in Town have made significant changes in the last few years through modernising menus and building brand-new interiors, whilst maintaining consistency in their prices and offerings. People may still think this part of Nairobi is the “dark” side where nothing is ever going to be good, but the resilience of these restaurant owners proves otherwise. On your next trip to Town, you won’t find any culinary hidden gems, but rather, you’ll find a few diamonds in the rough.