When Nairobi hosted its inaugural Restaurant Week in early February, it joined the ranks of the world’s top culinary cities and marked its arrival on the international stage of gourmet cuisine.
Fifty high-end restaurants opened their doors for eight days, and slashed their rates to three courses for between Sh1,250 and Sh1,750 ($14-$20). The event attracted overwhelming numbers. Some venues did five times the volume they normally do, and the top-booked customer ate at 13 restaurants in eight days.
But the week’s highlight was the picture it painted of high-end cuisine across the stand-alone establishment and international hotel divide. Restaurants like Bukhara (Indian), Talisman (Continental) and Bamboo (Oriental) featured alongside restaurants from the city’s top hotels including Lucca (Italian) at Villa Rosa Kempinski, Eagle’s (Steakhouse) at Ole Sereni and Mandhari (International) at Serena.
The dynamism of Nairobi is characterised in part by its spread of cuisines: Ethiopian, Eritrean, Egyptian, Moroccan, Somali and Nigerian from Africa; French, Italian, Turkish and German from Europe; Afghani, Mongolian and Moroccan from the Middle East; and a spread of pan-Asian dishes.
This, the gamut of cuisines is what makes Nairobi the food capital of the region, said Ritesh Doshi, owner of the Naked Pizza franchise in Kenya, who left an investment banking career in Europe to join the rapidly growing restaurant scene.
“Across each type of cuisine, you are seeing a full spectrum of restaurants. You have Asmara on General Mathenge road. Good food and a lovely setting. And at the same time you have Smart Village on the other side of town in Hurlingham, which is rustic and basic but the food is phenomenal,” he says. The competition between venues has helped to make eating out more affordable, and improved the quality and service of the meal.
More specialist cuisines are also beginning to enter the Kenyan market. Last year, Nairobi’s first Mexican restaurant, Zapata, opened in Westlands and this year will see the entry of Adega, its first Portuguese restaurant. As the Nairobi palate develops, the pan-Asian menus are also expected to diversify to include Vietnamese and Korean food.
“There are more Kenyans now who have the disposable income and the aspirational curiosity to want to be able to go out to a restaurant. Whereas in the past they would only go to what is familiar and comfortable, now they are willing to experiment, and hence we have all sorts of cuisines that are coming into the market that you never thought would have worked,” said Mikul Shah, founder of EatOut, Kenya’s largest online restaurant guide and reservations service that lists over 1,000 restaurants in Nairobi, 300 of which are high end.
A food critic at the Star newspaper, Brenda Okoth, adds that the growing number of food-and-wine-paired events is also spurring Nairobi’s fast-developing reputation. Many leading hotels in the city have developed whisky and wine bars, including Ole Sereni at its Eagle restaurant, Thai Chi at Sarova Stanley and the champagne bar at Sankara hotel. Nairobi is also home to two micro breweries: Sierra and Brew Bistro.