December is party season – so we sent Jackson Biko out on a vital pre-Christmas recce. His mission: to help you ‘plan’ the best Nairobi night out – by moving spontaneously, directed only by the word on the street and the mood of the music…
If you are Kenyan then you know The Code. It’s an unwritten and unspoken rule, a protocol exclusively informed by economics. And common sense.
The Code is simple: when planning a big night out, the Kenyan way is to start drinking at a less pricey (but fun) place, then move up to more well-heeled taverns – those with ridiculous mark-ups on alcohol. The rationale is this: the lower in price you start, the less you will eventually spend. It’s the drinking law of the jungle – the Kenyan way of wringing as much value from those elusive shillings as you can. Some people might call it frugal. We aren’t those people.
But since it’s Christmas season – a time to remove our hats and make merry – I decided to disregard The Code, just this once, and start off in a suitably buzzing (if not bargain) bar on a night of discovery. My idea was to be guided by the recommendations of my fellow bar-props, in order to get to the heart of after-dark Nairobi and, perhaps, inspire you – dear reader – to venture out on a similar spot-hopping night of your own. I would have no plan, and finish I knew not where…
Let’s get the party started
It was with this renegade attitude that, early one rainy Wednesday evening, I reversed into the parking lot of Caribana, on Lenana Road.
When I opened my car door to step out, a security guard was waiting with an open umbrella. Not a drop touched me. Caribana is a bar that thinks of such details. My kind of bar.
There are many places in Nairobi that claim to be whiskey bars just because they sell three expensive brands. Caribana isn’t one of them. But it IS a whiskey bar, and a very discerning one at that: perfect for a Christmas treat. I sat at the counter – I always sit at the counter – and, before my shadow had settled, Chris, the barman, smoothly placed two short glasses before me. One contained a double Jameson, the other my rocks.
Wednesday night is Rhumba Night at Caribana, and it’s one of their busiest, attracting a generation of men and women who grew up with this old Congolese music. They flock to Caribana on nostalgic quests, yes, but also for that chance to reconnect with celebrated virtuosos such as Franco Luambo Makiadi, M’bilia Bel, Madilu System, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Sam Mangwana and the like.
The mood is casual and relaxed, even though tomorrow is a work day. Sitting there, I mused on the sense of camaraderie forged by the love of these Congolese tunes. Nobody ever dances on Rhumba Nights, but there is a lot of head-nodding, foot-tapping and, once in a while – like when the DJ started playing Franco and Tabu Ley’s ‘Kabaselle In Memoriam’ – a patron will get overwhelmed, stand up and do that slow, lethargic lope, where you close your eyes, grab your chest and sway like a reed in a river as if the music is stealing your soul.
An arm’s length away from where I was perched was the DJ, a grim-faced chap who seemed quite averse to small talk – or maybe he was just lost in the moment. But since I was in that faux-Christmas mood, I chanced an approach, and asked him: where do guys normally go after Caribana on a night like this? Peeling one side of his headphones away from his ear, he replied simply: “Tamasha,” before attending to M’bilia Bel, with her voice that promises to heal even the most hardened cynic.
Time to get random
So I climbed off my stool and left for Tamasha. It is easily the oldest – and most popular – bar in Hurlingham, a landmark of sorts, thanks to its consistent music and a great middle-class crowd. Tamasha is very basic in terms of decor, maybe even drab, but an electric vibe zaps right through it.
There was a band on a small stage (if you could call it that) and the place was sardine-packed.
The crowd looked livelier, more unhinged and more random than the Caribana set. Ties were loosened, faces a little oilier; inhibition was a word few would have recognised.
Most of the clientele were jigging to the band, which was really leaning into it. I weaved through the tight knot of humanity and propped myself at the bar, next to a lone lady who was on what looked like gin and tonic. After offering her a drink (which she accepted graciously, with a stunning smile), I asked her what she liked about the place. Over the din, she shouted in my ear: “They play my kind of music here. It’s also not too expensive. Plus, the people aren’t pretentious – they are here to have their own fun.” I dramatically raised my glass to that; she giggled hysterically.
When I was making my way out, a patron with a monstrous bum had joined the band up on stage and was gyrating between the two female dancers. The crowd was going cuckoo! By chance, I ran into a friend in the parking lot and he suggested we go for a bite down the road at Kenchic.
A ‘Christmas’ feast! Seemed about right.
Fried Chicken o’clock
Late on in the night, when restaurants have closed their doors, the sky has taken on a darker hue of black and the streets of Nairobi are ghostly silent and stalked by the drunk and the law, Kenchic stays up to feed the hungry.
Kenchic is the drinking man’s saviour. And it gets full – full of drunken, happy people, fishing in their pockets for crumpled notes.
Its chicken is crisp and golden brown, its chips are greasy. But is there any other way? So, you drench your chips with tomato sauce and vinegar, and you stand at the counter to feed from the polythene wrapper. It’s unhealthy, sure, but heck, once in a while your body – and palate – needs a sin. And never more so than during the festive season: after a whole year of watching what we eat, fussing over our cholesterol, the least we can do is grant ourselves a little treat. The body deserves a Christmas.
Blast from the past
Ten minutes later, I found myself in Lavington, off Ole Odume Road, at another whiskey bar called the Explorer Tavern. My pal Kwame had been going on and on about Explorer, how very “updy” (his favourite word) it was. Time to check it out.
It’s a massive house-turned-bar, set in a leafy part of the neighbourhood. It’s buzzy and frequented by fun ‘children of the ’90s’ – a decade when those of my ilk were turning into men, breaking our voices and virginities, and struggling with pubescent conundrums.
It’s the music that makes this place a hit – 90s new jack swing, to be precise. Explorer plays nothing else. Aaron Hall, Salt-n-Pepa, Kenny Lattimore, Born Jamericans, Notorious B.I.G. – music from a time before computers and, well, Justin Bieber.
I met the expected crowd there: yuppies clawing their way up corporate ladders and out to reward themselves. At that time of night it was full – the ideal ‘Christmas’ vibe.
I spotted a CEO I’d interviewed in the past, and we chatted about business and, of course, politics. I asked him what he likes about Explorer. “Apart from the music?” he muttered, squinting over his glass of Glenmorangie. “No kids. I hate to drink with kids.” I raised my glass in agreement.
“But where would you go from here?” I asked my CEO suit. “Pitcher & Butch, Westlands,” he replied. So, enlisting a less-inebriated friend to take the wheel, we swung in that direction.
First, I cheated the man. I did a quick, even-less-planned detour to Mercury ABC. It was almost 1am when I rocked up, but it was too tame for my liking that night. It’s not normally dead, but at this hour people had moved on to clubs, somewhere noisier. Top tip, party people: Mercury is a place to go to early in the evening. Onwards…
Humanity – and sausage
If Mercury was a bit subdued, Pitcher & Butch was on steroids. It was heaving; even the pathway leading in was clogged with humanity. There had been a band on stage earlier, I was told, but now the DJ was ruling the throng with such upbeat music it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t nodding or dancing.
I headed straight to the pool table where, after placing my order for a single whiskey, I played this gigantic chap in a shirt emblazoned with: ‘I don’t care what you think of my shoes’. His shoes looked OK to me, only bigger than any shoes in the club. Suffice to say, he beat me at pool.
At 2am, Pitcher & Butch, like most clubs, is full of guys who have had too much to drink elsewhere but who are now riding on the heady wave of the music. The DJ is instrumental at this point; he keeps people up, shepherding them towards dawn.
I met three friends, and we ordered Pitcher & Butch’s famous sausage chomas. Then, fuelled, we bounced up to dance to some Nigerian music. Hell, we’d have danced to any music.
And finally, as the clock inched towards 2.30am, I did my Irish Exit. This is where you discreetly settle your bill, pretend to be going to the loo, then vamoose. It’s not rude because nobody minds, or even notices. Besides, everybody does it once in a while – even at Christmas. Just another Nairobi night-out Code.
Creating a cocktail for Kenya
New York has the Manhattan, Singapore its Sling; the Mojito is synonymous with Cuba. But what would best embody the Kenyan spirit? We asked a mixologist to conjure up the Yetu cocktail…
We asked top mixologist Boniface Arara of Blanco’s Bar to concoct a drink that represents who we are – a cocktail christened: The Yetu. He picked main ingredients he saw as vibrant (blue curaçao) and bold yet not overpowering (Malibu), just like us Kenyans. The result looked amazing. We asked a lady patron to try the first glass. Her first sip evoked a twisted face. “Too bitter,” she winced. Boniface smiled knowingly, and asked her to stir it then try again. The second sip elicited a wide smile. “It’s strong, bold and intoxicating.” I took a cautious sip. Its character is feisty – before the sweetness comes through. Bold and strong might describe Kenyans. But why didn’t Boniface use a local spirit such as Kenya Cane? Mixology is all about balance. So: bold. Strong. Intoxicating. But balanced. To us!
Ingredients: Campari, Malibu, Blue Curaçao, Pineapple juice, Passion-fruit juice, Ice
Method: Place ice in a margarita glass. Add a tot of Malibu, then pour a shot of Curaçao delicately over the back of a teaspoon to retain the colour demarcation. Add pineapple juice then passion-fruit juice the same way. Finish with a dash of Campari. Enjoy!