The Artcaffé Story: Sunshine Restaurants and Bakeries

Writing Going Places is always fun; sometimes it’s also a big indulgence. No more so than last Saturday when I was gearing up to write the Artcaffé story – well my Artfaffé story. I had breakfast in the Lavington Artcaffé, lunch at the Oval Artcaffé, and tea at the Yaya Artcaffé.

I reckon they are now my favourite ‘go-to’ restaurant places. I have been trying to work out why. Yes, I like the sophisticated black and white decor, the arresting quotations on the walls and on the menus, the smells of freshly baked bread and freshly roasted coffee that greet you as you walk through the door.

But there’s something else. When sitting outside on one of the Artcaffé terraces, and shaded from the sun under a spreading umbrella, it takes me back to much younger days when I first learnt to enjoy the café life of France.

I remember my first breakfast coffee and croissant at a pavement café in Paris. From our home on the windswept coast of East Anglia, I had cycled with my sister to Dover, crossed the English Channel to Boulogne, and then cycled to Paris, over-nighting at youth hostels. I remember the first taste of crisp French bread, the first taste of French red wine – and, especially, the brightness and warmth of the French sun.

The sun doesn’t often shine in my native England – anyway, not with the kind of warmth for you to sit outside for a sun-upper breakfast or a sun-downer drink. On those few days of summer when the sun comes out in some force, the English go crazy – drive in slow traffic queues to the seaside, strip off, lie back on the itchy sand, and let the sun burn their white skins to a painful redness.

Here in Nairobi, as Udi the General Manager I met at the Oval Artcaffé said, the weather in Nairobi is good 80 percent of the time. And the ambiance of the Artcaffé terraces, the smell of the bread and the taste of the wine, is a kind of paradise for any renegade Brit.

As it says on the walls of all eight Artcaffés in Nairobi, ‘Le pain nous a nourris, le vin nous a illumine’ – which, with my knowledge of schoolboy French, translates to, ‘The bread has nourished us, the wine has lit us up.’

Since my office is near, I have occasionally had breakfast at the Lavington Artcaffé. I had thought that, despite the common disparaging comments about English cooking, the English breakfast is a gift to the world. But what the Artcaffés call an English breakfast goes well beyond what you would get in England. Yes, it has the eggs, bacon, sausages, grilled tomatoes and beans, but it also has a wide side dish of salad, green olives, avocado paste and cream cheese.

But this last Saturday I ventured to the Eggs Benedict: two poached eggs on a profiterole, with bacon, parmesan cheese and hollandaise sauce. Delicious. But how do they manage to poach eggs here in Nairobi where, because of the high altitude, water boils at 95ᵒC rather than 100ᵒ? At home, we have given up trying. I will ask them.

After such a filling breakfast I wasn’t very hungry at lunchtime at the Oval. I could have had the excellent beef medallions with mushroom sauce; I could even have reverted to English-style fish and chips; I could have been adventurous with the falafel of chickpeas, fresh herb cakes and lemon yoghurt sauce – instead, I opted for a more modest chicken liver terrine with toast and caramelized onions. And I was leaving room for a tea at the Yaha on the way home, with those very tempting chocolate truffle balls.

The drinks menu is spiced with some nice quotations. Humphrey Bogart (perhaps best known as the laid-back owner of Rick’s Bar in the classic film, Casablanca) is saying, ‘The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind’. Even better is Ernest Hemingway’s ‘I drink to make other people happy’.

And talking of drinks, if you are hot with the Nairobi sun and have a thirst on you, try the Classic Margarita: Tequila, triple sec, and fresh lime juice – with the glass rimmed with salt. If you make it in the happy hour, it will cost you only 400 shillings.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation