The Juniper Kitchen: Much More than a Bar

‘What is it about Juniper?’ Kwame asked, when I was at his Steak Out restaurant a couple of weeks ago. ‘I mean, they have crowds there in the evenings – and people sitting on beer crates!’

I told Kwame I didn’t know, because I had been warned off the place. When I asked my son, Jan, about it – one of his latest and late night favourite haunts – he said, ‘I don’t think you would like it, because you are not young enough’. In other words, he was telling me I was too old.

Anyway, I decided to go. I went at the best time of night – the middle of the day. When I told Jan that I was going he said, ‘OK, say something about the meals, because I’ve no idea about the food there.’ In other words, he was saying he only knows something about the drinks.

But before going, I asked Jan about his own views of the place. This is what he said:

“It may be called the Juniper Kitchen but I don’t really picture Juniper as a restaurant. This is largely a consequence of the timing of my visits, though, and isn’t a reflection of the type or quality of food on offer. I’ve heard it’s a particularly good spot for brunch, so next time I go I’ll swap the cocktail for a coffee at 11am on a Sunday rather than 11pm on a Saturday.

“That said, it isn’t a bad place to be late on a Friday or Saturday night. I can appreciate why Juniper was an instant hit when it opened – partially because it offered something different. Nairobians can be a fickle bunch when it comes to choosing somewhere for a drink. The phrase ‘variety is the spice of life’ seems to resonate especially with thirsty Nairobians, who flock to the newest watering hole simply because it provides a change from the city’s older and often tired establishments.

“Juniper, though, offered quite a drastic change, and I think it’s fair to say the novelty hasn’t worn off. At its heart is a very distinct sense of ‘hipsterism’ – that pervasive subculture that swept across the West and which now seems to be seeping slowly southwards.

“It manifests in a variety of ways, and at Juniper it includes serving cocktails in jam jars, having wooden crates as makeshift chairs beneath rows of fairy lights, menus on blackboards, and waiters with straw hats, check shirts, bow ties and braces – the essence of hipster chic. I must say, I’m a big fan of the garden’s jua kali furniture. All of this provides quite a unique, even enchanting, setting.

“A key component of Juniper’s success has also been its variety of events – from hosting an array of local and international DJs and bands, to coffee tasting, fashion and food markets, and a popular spoken word evening called ‘Story Slam’. As a result, it also has a diverse clientele, and it is popular with the expat crowd that has ditched Havana and now seems to switch between Juniper and The Alchemist.”

So I went, last Tuesday lunchtime. Jan tagged along, too. He was very right about the décor: the makeshift furniture: cushions on wooden beer crates, a settee made out of truck tyres, a fence of draped coffee bean sacks. But it fits well together. I know nothing about the hipster culture – but the Juniper Kitchen is a relaxed kind of place. I guess the youngsters would call it a place to ‘chill out’.

But, as we discovered, Juniper is not just a club for night-times – it is also a very good place for lunch. It has an interesting menu, catering for vegetarians as well as for carnivores. I chose the dish of the day which was beer-battered tilapia and twice-cooked wedges. Jan chose the fillet steak. My tilapia was firm but succulent; the batter was crunchy; the wedges were not nearly as hard and stodgy as once-cooked wedges can be. Jan said his steak was good.

Jan also said that he had revived his opinion about Juniper as a daytime venue – especially after we talked with Joe Holt, the CEO. Joe has reworked the menu, and this Sunday will be his second one for traditional Sunday roasts – of beef and chicken and, hopefully, the Englishman’s favourite, his Yorkshire pudding, without which there can’t be a proper Sunday roast.

But I haven’t told you where Juniper is. It’s in a leafy house and garden plot at the Waiyaki Way end of Muthangari Drive, so neatly slotted in between Westlands and Lavington. Yesterday Juniper held the Fafa Neighbourhood Market, a ‘fashion food demo’, which will be held again on Saturday 11 June. Next Saturday Juniper’s resident hip-hop DJ, DJ KACE, will be on the decks.

I might well be there, if only to prove Jan wrong about my being too old.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation