Jan and I had an eight o’clock morning meeting in town. It was last Tuesday. When the taxi picked us up in Lavington it was still dark. And it was still raining. There were no hold-ups along Argwings Khodek Road and all the way to Harambee Avenue, and so we arrived with an hour to spare.
We were not fancying a long wait in a cheerless office. ‘There must be a Java somewhere near,’ I said. And within a couple of minutes we saw the sign, directing us down Parliament Lane and within a short walking distance to our meeting place.
The Java in Embassy House is a barn-like place, but there was a warmth in the reds and browns of the Java style. The chunky painted cityscapes on the walls give the room a refreshing life. The waiter was welcoming. The coffees and croissants went down well. And the rain had almost stopped when it was time to take a walk.
I wrote my first piece on a Java House not long after they opened in ABC Place, after the first one in Adams Arcade back in 1999. As one of the two main founders, Kevin Ashley, has said, ‘It was just that we wanted a place in Nairobi where we could get coffee and breakfast.’
No doubt Kevin was influenced by the experience of living for a number of years in San Francisco, where there are plenty of good coffee places. From the one in Nairobi, Java House now has more than 60 restaurants and coffee shops across Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
It is not so difficult to understand why Java House has been so successful. The menu is extensive, from small snacks to substantial meals; it has some unusual and tasty options too, such as the Tex-Mex specialities of burritos, fajita platters and quesadillas; the standard is consistent; the portions are generous; the prices are reasonable; the waiters are well-trained – and the coffee is very good. They are places that appeal to East Africa’s fast-growing middle class.
After the breakfast at Embassy House, I decided to write this piece about the Java story. So at lunchtime I went along to the newest Java House, which is along James Gichuru Road and in a small shopping complex behind a petrol station in Lavington.
This Lavington Java House has been open only a month, and I notice that one of the earliest consumer reviews calls it ‘a welcome addition to all that’s happening in and around Lavington’. It’s certainly true that a lot is happening in and around Lavington. When we moved there in 1988 there were no restaurants. The first was Kengeles in Lavington Green in 1998. Now there are more than twenty.
It seems, too, that the new Java House is welcomed. When I went on Tuesday, the rooms on both floors, on the terrace and on the balcony, were encouragingly peopled.
For lunch, I ordered the ‘English style fish’n chips’ – not for any reason of patriotism but because it has become one of my indicators for making comparisons. It passed the test quite well – the fish was nicely battered; the chips were hot, crisp on the outside and soft inside.
The Java Houses are well known for their colourful and dramatic paintings along the walls. Both floors of the Lavington House have huge canvases by Jimnah Kimani. The one on the ground floor has a woman with forelegs like huge hams, who has kicked off her flip-flops and is lounging on a grassy slope and enjoying being serenaded by a man with a wooden flute. Upstairs, it is the same couple – but the man is now playing a guitar.
I noticed that most of the customers were quite young – which must augur well for Java’s expansionist strategy.