Evolution of Nairobi restaurants

Them Mushrooms sung Nyambura I love you like fish and chips, Nyambura nakupenda kama nyama choma, serenading Kenya’ most popular delicacies as symbolisms of love.

Save for nyama choma, fish and chips are rarely a delicacy today and the memory of the once popular combo remains a relic found on names of older food chains like Sonford Fish and Chips.

Sonford Fish and Chips is a 24-hour fast food restaurant serving chicken, chips and bhajia. Contrary to its naming, the restaurant stopped serving fish decades ago. It was mainly adopted because of our British colonizers and in the 1990’s a more American style which served chicken came into play.

“You will never know the joy of having chips and chicken at Sonford like your mum and I did,” my father told to me. “Nyinyi ni watoto wa Chicken Inn na Pizza Inn” he went on to add.

Todays Nairobi offers a diverse range of delicacies ranging from the local “kibandaski” which offers a well sized meal at fairly low prices to the rapidly growing fast food restaurant chains KFC and Chicken Inn.

However, Nairobi’s current state isn’t a complete reflection of its past. The has played host to the likes of Sonford fish and chips, Wimpy’s, Ranalo K’Osewe, Highlands etc some of these restaurants are present to date and carry on serving their delicacies as usual. 

The contrast between back then and now can be clearly seen with the current times being characterized by western fast food chains such as KFC, Burger King and exotic recipes being more embraced and appreciated for their burgers and fries.

Sonford is a pioneer in the fish and chips fast foods chains and has withstood the test of time. It has served the different generations over the decades and it still continues to do so.

Read also: Estate restaurants flipping the script on street foods

On 27th August 2021 the popular joint went up in flames with no cause being identified. Kenyans on Twitter recalled their memories of the place and it was trending for a whole day which is no small feat. After reconstruction, Sonford reopened and the restaurant has been going on as usual. 

Sonford has been a popular eatery and take away spot for Nairobians in the nightlife or those taking night shifts and finding themselves wanting a bite at odd hours.

The restaurant is characterized by dozens of grilled full chicken rotating in a glass oven at the entrance, high stools to keep you on your toes and leave as soon as you’re done rather than idle, American vehicle number plates on the walls not sure why those are there, mirrors around the eating area to maybe ensure you don’t leave without saying hi to someone and some bit of smoke to give you the undeniable feel and aroma of being in a chicken and chips oven.

They serve you a sizable amount of chips at an affordable price of Kes100. They do in record time and on paper mostly khaki or wax-lined paper with no cutlery. Seems like they also play their part in protecting the environment. With some extra coins you can add a sachet or two of tomato sauce and some kachumbari. You can garnish with free chilli sauce and vinegar that’s diluted in water.

Another restaurant that graced and still continues to grace the streets of Nairobi is Ranalo K’Osewe. It’s a family run restaurant owned by William Osewe. It has been famous for serving traditional and local dishes and playing soft music. Its signature dishes have mainly been fish delicacies, served with Ugali and some traditionally prepared vegetables known as “Osuga”. 

The joint has been graced by several dignitaries, the most notable being the former premier, Raila Odinga, who is a frequent client of the eatery and his favorite dish being Tilapia fish stewed in coconut with brown ugali and a helping of Osuga vegetable. Ranalo, which is located along Kimathi Street, is still in business to date and attracts a lot of fish enthusiasts.

Highlands, a famous restaurant chain back in the day still has some branches in operation. Its outlets were mostly in the CBD and they offered the same menu and quality of food. The restaurant was famous for serving a wide range of African delicacies at affordable prices in Nairobi, from fish, to chicken, served with the ugali, rice, chapati or “mukimo”. 

Their signature colors were green and the tables and chair stands were characterized by bamboo. This I recall from the times I had lunch there with my mom anytime we were near Khoja roundabout and I would get my usual chips and sausage and use up the whole tomato sauce provision while my mom had her mukimo and beefstew in peace as my mouth was too full to engage her.

The Nairobi restaurant industry has vastly changed from those times to where we are currently. It’s highly likely that if you randomly asked a stranger about Ranalo, Highlands or Sonford you’ll be met with an “I don’t know” but if you were to rephrase the question and ask do you know KFC, Chicken Inn, Pizza Inn etc, the person would consequently move to show you the more than five outlets they know.

It might be because of the effective marketing strategies they use or the tasty food they have or it might also be the recent appreciation of western culture among ourselves.

The fast food chains, junk food eateries, drive by’s and online ordering platforms have taken over the industry and become the highlands and Ranalo’s of today. The times have certainly changed in their favor and that can be seen through their expansions. A great example is Chicken Inn, a fried chicken franchise owned by Simbisa brands that has over 22 branches in Nairobi and is eyeing 55 more Kenyan outlets. 

The recent growth can be attributed to the increasing demand and acceptance of western foods such as fried chicken and burgers among the populations. Simbisa’s direct competitor in Kenya KFC has 23 operational branches in Kenya and is also experiencing vast growth.

Burger restaurants too have benefited greatly from the recent growth, Urban burger and Burger King have more and more clientele looking to buy from them in their various outlets. 

The Somali themed restaurants too haven’t been left behind. Their sizable portions and delicacies have seen many flock to their premises to get a taste and feel of their famous platters. They have great somali themed and non somali themed menus with a variety of foods to order from.

Other restaurants like Bigknife, Bigsquare, Artcaffe Cafe deli are just a few you can mention.

The revolution of the restaurant industry has been nothing short of amazing and seeing the changes first hand is amazing. You get to experience new foods, new recipes and exotic. You get aesthetic places you can have your meals in, take someone on a date and just enjoy the experience.

[email protected]

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.