20 December 2010

If You’re Ever In Juba... (A Patchwork Restaurant Guide for Travelers in Africa, West Africa Edition)

See the original guide, with recommendations for Bujumbura, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Addis, and of course, Juba, here.


The aid business is booming in Liberia, a country recovering (remarkably well, many say) from fourteen years of civil war. As with any aid boom capital, Monrovia is overrun by expats, and if there’s one thing expats do well, it’s gather for evenings out after long, exhausting days fighting poverty.

The restaurants in this list may be wazungu mainstays (said my spindly old taxi driver one night on our way to Rozi’s, his phone ringing off the hook: “it’s a busy night for white people”), but they’re good. And if you’re ever in Monrovia, be sure to check them out.

Tides: Tides is a newish bar/restaurant on the waterfront in Mamba Point. The entrance is up a badly lit stairwell in what looks like an abandoned building, but do not be deterred: upstairs is a sweeping wooden deck and comfy couches—the perfect place to sip a gin and tonic and watch the sun go down. One tiny caveat: 100-or-so feet down the beach is a slum. You know the scene: low-lying crush of cardboard and tin, piles of trash, kids playing football in the dusk. When the sun goes down, the slum disappears, swallowed up by the dark. The drinks at Tides are good, but with the other (i.e., non expat) reality of Monrovia in your face, they can be a little difficult to swallow.

The Palm: This open, breezy rooftop restaurant is a sharp contrast to the hot mugginess of the dusty streets below. A great place to unwind—good pizza and beer—to the sound of ABBA in the background (what is it about ABBA in Africa?).

Mamba Point Hotel: The Rick’s Café of Monrovia, it’s like a transit lounge, where aid workers mix with business types, hard-to-place security guys, and wealthy locals. The deck overlooks the ocean, and framed by palm trees, it’s like a scene out of a movie: a tropical paradise. With a great selection of Lebanese dishes, pizza, Indian, and sushi, the Mamba Point restaurant is good spot for long, meandering, wine-soaked dinners.

Rozi’s: This cute restaurant in Sinkor serves a variety of dishes best described as Liberian-international fusion (pretty vague, I know). I recommend eating in the garden.

The Lounge at Roberts International Airport: If you are forced to leave Monrovia, I recommend grabbing a Club beer in the airport lounge. Surrounded by plastic-covered tables and chairs and enormous fake sunflowers, it’s an ideal spot to recap your trip and wait out the inevitable storm always passing over the airport. Even better when in the company of secret agent Pavignani if you can manage to nab him.


What is one of the best things about USAID missions to the field? Per diems, of course. Per diems are what made it possible for my colleague and I to sample some of Dakar’s fantastic (and fantastically expensive) restaurants.

Let me say that this city is not like other cities on the continent where I’ve worked. Tree-lined avenues, charming apartment buildings with balconies draped in bougainvillea, women in skinny jeans and high heels (a bit too fancy for this hippy, I’ll be honest). Dakar feels like Paris (although I’ve never been to Paris). So go, and enjoy—and if you make it before December 30, you’re in time to catch the World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures. Attendees include none other than that beloved Libyan man of the people, Muammar Gaddafi.

Radisson Blu Hotel, restaurant and seaside lounge: This sleek hotel, halfway between centre ville and the towering Monument to the African Renaissance (which is, incidentally, right across the street from a small, humble graveyard) oozes hip: there is an atrium and infinity pool, and the décor is an urbane mix of whites and grays. Munch poolside (but steer clear of the complimentary olives—they are doused in mustard and orange, a truly disgusting combo) or check out the restaurant next door, which has a fine fish selection and wine list. The lamb is also excellent.

Restaurant La Calebasse in Mamelles: On the top floor above an African Art shop, the Calebasse restaurant is a nice mix of local fare (Yassa fish anyone?) and French-ish food. The terrace is breezy and spacious, and the ambiance wonderful, thanks to the musician who strummed quietly on his kora while we ate. The sound is hypnotic, mysterious, like walking down a narrow path in a market you’ve never been to, like light reflecting in crystal. Good food, wine, music and art. A lovely way to spend an evening out.

La Lagoon 1: A friend who lives in Dakar (a French friend who lives in Dakar) told me upon arrival that this was his favorite restaurant and it’s not hard to see why. Nestled on the beach not far from President Wade’s house, this is a restaurant on stilts that juts out over the water. The fish and wine are great, but be sure to sit outside: indoors it’s an over-the-top nautical theme, with air conditioning blasting.

Chez Loutcha: For some Cape Verdean fare check out this cozy restaurant in Centre Ville. The plates are enormous—enough for two or three people—and the atmosphere, decidedly low-key. SO low key in fact that you may have trouble getting the servers to pay attention to you, and when they finally do, it is reluctantly, eyes glaring. Tough love at Chez Loutcha.

Terrou-Bi Terrace Restaurant: A good treat, but as with all the upmarket beachside hotel restaurants, this place will cost you. The fish was good and the service excellent.

A Home-Cooked Meal at Chez Camara: Better than any restaurant, this dinner at the home of a Ministry of Health colleague was the culinary (and social) highlight of the trip. The Camaras served couscous smothered in gravy, with chicken, carrots, raisins and nuts, a traditional dish to celebrate Tamkharit, the Islamic new year. (Incidentally, this was also the evening of the Senegalese version of Halloween, where children march through their neighborhoods, beating tin drums, in search of goodies or money.)

Sitting on the floor of the Camara's living room, their children, nieces, nephews, sisters, uncles and other unidentified family members playing and talking in the room next door, our host showed us photos from a trip to Illinois, joked with his wife of ten years about who really runs the household, and explained that he does the work he does because of a belief, deep down, that he is responsible for other people, that we are all responsible for each other. I guess that included us, his guests. When we entered the house, he spread his arms wide and said: You are welcome. You are home.

The lights went out about midway through the evening meal and the house went pitch black. It was ok, though—there were voices of family all around.