It was the go-to joint for innumerable Nairobians looking for a ready hot meal before or after an eventful night out. Then on Friday, a fire broke out and ended it all.
Before Covid-19 suddenly snuffed the nightlife out of the city’s pop culture, many would leave the many nightclubs dotting Moi Avenue and Kimathi Street and stagger into Sonford Fish and Chips.
Many workers in the area would also get their lunch from the fast-food joint.
Despite what the name suggests, fish was not on offer. It was all chips and grilled chicken.
This week, people who visited the joint were welcomed by shut doors and soot.
Inside, one could hear construction workers hammering and cutting, indicating that repairs were underway. It could also return as a different business – possibly stalls.
Although the cause of the fire that broke out on Friday night is yet to be established or whether the eatery’s kitchen will come back to life again, the Nairobians we spoke to had fond memories of the restaurant.
“I remember getting chips at Sh100 and that was a lot of money back then but still it was affordable compared with other restaurants,” recounted Sydney Chazima, who first went to Sonford when he came to Nairobi as an intern in 2015.
“The chips were tasty and being new in town I felt they tasted different from other places,” he said.
It is difficult to know exactly when Sonford started, now that it has burnt down. There was no worker to talk to when the Nation visited on Monday. The term ‘fish and chips’ in its name, however, suggests it has been in Nairobi all along.
This is because Kenyans adopted eating fish with chips from their British colonial masters before dumping this delicacy for chicken as American fast-food culture took over in the 1990s.
And although it ceased to offer fish on its menu decades ago, the restaurant, which served its food in record time on paper and without cutlery, had become an iconic eating place engraved deep in the bloodstream of Nairobi’s culture.
Never switched off
Located on the far north end of Moi Avenue on the ground and first floors of Mithoo House, an old pink building filled with stalls, Sonford’s deep fryers and light bulbs were simply never switched off.
Whether it was 2am, 4am or 2pm, Sonford was always open. From Sunday to Sunday, its workers dispensed the bitings with unmatched speed. It was popular for affordable chips and chicken that could be garnished with free chilli sauce and vinegar diluted in water.
And for a few coins, one could get a sachet of tomato sauce and mildly hot kachumbari. Also on the menu was chilled juice or soda.
According to online reviews, the quantity of its servings was also generous.
“It has stood the test of time,” one review on the website Africabiz.com said about Sonford. “Fast food has never been this good. For only four dollars you can get chicken piece, soda and fries.”
Prefer to pay cashless
“Generous portions of fries and insane amount of bhajia for a cheap price. However their chicken … smells and tastes burnt, they have the fryers on extremely high temperature until it reaches the smoke point, the frying oil is nearly black from muck,” said another review on the same website.
“Legendary fast food joint. Quantity of the serving is also generous compared to other fast food joints in town. They need to get a till number though for those who prefer to pay cashless,” said yet another review.
Although restaurants have a lifespan, Sonford operated for what seemed like an eternity.
Even when newer and multinational eateries like KFC, Steers and In score set up shop in Kenya, Sonford kept on serving chicken, chips, soda and salad, its main offerings to Nairobi’s fast-food frenzied population.
With dozens of cooked chickens rotating in a glass oven at its entrance, high stools, mirrors, American vehicle number plates on its walls and a life-size sculpture of a policeman in sunglasses, Sonford retained this signature image for years.
But even without any regular upgrades as all eateries do, customers kept flowing in.
Its sister outlets Altona, Arizona, Nevada and Memphis Fish and Chips, all located in downtown Nairobi, also operate on a similar model of affordability and speed.
Reminisce about eating
It is this model that kept the restaurant alive until Covid slashed its operating hours by half.
Before March last year, Sonford was so popular that at some point in 2019 it trended on Twitter for a whole day, with Kenyans recalling their memories in the restaurant.
“There was this guy Waweru on the chicken counter, we would give him Sh300 ‘chini ya maji’ and he would give us a whole chicken, chop it up and wrap it. Months later Sonford fired him after they probably got wind of his deals,” said one such tweet by Leshan Adrian.
“One night after Blankets and Wine we went all the way and bought food then when we got to the house everyone was too tired so we slept. In the morning we found the cat had eaten all the chicken and left the chips,” said another tweet by a user known as Shishi.
But with Sonford gone, at least for now, Nairobians can only reminisce about eating on its high stools with their reflections staring back at them from the restaurant’s mirrors hoping that its fryers will one day roar back to life.