Freetown "Ethnic" Restaurant Guide (1988)

Once when I was visiting a friend in Eugene, Oregon, he made a wry remark about having moved from a town with the highest number of churches per capita (Turlock, CA) to one with the largest number of restaurants per capita and how it reflected upon his evolving existential priorities. I have doubts about the accuracy of those statistics, but concerning Freetown I can state confidently that it is the national capital with the fewest number of customers per restaurant. Aside from a few exceptions, you will invariably be served by at least a half dozen waiters who are open to conversation since they have nothing else to do. One time a Peace Corps volunteer who was dining with me whipped out his ever-ready AIDS pamphlet while waiting for dinner and started doling out condoms to the bemused but accepting waiters. One of them, an ex-seaman (no pun intended), was already using birth control; "Two children are enough," he said.

Enlightenment and mass number aside, nevertheless, the level of services is, shall we say, erratic on the whole. I will never forget the spring of '87, right before Brookfields (alias Killing Fields) had raised their Peace Corps rates, when volunteers' dinner choice was reduced to the canned-protein-of-the-day (i.e., Third World SPAM or sardine) salad. Epic 3-1/2-hour dinners were common as manic-patient PCVs waited on sheer principle for the constipated flow from the kitchen to culminate in that tepid cup of tea ("Sugar and milk, please."). To be fair, though, the quality of food at BF is not bad (and besides, the PC rate is only 1/4 of the normal price), and there are some pleasant surprises awaiting those of you not familiar with the Freetown gastronomic circuit.

(Note: The "ethnic" in the title means that we cover only restaurants serving non-Sierra-Leonean food. There are a few excellent chop houses serving local cuisine in Freetown--to be covered in another review.)

Downtown Area

Old Roots, New Seeds

Simply the best food in Freetown. Everything on the menu is good--the cheese fish steak on Friday and the seafood gumbo are special standouts. Nutritionally well-balanced, but servings may be somewhat small for bigger appetites. Also the vegetarian menu for lunch is worth checking out. Setting: Hip Afro-American. Served by beautiful young ladies. Music: Popular contemporary jazz. Prices: High.

Paramount Hotel

Recent improvement in food has rescued their dishes from a pervading blandness. Shrimps Freetown recommended. Excellent service. Setting: Stamped orange plastic chairs = tacky. Music: Muzak and country/western. Prices: Very reasonable.

Don Salvador's

Take out pizza! But don't get excited--it's not quite the real thing. Be careful when you order toppings--"ham" might mean "SPAM" that day. The paella is nice. But the best thing about this place is the chilled, crinkly balls of garlic butter served with hot bread before dinner. Setting: The most formal and elegant in the city. Music: Vaguely Spanish. Prices: Painfully high.

The Golden Bay

Large menu of quality Lebanese food. Suggestion: A full meza (12 appetizer dishes) will let you sample all those strage-sounding items you were always curious about (e.g., pan-fried goat brains); there's enough to feed 2-3 people. Setting: Clean, bright, modern. Music: Western pop. Prices: Very high.

The Gem

This is one place I personally never tried, but I understand that it is very similar to the Golden Bay, except older and darker inside.

Uncle Sam's

Contrary to the name, it's a British expatriate haunt. Standard Lebanese menu. Standard quality, sub-standard portions. The hummus (spelled "homos" on the menu) is good. "All sandwiches are taken away." Setting: Greasy spoon. Music: Country/western. Prices: Medium.

Alliance Francais

There's nothing French about the food. Grill menu--hamburger, pork chop, chicken. The Tropical Cooler is a drink you'd expect to find everywhere but is unique to this place. Setting: Expatriate city. Decor is Western idea of "Africa." Music: Live music on certain nights; check for posted notices. Prices: Moderate.

Lumley Beach Area

Lumley Beach map

The Cape Club/El Ancla/Alex's Beach Bar and Restaurant

Run by three brothers, their menus are largely the same, and even though El Ancla is nominally a Spanish restaurant, the cuisine leans more towards northern Europe. Recommended items unique to each place: CC--Beef Stroganoff (comes with mashed potatoes instead of noodles), EA--Uruguayo steak (very filling), ABBR--yogurt cucumber soup. Setting: CC--spacious and empty. Large dance floor, but no dancing. Good view of the lagoon. EA--Plainest of the three. Extensive collection of stickers (often bawdy) on the bar wall. ABBR--Tables sit on sand. Palm trees. Very "tropical." Music: CC--Polkas and marches. (That may be an exaggeration, but it's definitely not up-to-date.) EA--A mix. Upon request George (the owner) will play a tape of himself singing with a band. ABBR--Contemporary pop. Prices: All high.

The Pink Lion

Limited menu of American-style food. Best beef Stroganoff in town. Smallish portions. Setting: Austere poolside--tiled tables and concrete seats (with padding). On hill, excellent view of beach. Music: Pop, rock. Prices: Seems a bit high for the amount of food.

The Rendezvous

Typical Freetown menu with an Armenian twist. The Armenian chicken is a spicy treat. Cheaper Star Beer than the other beach restaurants. Setting: Dining area juts out over the water for a refreshing, open-air atmosphere. Music: Various. Sometimes even heavy metal. Prices: Seems lower than other beach places, but keep in mind the service charge.

The Atlantic

Most extensive menu in Freetown. Excellent quality food. Pizza is better than Don Salvador's. Stuffed grape leaves. Shrimp with bacon. Veal. Lobster prepared in many different styles. Setting: On the beach--waves breaking right in front of you. Invigorating. Music: Surf sounds. Prices: A wide range, but generally high.

The Venue

A Lebanese menu with great appetizers like cheese pastry and croquette. Best dinner value is the chicken kebab--lots of protein. Setting: Casual beach. Very convenient for post-swimming, in-the-bathing-suit dining. Music: Top 40. Prices: You pay for convenience. (The cheeseburger is reasonable and is very popular.)

Red Pagoda (on Wilkinson Road)

It's a good change of pace, but it's not good Chinese food. Seems like attempted Cantonese cuisine. Surprisingly big menu. Setting: Busy. For some reason this place does good business (lack of competing Asian restaurants, I guess). Music: A Chinese man plays Chinese muzak on an electric organ. Very strange. Prices: Medium.

* * *

This review is by no means comprehensive, but to be honest there aren't many more places to eat non-chop dinner in Freetown. There's also a man who sells creatively upscale street food in the lot across the street from the Strand Theatre (Scotch eggs, anyone?). Be bold. Be daring. You can afford it.

I'm dedicating this guide to my fellow Fourah Bay College PCV, Kurt Schulz, a.k.a Omega Man, who was my frequent dining companion. He may not agree with my assessments here, but then again, he is one of the world's pickiest eaters. One thing we did agree on was the superiority of Old Roots, New Seeds' food. So check it out. Good eatings!

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Copyright 1988, John Nagamichi Cho