By opening a location of Swahili Village in the heart of D.C.’s power-dining corridor late last month, chef-owner Kevin Onyona answered the pleas of all the African expats who would complain about making the commute to suburban Maryland to try his grilled and stewed Kenyan food.
The new restaurant downtown, dubbed Swahili Village: the Consulate (1990 M Street NW), brings a customer base Onyona has been building over the past 11 years into one a dining room with a ton of history. The multi-level space housed Vidalia, Jeff Buben’s long-running Southern restaurant that landed James Beard awards for both Buben and R.J. Cooper. Most recently, it was Southern-Nordic hybrid Honeysuckle.
Onyona is confident that if his first restaurant could thrive after an original stint in College Park, Maryland, and a relocation to a Beltsville strip mall, then this one can succeed for lunch and dinner in close proximity to the World Bank building and D.C.’s embassy row.
“Last year we did $4 million in sales in a small location [in Beltsville],” he says. “It goes to show you that people are really, really curious and wanting more and more.”
Onyona’s menu is built around East African dishes influenced by the region’s historical ties to Arab traders, Portuguese explorers, British colonizers, and Indian immigrants. Onyona serves four different goat dishes ($13 to $29.95), including two different marinated and grilled preparations, a slow-cooked stew, and a soup, all using meat sourced from Australia and New Zealand. Whole-fired tilapia in coconut or masala sauces is another popular order. Lentil or red bean stews simmered in coconut milk are vegetarian options.
A group platter ($117) filled with grilled goat, beef, and chicken; sides of collard greens, spinach cooked in coconut milk, cabbage, ugali (corn-based fufu), and wheat-based chapati flatbread encourages a communal meal. A $40 brunch buffet with bottomless mimosas starts this weekend.
Onyona says he’s frustrated by a lack of African restaurants that offer a fine dining atmosphere, and he’s worked to create an environment that can serve as both a hub of African culture and a meeting place for place for American leaders. So he presents utensils at the table for people who want to use them, even though many of the dishes he serves are traditionally eaten by hand with breads and starches.
Onyona feels that Americans automatically associate African food with casual, mom-and-pop shops. The swanky, renovated setting and composed plates at Swahili Village are meant to help it stand apart.
“We want to completely change that narrative and bring African food into the mainstream so Americans can see the beauty of the way we cook and how we love our food,” Onyona says.
Onyona says construction roadblocks he encountered by building downtown led to months of delays and budget overages, but he’s banking on the restaurant’s potential. He’s already hosted one of the most prominent visitors he could ask for.
Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was in town to attend the National Prayer Breakfast and announce the start of negotiations on a free-trade agreement with President Donald Trump, came by the ribbon-cutting ceremony.