Tucked on the 9th floor of the TradeMark Hotel in Nairobi's swanky ex-pat suburb - Gigiri, Hero Bar was recently named 70th among the World's best bars in the extended 51-100 Bars list.
The ranking that is basically the Michelin Star for bars from all over the world, is the first time it's coming to a Sub-Saharan country, with South Africa having taken the lead in previous years.
Hero, with walls spray-painted with samurais by Lithumised, comic book superheroes doing everyday things and littered with Marvel Universe mementoes, first opened its operations to the public in September 2019, before being shut in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the resulting restrictions came into force.
"We were quite young, trying to stay relevant and ride the wave through at that point. It was a hard sell especially being that Sushi and cocktails, and the expat market were not there so we needed to re-strategise to push this further," says James Kariuki the Hero Bar manager.
"We closed for a few months and in that period decided to be more accommodative in terms of our menu offerings and for the bar, we wanted to introduce the cocktail culture in Kenya so that there's more than just Long Islands, and other Classic cocktails, but instead something fresh, something new," he adds.
Japenese food with local flavour
The Japanese-inspired bar reopened in June last year on a far smaller scale with limited clientele as per the Ministry of Health guidelines. "When we reopened, we packaged ourselves better for locals to enjoy.
With our drinks and food, we try to be unique. It's not what you'd regularly find in a traditional Japanese restaurant. An example is we have lamb and beef in our sushi, that's not the norm," explains James.
Soon, more local lovers of food started trooping in droves to experience the mesh of Hero Bar’s Japanese-inspired food techniques with Kenyan’s love for all things meat, washed down with a well-thought-through medley of fresh flavours in the drinks on ice.
"It was a group effort" James says, adding, "This process involved everyone including bars as far as from the UK coming over for mentorship like the Scuffs Bar, also listed on the Top 50 bars. They came over to help us improve on our mixology. Today we have a lot of herbs in our cocktails. You don't have to take alcohol while it's bitter, we can have a nice twist while ensuring quality."
Looking at the menu, which is always released as a comic volume would with society-themed stories told through the lead characters, a patron would see herbs and spices like mint, thyme, rosemary, ginger, cinnamon, fruits like pineapple and litchi.
They're currently on Hero menu volume four, so that the regular patron finds something new every time, keeping taste buds guessing, avoiding the boredom that can come with routine and usual orders.
Asked what the World's 50 Best Bars 2021 judges saw in Hero to add them to the extended ranking, the soft-spoken bar manager says, "what they saw was the creativity, the passion, the drive and the dream to become great.
They go deeper into our cocktails not just ambience and good service we give. It's a very well-thought-out process, there's chemistry involved, it's not just mixing drinks, there's a lot of science which we apply.
The drink they chose for the listing was the Madafu Sawa where they had a photograph of Batman sitting on a coconut."
World's 50 Best Bars is the highest achievement for bars.
"For us this is a big deal. It's what every bar is looking for or should aspire to," James says adding, "This is the highest accolade you would get for operating a proper cocktail bar."
"They didn't particularly go through one drink, and they also don't tell you when they're coming. So I cannot tell you when they came. We were just out here working then the director broke the good news," a smiling James says.
Gushing over his team, James says, "for the bar team, you find that the best bartender in Kenya 2021 from the Diageo competition comes from this team, his name is Kelvin Thairu, also a 2019 Remy Martin winner. The Jameson master cocktail winner is also at this bar, his name is Chris Mburu."
What is his team's secret to success? "In short they come and are able to express themselves, when they come in as bartenders with passion, they find enough space for you to think, enough material for you to learn and use to achieve greatness," says James.
Alcohol consumption has increased by and large since the onset of the pandemic, according to publicly available data. James attributes this to "more exposure, even as more people become accommodative to unusual drinks. There's been a healthy increase."
And speaking of healthy, all their fresh ingredients are locally sourced from sustainable farms and the alcohol from EABL #ticker:EABL .
Since the pandemic and with the increase in local tourism, some establishments reaped big focusing on the shifting consumer trends.
"It's a reflection of a people more accommodative to the cocktail culture. Now people allow us to play with premium brands. Initially, they wanted their brands neat, but now they're asking to try things differently," James says.
In conclusion, James says, "We intend to be trendsetters, to be here a while, we want to eventually perhaps have an extension somewhere, a school for bartenders, a creative space where young minds can express themselves."
"We've tried to take a foreign concept for food, and made it our own through what we do with sushi" James says adding, "in terms of drinks, which we are now very big at, I would love for more people to experience it in another dimension just the same way you'd be served in London is how they'd feel here" he concludes.