Sonia Mansioui started a business in Nairobi out of frustration of finding quality and affordable wine served by the glass.
“There was nothing in between fine dining where you had to sit for a proper dinner, and a very loud bar with poor quality or no wine,” says Sonia, who runs Chez Sonia, a wine bar and French restaurant.
“It was frustrating since I don’t take liqueur. I had to drink tea or water.”
Since coming to Kenya 15 years ago, Sonia enjoys hosting friends at home for l’apero, a French tradition of pre-dinner drinks served with finger foods.
This is the concept she envisioned bringing to Nairobi— a place for a quick glass of good wine with cheese platters and cold cuts served in an outdoor setting, “Or you can stay the whole day and enjoy as you do at home.”
Chez Sonia (meaning at the house of Sonia in French) is a quaint house with a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Thick greenery and tall trees surround the tables of white garden furniture. Jazz music plays in the background. French novels, contemporary art, wine bottles and boutique shops occupy the inner rooms. The clientele is a mixture of locals and resident expatriates, and Sonia calls everyone a guest, not a customer.
South African and Chilean wines dominate the Kenyan market but Sonia exclusively sells European wines, mainly from France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
A French-Moroccan national, she personally prefers full-bodied wines, “like Burgundy from the Bordeaux region of France, but it is not easily accessible in Nairobi.”
Every wine on the list is available by the glass meaning and it’s not just the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Merlot.
“I want people to try something they are not used to like a Riesling or a Bordeaux wine,” she says.
By cutting her margins she is able to make the high-quality unique wines affordable.
“For Sh5,000, you will get an amazing bottle that will be Sh8,000 to Sh10,000 in a mainstream restaurant,” she adds.
A wine tasting in July for Sh3,500 included top appellations such Saint Joseph and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The latter can retail at over Sh15,000 a bottle.
“A wine tasting event should be about extending your knowledge, not just sampling your everyday wines.”
On my last visit, she recommended Crozes-Hermitage from northern France. I enjoyed the subtle taste and long finish of this full-bodied red.
After receiving a long-awaited consignment, Sonia has redone the wine list this month. I noticed there were no descriptions for any of the wines.
“If I tell you there is a hint of vanilla or an after-taste of tobacco, will it make any difference?” she says.
On the menu
“Apart from a trained connoisseur, which I am not, I'm just a wine lover, I doubt descriptions make sense to most people. I tell my guests, try a glass and if you like it, get the bottle.”
Since opening over two years ago, Sonia has seen an increase in the wine bar concept in Nairobi and bigger uptake in wine consumption by Kenyans. Initially, she only operated on weekends and nights.
“I have a life and running a restaurant is a lot of work,” says the mother-of-two who was previously a legal officer at UNHCR Nairobi and also runs a fitness studio.
Since the onset of Covid-19, Chez Sonia has transitioned into a full-service restaurant open all day except Mondays.
“We had more clientele asking for hot food in addition to the cheese platters and charcuterie,” explained Sonia.
Naturally, the extended menu features French classics such as beef medallions, duck leg confit, chicken with ratatouille vegetables and parrotfish in a lemon-butter Meunier sauce.
Steak lovers will revel in a 21-day aged rib-eye steak and there are local favourites such as prawns pili pili and Zanzibar fish curry.
A hands-on person, Sonia enjoys interacting with the clients, and her easy smile and jovial personality add to the easy-going ambience.
However, success has not come on a silver platter. Behind the scenes she contends with high staff turnover, ensuring consistency of products and service, excessive scrutiny by city council officials, and ‘police visits’.
“This can be difficult when you have put everything in order and I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing this,” she says.
A negative media article over a business name dispute last December which trended widely was the hardest moment since she opened, she says.
“But contrary to the effect we were expecting, many Kenyans who did not know about our place now know us."