The warm, balmy evenings of Lusaka, when humidity clings close to the skin and the heat hangs low, will urge you out into the night in search of cooling sundowners with great ambience and stimulating company. One such journey began in the prim suburbs of Kabulonga, as my best friend and I searched for the perfect sundowner spot with refreshing drinks to quench our thirst and ease the heat.
As soon as you cross the threshold into The Gathering, you are struck by the eclectic Afro-Bohemian décor, and your eyes are drawn upward to an impressive mosaic of locally sourced, handwoven makenge baskets that cover the ceiling like a canopy of mushrooms. The warm lighting and layered textures of the wooden seating, comfortable sofas, colourful African prints, and raw concrete structure emphasise the unhurried lounge aesthetic. The melodious hum of the background lounge music further elevates the relaxed atmosphere. It is Thursday, and the discounted happy hour cocktails are a welcome respite after an arduous week, heralding Friday’s arrival. The staff are warm and welcoming, offering a seat beneath the glittering lamps in the courtyard or inside the cosy lounge. In lieu of a menu, you can participate in a form of “drinkers’ roulette”, a fun little game called “I need a drink”! This interactive ordering style allows you to discover new drinks, allowing your taste buds to embark on a flavour adventure! If you know your cocktail of choice, scan the QR code to access the menu. What I love most about The Gathering is its continually evolving food menu, featuring dishes inspired by Lebanese, Mexican, and Asian cuisines.
Each signature drink comes with an accompaniment that complements and emphasises the flavours in the cocktail, a personal favourite being the whiskey-based maple old fashioned served with a small taster of candied bacon. The owners and their mixology team carefully craft each drink recipe; they dry their own fruit, make their syrups and even customise your drink based on the kind of alcohol you prefer. Their innovative cocktail menu boasts ingredients such as activated charcoal, pineapple, fresh passion fruit, grapefruit, dragon fruit, dried beetroot, and even kombucha!
If you are a tequila lover, delve into their wide variety of margaritas, the latest being the salted cherry margarita, which combines the tartness of cherries with the classic flavours of the margarita, resulting in a harmonious medley of a fruity, sweet and sour flavour profile which pairs perfectly with their signature Baja fish tacos (crumbed hake, guacamole and sour cream) for a light bite. The space exudes a warmth reflected in its owners, who are just as cordial and charming. For connoisseurs, The Gathering now offers a new experience called The Molecular Club, a series of intimate molecular sessions carefully curated by The Gathering’s mixologists to expand your cocktail experience. Now, that sounds like a fun idea for a date night or friend group!
The sun is already beginning to set when we finally emerge from The Gathering’s cosy cocoon. Dusk is falling, and the sun sends pink, indigo and blue streaks across the sky as we head to our next stop, Bodega. Bodega is a hidden gem located at No.1 Kabulonga Road, offering a fine boutique cocktail bar experience. The small but intimate space blends the best of Zambian and Pakistani hospitality while serving up some of the most delicious cocktails in the city. The dim lighting and vintage-style furniture transport you to another time when the glaring light of a mobile screen didn’t interject interactions in company. The speak-easy-inspired interior invites patrons to linger longer and chat over fine spirit liqueurs and cocktails.
Bodega focuses on classic cocktails, using traditional mixology techniques and fresh ingredients in all their recipes. Their offering features drinks such as the Negroni and martini, but my absolute favourite is their refreshing blush-coloured paloma, a tequila and grapefruit-based cocktail that tastes like summertime. Their signature salted caramel old fashioned made with Wild Turkey Bourbon whiskey is a comforting treat as the warming aroma of melted brown sugar wafts through your nose with each sip. The contrasting tartness of the Bodega Gin Fizz is a refreshing sundowner to enjoy in the premise’s charming, bougainvillaea-clad garden, complete with a fountain. One of Bodega’s unique elements is that they stock fine non-alcoholic spirits used to craft non-alcoholic versions of classic cocktails, ensuring that every patron is catered to and perfectly embodies their tagline, “a new home.”
Their small but delightful menu of bar snacks has now expanded to include a small selection of tapas-style sharing plates. I chose to nibble on the plantain chips and their biltong. Reader beware: what starts as a quest to unwind with a sundowner very quickly becomes a late night if you happen to catch Becky Chantuese singing nostalgic melodies on a Friday night, teleporting you far away as the sounds of Lusaka fade into the night.
Once a month, Bodega becomes a scene from a boiler room with the live music events dubbed Pantry Sets. It attracts a diverse crowd of working professionals, artists, and local gatherings to enjoy some of Lusaka’s finest DJs and musicians collaborating in their live sets. However, if you seek a quiet evening out with the perfect blend of conversation, music, and cocktails, look no further than Bodega on a Wednesday or Thursday night.
Journey on to one of Lusaka’s most beloved spaces, Cantina, a Mexican-inspired snack bar tucked away in the quiet residential area of Woodlands. This chic venue has the perfect brick-lined interior and lush greenery reminiscent of a Mexican hacienda in their patio garden. Any seasoned Cantina patron knows that they offer a range of exquisite cocktails that have garnered a loyal following over the years. From their signature margaritas, the exotic pineapple, orange and rum-based mai tai, to a cooling cucumber gimlet (gin and lime based) cocktail. I recommend Ron’s Margarita, an expertly balanced blend of tequila’s sharp flavour profile and spice.
While sipping on your libation of choice, opt to snack on the house special of creamy guacamole and crispy tortilla chips while enjoying easy conversation and the serenading sounds of smooth jazz. Or sample the spicy roasted peanuts paired with the aromatic ginger-fried chicken!
All roads lead to Cantina, so you are bound to bump into someone you know, often groups of friends celebrating a birthday, work colleagues unwinding, or couples enjoying a romantic date night. Cantina’s easy-going ambience invites you to relax and lounge around on a weekday, making it one of my top recommendations for enjoying your happy hour cocktails and making for an unforgettable evening.
As night falls, we journey from Kabulonga to Salama Park for a unique bar experience that blends the ingenious concept of Lusaka’s night street food culture and everything Zambians love about the weekend. Grandaddy’s Shoka Nyama, an exceptionally curated space, marries the aesthetic of a whisky cellar cum gentleman’s club cum sports bar, complete with authentic whisky barrels and plush leather seats. Their outdoor deck is perfect for catching the summer breeze while the latest beats blare. You can catch the football game on the giant outdoor screen while the smoke rises from the grill, filling the air with the rustic scent of shokaz.
Shokaz or shoka nyama directly translates to charcoal-grilled meat and is influenced by braai culture. Any native Lusakan will tell you the night is incomplete without snacking on shokaz between drinks. This is a concept the Shoka Nyama Masters know all too well, as they put on a show, expertly seasoning, grilling, and cutting your meat while you watch before serving it to you hot off the coals. Grandaddy’s have established itself as the “Mixologist of the People” with its colourful and experimental drinks menu and exciting flavours. It is known for its stimulating, often extravagant cocktails, which often change to match the night’s theme. From martinis to a rainbow of frozen cocktails, fishbowls, and mojito jugs to indulge in. On Thursday evenings, the night is filled with the soulful sounds of musician Taehr’s acoustic performance. You can enjoy his fervent vocals while you catch up about your week and plan your weekend.
The crowd at Grandaddy’s may be as diverse as its cocktails. Still, the singular objective is clear: exciting cocktails that require both hands to carry, a delectable range of traditional pub foods from wings to burgers, football and shokaz, the best of Lusaka weekend culture. My preferred pairing is the Big Bwana Platter, perfect for sharing with friends, paired with one of the fruity Gin Daddies, a gin-based cocktail with a variety of flavours such as the saucy strawberry and rosemary, juicy mango or succulent passion fruit.
If you can’t tell by now, I am a big fan of biltong, and Grandaddy’s version is perfect for a light snack. They serve it thinly sliced, tender and moist. Grandaddy’sis the place to be when you search for a casual, genuinely Zambian pub experience where you can kick back, catch the game, and enjoy good food, drinks, and good vibes.
So ends an enthralling night of bar-crawling, some of the best of Lusaka’s night scene. From the warm, eclectic vibes at The Gathering, the intimate, speak-easy sophistication of Bodega, the spicy flavours of Cantina and the electric energy at Grandaddy’s,there is something for everyone. Organise your friend group, head out on the town as the year winds down, and make exciting memories. Where will you run first? Remember to drink responsibly when indulging in all that Lusaka offers. Bon courage!
Images by: Jason J. Mulikita, Patrick Bwalya, Shammah Phiri, The Gathering and Bodega