About 22 miles south of Mombasa, a coastal city in southeastern Kenya, Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant takes semi-al fresco dining to a whole new level. In fact, it’s actually down a level—but not in the way that you might think. Located on Diani Beach, set just back from the shore, the restaurant is a solid 33 feet underground in a cave that dates back 120,000-180,000 years.
The restaurant is part of a miles-long interlocking system of coral caves with potential ties to the trade of enslaved people in the 19th century. About a century later, in 1983, the restaurant was opened by George and Jackie Barbour. Born in the UK, George and his family moved to Kitale, Kenya, when he was young, and he grew up there farming and playing rugby. George and Jackie have since passed away, and many details of the cave restaurant’s early existence went with them. However, some records indicate that after stumbling across the cave, one of George’s friends pointed out that it would make for a stellar bar. George reached out to the architects, and despite initial resistance, Ali Barbour’s was born.
The name—Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant—is supposedly a play on George’s last name and the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Considering the name of George’s other (now-closed) venture was Forty Thieves Beach Bar, this checks out.
When you descend the stairs from street-level into the cave, you first navigate a humble, dimly lit bar area. The darkness gives way to the main dining area, an open-air dome where lanterns, table-top candles, and electric bulbs carved into the rough, uneven walls give the entire space a yellow glow. The walls also act like a sound sponge, providing an excellent acoustic backdrop for the soft music permeating the restaurant. Come nightfall, the ceiling-less cave allows you to enjoy a starlit dinner. (In bad weather, there’s a sliding roof that covers the dining room.)
Dinner is dominated by seafood—hardly surprising considering the cave basically sits on a beach. The restaurant supports the local fishing community by featuring fresh catches from the coast and Lamu Island, located 150 miles from Mombasa.
Options for starters may include fresh oysters sourced from Kilifi, a town north of Mombasa; seafood pâtè with red snapper, prawn, and octopus; carpaccio of yellowfin tuna; bisque of Lamu crab; and a Kenyan-farmed goat cheese tartlet.
As for the entrees, the house specialty is lobster. The seafood platter—which is determined by the day’s catches but typically consists of lobster, crab, red snapper, calamari, and oysters—costs about $50 and comfortably serves two people. If you’re not in the mood for surf, there are plenty of turf selections, like traditional Moroccan chicken and a beef filet dry-aged for 21 days.
When it comes to dessert, there is a panna cotta with a mix of wild Kenyan berries and orange-liqueur-soaked crepes that get flambéed at your table, among other sweets. And as for drinks, you can order cocktails, beer, or soft drinks from the bar.
The glory of the cave is in the open-air dining and novelty of the restaurant’s setting. At sunset, the cave is flooded with orange light until the sun dips below the horizon and you can enjoy your dinner under a sky full of stars. Although George did have to make logistical updates in the cave to accommodate a kitchen, bathroom, and electricity, the cave is largely as it has been for thousands of years, allowing you to enjoy a truly extraordinary dining experience.
The nearest airport is Ukunda Airport (UKA), less than 2 miles from the restaurant. However, you’ll likely have better luck finding deals at Moi International Airport (MBA) in Mombasa. Then you can take a taxi for about 90 minutes to the restaurant.
Average Going price: $1,400 RT
How to do it
- Best time to go: The cave is accessible year-round. December-April is the best time to visit for optimal weather and holiday festivities.
- Cost: Dinner costs an average of $26-$70 (plus drinks) per person. The starters come in around $6-$17, entrees are $14-$46, and dessert is about $6-8.
- Safety considerations: Diani Beach has a significant tourist and expat community, so the area is generally safe. As with any tourist destination, be wary of pickpocketing. For LGBTQ+ travelers, be aware that same-sex relationships are illegal in Kenya. While most people don’t experience issues with this in Diani Beach, it’s best to exercise caution.
- Tips: The restaurant requires reservations. While there is a small chance for you to snag a table without a reservation before 6pm, chances are low, as the restaurant tends to book up. You can make reservations online. The restaurant is open from 5:30-11pm and takes a maximum of 70 guests per seating (there are two seatings—the first from 5:30-8pm and the second from 8-11pm). Children are only allowed at the first seating. Bear in mind, the cave is not wheelchair accessible. Additionally, the dress code is semi-casual; sleeveless shirts, shorts above the knee, and swimsuits are not allowed. If you do not meet the dress code, the restaurant will arrange for transportation to your accommodation so you can change and return to the restaurant.