“ Bakery cafe in Freetown, Sierra Leone „
Crown Bakery in Freetown crops up in all the guide books to Sierra Leone as a hip place to go. Then again, that's not saying much when there are only two - the Bradt book and a general West Africa Rough Guide. Still, one of the words in the name won me over (hint: I'm not much of a royalist) so it went on my list of places to try.
Crown is downtown, on Wilberforce. It is a few blocks from the Cotton Tree and a few streets in the other direction from the harbour front. It's not hard to find as there are large, clear signs outside, which also indicate the sort of clientele this place attracts as local places often make do with a hand written or faded paint job, not proper moulded lettering like here. I was all set to go there the day after I was discharged from hospital, but alas it was not to be. Still weak (more from not eating the cold baked bean salad the nurses had served up rather than the Malaria itself) I tottered over there to meet a friend only to find it closed, with no explanation. It wasn't before 8am or after 4.30pm. It wasn't a Sunday. It should have been open, but it wasn't, so we went elsewhere. My next attempt was more successful, and a few weeks later I got my first proper trip to Crown, to meet various friends for lunch.
Crown is open for breakfast and lunch, with the breakfast menu running until noon. I am not sure what time the proper food starts, but with most places here there is a bit of an overlap. The eat-in menu is an extended version of their take-out menu which can be found online (website below). Despite the Bakery moniker, Crown offers up all manner of international dishes. On my first trip I ordered a sandwich. It was lunchtime and, not having seen the menu in advance, I was expecting it to have a more limited baked goods focus, so had that in my mind. Plus, the sandwiches are decidedly cheaper than the salads even when the ingredients are pretty much the same.
I ordered the tomato, mozzarella and avocado sandwich, while a friend plumped for the tomato and mozzarella salad which comes with garlic bread. Others in the party ordered burgers or wraps. No one had enough of an appetite for a pizza or pasta though I saw these sailing past to other tables. The sandwich was good but, as is the custom here, served on a bare plate with no salad or crisps to garnish it. I rarely eat those so I don't mind their absence, but even after a few months here I double take every time a plate comes out that is literally just a filled bread roll and nothing else but empty space. Although I liked the flavours, I thought it needed more cheese and less avocado, or that the latter at least be finer cut / spread: it was massive chunks that jumped out of the sandwich when you picked it up, and was overwhelming to eat alone. It was a bit dry but perfectly acceptable for 16,000 Le (approaching £3) though there was no choice of bread, something even some (non bakery) cafes manage.
The salad had a lot more cheese in, perhaps because it was open so they couldn't scrimp on it and hide the fact under the bread like with mine, perhaps because it cost more than double what I'd ordered. The garlic bread was tiny rounds of baguette, and was also topped with cheese, though on a second visit the cheese had mysteriously disappeared. Cheese is a massive luxury here because (a) it's imported and (b) no one has fridges at home, so this was more of a disappointment that you might think.
The burgers were well received, and the wrap looked nice but even sadder than my sandwich on arrival as it was not only on an un-garnished plate but also all tucked up in a plain white paper wrapping. It's the way of serving shawarma and wraps here, but it always looks to me like they've prepared a take away and then remembered you wanted it to eat in, so stuck it on a plate at the last minute.
Obviously I've not tried everything on the Crown menu yet, but what I have tried I have liked. There are some interestingly named things - like the veggie burger which is just tomato and cucumber in a roll, no patty to be found - but on the whole you get what you expect, a miracle for a country that thinks calling something "Rich Cake" is all the information you need. What's even more impressive is that their menu has been proof read, so there are no offerings of 'Ground nut soap', 'Geggies' or 'Pie and Vadg' here, though some of the foreign sounding dishes could use a second look.
The number of vegetarian options is quite good for local standards, and also fairly imaginative - the aubergine burger with pesto and cheese is definitely on my list. I'd also like to try their pasta as I've yet to find a good one here, and they have my personal favourite on the menu (at least I think it is from their questionable Italian).
Any disappointments? As a bakery I was hoping they might have a nice cake counter á la Bliss, which they don't. In fact, they don't have any puddings at all on the menu, though in the breakfast section they have pancakes with chocolate sauce that I'll try if I'm ever there early enough.
In terms of price, Crown is better than the likes of Country Lodge and Mamba Point, worse than the local shacks, and probably on a par with Bliss et al. It won't break even a volunteer's bank to go there every so often, but some items (such as the pizzas - 40,000 Le for a small one) seem out of proportion. There's also a significant mark up on local dishes, but then if you want Jolof rice, this isn't really the place to go as you'll pay through the nose and the quality is probably likely to be less if anything. That said prices do include tax (15%) which is helpful, especially when you're trying to split the bill. Diet Coke is expensive here, but then it is in most places. What is surprising is that regular soft drinks are also pricy at Crown - only 1000 Le less, when normally they are half the price of diet ones.
Crown is a lunchtime haunt of many an (ex-pat) NGO worker or government official. I don't doubt that, were you to hang out long enough, you could pick up some state secrets. We got there before 1pm and it was getting busy already, though we had no trouble shoving two tables together. Service was not appalling, which is quite a compliment here. Menus arrived promptly but there was no face pulling on the part of the waitress when we said we were waiting for some more people to join. They had all the food we requested (not a given, even in the better eateries here) and it all arrived at the same time (ditto). The drinks came soon after ordering, and there was a pleasant but not too long gap before the food came out.
Crown has a nice look to it. It's not a fancy place but the black and white checked floor is clean, and the tables wiped down between uses. It looks modern and well maintained, not particularly post-war. Their toilets aren't the best in town, but are far superior to those in the in-aptly named Ministry of Health and Sanitation. Best of all, the place has air con which keeps you nice and icy, and makes me at least want to linger. Crown also win the prize for the best Xmas display spotted this year - a hideous, tacky scene with 'snow' that is piped up and released from above so it really looks like the white stuff is falling.
I don't work quite near enough to make Crown a regular haunt, but I shall be back, I'm sure. It isn't local food or a local atmosphere, but when you want a break from potato leaf and mystery meat, and the unrelenting heat and humidity, it's a top choice.
5 Wilberforce St
Monday to Friday 8am - 4.30pm
Saturday 9am - 3.30pm
Closed Sunday and whenever else they feel like it...