Chefs Share Their Favorite Ethiopian Restaurants in DC
“We jokingly refer to DC as the 13th state of Ethiopia.”
As the nation’s capital, it’s fitting that Washington DC is home to a plethora of immigrant communities. The largest of all is the Ethiopian population, which started to relocate to DC in the 1960s as refugees, attracted to the proximity of universities and the Ethipioan Embassy, and the fact that the District was a majority Black city. Huge concentrations of Ethiopians started to settle in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and, eventually, into Shaw and U Street.
That area is known to locals as Little Ethiopia, where you’ll find many restaurants and markets even as the area transforms and gentrifies. Now, the DC metro area contains the largest population of Ethiopians outside their home country. You can also find communities present in pockets like Silver Spring, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia.
“We jokingly refer to DC as the 13th state of Ethiopia. It truly feels like home away from home,” says Meseret Bekele, co-owner of the popular Ethiopic Restaurant. When it opened in 2010, it was one of the first dine-in restaurants to set up shop on the H Street strip. “As a restaurant owner, we are super grateful that we could use all the resources we had from our family and the community. Plus, there is the familiarity and comfort along with ingredients and manpower that already understand it.”
The restaurant’s food is what most people associate with Ethiopian cuisine: spicy chicken doro wat (the country’s national dish!), a colorful platter of assorted vegetables and lentils, beef tibs, and the creamy comforting shiro—a stew made with chickpeas or split lentils served in a traditional clay pot.
Reverence for tradition has typically been one of the hallmarks of Ethiopian restaurants, since they are catering to a community that is used to authentic ingredients and serving methods. But Chef Elias Taddesse is trying to change that. Born in Ethiopia and trained in France, Taddesse’s new restaurant Mélange is inspired by his heritage and classic French techniques. The full-service restaurant is currently being built out but, for now, Mélange offers burgers and sandwiches with an Ethiopian bent.
“I want to tell the story of the full world that I come from—authentic and true Ethiopian flavors,” says Taddesse, who has earned a Michelen star. “But I am using techniques that I learned in my training and experiences working in high-end kitchens.”
Think creations like the doro wat chicken sandwich made with spicy doro wat-style fried chicken, kebe aioli, turmeric slaw and an egg, all of which are core components of the traditional dish. His dishes are not just an interpretation of Ethiopian classics, but a true recreation of them. A typical vegan dish is showcased as The Beyaynetu, a beet lentil patty with swiss chard confit, spicy misir spread, and a tomato salad.
“It’s not what you are used to, but because it is authentic and true to the flavors, people are positively receptive to it,” he says. “I’m not diluting any of the flavors or spices.”
We asked locals like Taddesse and Bekele to help us curate a list of places to get Ethiopian food in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. Whether you want a traditional Ethiopian meal or a creative spin on it, to stop into a mom-and-pop family restaurant or try a more chef-driven spot, you’ll find the whole gamut in the DMV.
Here you’ll find trend setting dishes such as a doro wat chicken sandwich and a kikil-style French dip with roasted rib eye and senafich (Ethiopian mustard) cream. Ethiopian tea can be enjoyed as dessert since black tea and spice-infused milk make up the “shahi” ice cream. A full service restaurant coming in 2021 will showcase Chef Taddesse’s signature cooking style blending classic French cuisine with modern Ethiopian flavors.
Open since 2010, Ethiopic continues to be a crowd favorite for its comforting bowls of piping hot shiro, spicy beef tibs, fried fish, and a delectable vegetable platter. Its signature doro wat—the chicken dish that sits in a thick sauce spiced with berbere, garlic, and cardamom—is a beautifully flavored dish that is perfect to scoop up with the spongy injera.
Owned by two siblings with more than 20 years of experience, Family Ethiopian is just as its name suggests—food inspired by their family’s recipes served with a heaping of friendly service. The menu features Ethiopian standards including split pea based shiro, chili spiked awaze beef, and a slow-cooked chicken doro wat.
This relative newcomer has quickly made a name for itself by serving homestyle Ethiopian dishes with fantastic flavors. Injera is made fresh daily, a vegetarian platter comes with six dishes to sample, and meat eaters can enjoy the lamb or beef.
This restaurant and market is open all day from breakfast through dinner and late into the night. Breakfast features “foul,” aka mashed and cooked broad beans with tomatoes, jalapeños, and olive oil, and lunch and dinner showcases a variety of beef and lamb dishes, and a slew of vegetarian dishes. Mix and match combinations are a draw.
The restaurant earned a Bib Gourmand nod in the Michelin guide, but was popular with those in the know way before that. Set in an unassuming row house in Shaw, the restaurant’s short ribs and kitfo are terrific. The deluxe vegetarian combo is the way to go here. Nearly a dozen vegetarian items are served on an injera platter, which is more than enough food for four people, and the flavors and spices are totally spot on.
Meaza Zemedu’s restaurant, cafe, and gourmet grocery store has been around since 2000, starting as just a store with home baked injera and spices. The restaurant is extremely popular with expats for its traditional food and coffee service, but also as a gathering space for the community.
Eating raw meat is extremely popular in Ethiopia, and many local restaurants feature a tartare version called kitfo aka minced meat that is spiked with spices and butter. At Yeshi kitfo, the raw dishes are the draw—ranging from the specialty namesake dish that has the raw beef mixed with cottage cheese, herbed butter and cardamom to the gored gored aka beef chunks mixed with a spicy awaze sauce, onions, and jalapeños. Both dishes are recommended raw, but can be served cooked to medium if you prefer.
A beloved DC institution, the family-owned Zenebech is a local favorite. The Mahberawi platter, which comes with four vegetarian dishes and four meat dishes is an excellent way to try the variety, but they also have an extensive selection of “tibs,” which combined with a vegetarian platter will easily serve as a meal for two.
One of the many Ethiopian spots in Silver Spring, Beteseb ranks high on flavor and spice. The homemade injera here is perfectly spongy, and dishes range from the standard vegetarian items to lamb, beef, and chicken items. The Gomen Besiga contains collard greens cooked with beef, herbs, and butter and is one of the more unique and delicious items found here.
Motown Square Pizza
As a native to Detroit with roots in both Ethiopia and Mississippi, Paulos Belay brought his colorful upbringing to Motown Square Pizza. The spot currently operates as a pop-up at Mess Hall and has quickly gained a lot of fans, despite opening during the pandemic. The “tibs” pizza is true to Detroit style with the requisite Wisconsin brick cheese, but adds Ethiopian flavors via chunks of beef, jalapeños, onions, and traditional herbs.