Thursday, July 19, 2012

Where to Eat Ethiopian Food in the District

Did you know that D.C. is home to more Ethiopian restaurants than any other city outside of Africa? Many are clustered around U Street and Adams Morgan, the latter being where they originally took up residence until rising rent costs resulted in relocation to a then less-trendy U Street.

When I was 22, I had a great affinity for Adams Morgan, but I was reluctant to try Ethiopian food despite the rumors I’d heard of its deliciousness. Being young and naïve, I assumed that bread described as “spongy” and “sour” couldn’t possibly be good. While those are accurate descriptors- and a sign that maybe the Ethiopian joints around town could benefit from a savvy PR campaign- oh, how wrong I was. After just one visit I was hooked, and now I make it a point to sample as many different Ethiopian spots as I can. Whether it’s your first or fiftieth trip for injera, the favorites below do not disappoint.

1942 9th Street NW

Every time my friends and I head to a show at the 9:30 Club, we make it a point to stop by Etete for dinner first. It’s gotten to the point where it’s an unspoken agreement that any concert can and will be accompanied by a shared vegetarian platter beforehand (friends who are willing to forego meat and split a meal with the annoying vegetarian are true friends indeed).

Of all the Ethiopian places I’ve been to, Etete is the one I’d recommend first for a date. The décor is warm and stylish, and the service is generally very good. Most importantly, the food is top notch, and it remains the standard by which I compare every other Ethiopian establishment.  The high quality of the food as well as the restaurant itself means that Etete gets away with slightly higher prices, and its popularity can result in crowds on the weekends; you may want to play it safe with reservations rather than risk a long wait. 

Dukem (contributed by Thirsty Ivy)
1114-1118 U Street NW

Dukem has captured my heart mostly because it has this surprising ability to be the perfect venue for both a fun, intimate date night and a rowdy bachelorette party. (Yes, I've been there for both.) The casual atmosphere and large dining room allow you to snuggle privately in the front corner or take up an entire section near the dance floor. The live music and dancing add a playful touch and quickly make you forget that you're still in the district.

Their vegetarian platters - filled with potato, lentil, curry, and greens dishes - are designed to be shared - either by two or twelve - and accommodate a variety of dietary preferences (namely, mine!). But a word of warning: if you take them up on their "with fish" option, be prepared to see a whole, fried fish on a plate. P.S. They also stock a handful of native beer! 

1344 U Street NW

I’d heard about the great jazz offerings at Twins Jazz for quite some time before I realized that they also served Ethiopian food -- a winning combination if ever I’ve heard one.

Twins Jazz features popular area jazz artists, and according to their website, also offers opportunities for young, aspiring musicians: “Music students are encouraged to participate in our weekly jam sessions, to learn their craft from more experience musicians. We aim to bring greater appreciation and understand of jazz from traditional to the contemporary.”

Now, given that it’s a jazz venue, it obviously can get a little loud (and, fair warning -- when I visited on a recent hot day, it was quite warm inside). If you’re only looking for some good food, you’d probably be better off checking out one of the other establishments included in this list. But for those who want a little something more than dinner, Twins Jazz is a great, unique option. It also offers more choices for those who may be wary of traditional Ethiopian cuisine; the cheese nachos, for example, come topped with spicy red lentils and are amazingly good. 

2434 18th Street NW

Meskerem is nestled between the busy strip of bars and restaurants along 18th Street, and I walked by it a million times (slight exaggeration) before finally paying it a visit. My roommate and I stopped in after a long day of moving, and were then somewhat dismayed to find ourselves seated at a table like those shown in the picture on the left. 

Fortunately, the hostess very graciously accepted our plea to sit in chairs with backs, and moved us to a table by the front window, a great spot to rest our weary bones and spy on the always interesting scene along 18th Street.  And the traditional seating inside is quite lovely, so long as you don’t go on a day when you can barely bend down to tie your shoes.  

1524 U Street NW

Selam is a family run, no-frills restaurant (read: not a great date spot) that boasts some of the best food in town. The cuisine is Eritrean, which is similar to Ethiopian -- meaning that it’s all of the tasty goodness you’ve come to expect but with a slightly different twist. As an added bonus, the food tends to run a bit cheaper than it does at competing venues. 

While I’ve always found the staff at the small restaurant to be extremely nice and accommodating, the service can be slow, even when it doesn’t appear to be crowded. Last time I visited, I spotted a few people dining solo at the bar, watching TV on the flat screen across the room.  Selam is an ideal spot for such an outing, or even just for chatting with the friendly owners while sipping a drink from their well-stocked bar.

Benethiopia (a Fojol Brothers food truck)
Check Twitter for the day’s location

Words cannot describe the joy I felt upon first learning that the Fojol Brothers had an Ethiopian food truck. While I like a good cupcake truck as much as the next girl, I can leave my office and find a tasty cupcake within a few blocks, no matter which direction I walk. I can’t say the same for Ethiopian food, which is why having a truck that makes an often inaccessible food suddenly accessible is rather genius. 

The Pick 2 option ($8) will provide you more than enough food for lunch (including ample injera), though the truly hungry can order the Pick 3 ($11). I almost always choose the collard greens and split peas when they're on the menu (there are always four vegetarian choices) but the lentils are deliciously spicy and I’ve heard from my meat-eating coworkers that the beef berbere is quite good, too.

401 H Street NE

H Street is all the rage these days, and with good reason (I’ll save the waxing poetic for another post), and Ethiopic is a fantastic addition to its already impressive restaurant scene.

The atmosphere is what my friend calls "simple chic," with a clean and modern design.  Like Etete, the comparatively upscale setting and excellent food make it a bit pricier than its competitors, but only slightly so.  Ethiopic is a great option for the weekend when you're planning to hit the bars afterward, and a good preventative tactic against over-imbibing -- the delicious injera will slow your alcohol absorption and help you exercise better judgment when deciding whether or not you really need that third slushie (sorry, I mean Awesomeness) from Little Miss Whiskey's. 

Those are only a handful of the great Ethiopian offerings around D.C, but it's time to wrap this post up -- let us know your favorite spots below!   


  1. I've only been to Ethiopic of the places on this list (ask to sample their honey wines if you haven't before) so I'd like to try the rest! There are several just north of DC as well, in Silver Spring. I'd recommend Addis Ababa here in my hood (as if you even need another!)

    Yay, I like this post!

    1. I've heard great things about Addis Ababa! I'll add it to my list :)

  2. "Friends who are willing to forego meat and split a meal with the annoying vegetarian are true friends indeed" -- LOL. Darn tootin'! I literally haven't had meat at an Ethiopian restaurant since I moved here from Philly two years ago!
    -- FBM