Take a tasty walking tour through Washington, DC’s Little Ethiopia
After years of petitioning, there’s now a ‘Little Ethiopia’ in Washington, DC. Here’s how to explore it via your palate
All images by Scott Suchman
Ten minutes’ drive north of the White House, there’s an area between 9th and 11th Streets dotted with restaurants specialising in fermented injera and spicy vegetable stews. They’re easily spotted thanks to their vibrant green, yellow and red colours – the same shades as found on the Ethiopian flag. Between century-old jazz clubs and buzzy barbershops, the area’s longest-established community diners share block space with Industrial Bank, the oldest Black-owned bank in DC; Lee’s Flower Shop, the city’s oldest Black-owned florist; and the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, home to Washington, DC’s original half-smoke hot dog and beloved by celebrities and presidents since 1958.
Ethiopian immigrants first started arriving in Washington, DC following newly formed diplomatic relations in 1904. By then, the Shaw neighbourhood – where the majority of the Ethiopian community first settled – was already becoming an established cultural sanctuary among the wider Black community. Once known as ‘Black Broadway’,
U Street is anchored by Howard Theatre in Shaw and the famed Howard University, one of the oldest Black universities in the US.
“A lot of Ethiopians came to DC as diplomats,” explains Christian Mirasol, a DC Metro Food Tour guide who leads tours of Little Ethiopia. “With the civil rights movement and the large African American community here, a lot of them felt at home.” Today, it’s home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa.
In 2005, Ethiopian businesses petitioned to create an officially recognised ‘Little Ethiopia’ area, in the Shaw neighbourhood and across U Street between 9th and 11th Streets. It wasn’t finalised until 2020, when members of the DC Council unanimously approved the designation in a celebratory ceremony attended by the Ethiopian Ambassador to the US.
On the three-hour walking tour, Mirasol introduces customers to the fundamentals of Ethiopian cuisine, like berbere and mitmita spice blends, made from ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger and cardamom. And he knows just what old-school community restaurants can craft these flavours best. Here’s where to get a taste of Ethiopia in the US capital.
Habesha Market is famous for its generous platters
A whole lot of flavour on Habesha’s shelves
Celebrated citywide for its generous buffet platters, which diners can see being prepared in the open kitchen, this aromatic restaurant and food market specialises in traditional Ethiopian breakfast staples. The ‘Special Kinche’ has added spices, fresh tomatoes, chopped onions and red mitmita seasoning that transform the otherwise plain kinche (a buttery, grain porridge) into a spicy medley. The hot, fava-bean ful stew has a Berber awaze-spiced tomato base, with creamy yogurt and a fried egg on top. It’s all scooped up with fat wedges of crusty bread. Habesha grew from humble beginnings as a takeaway joint with a small market attached.
“I came to Washington DC around 25 years ago,” says owner Getachew Zewdi. “I opened the restaurant with my brother and nephew about 16 years ago. It’s always felt like a community and a lot of folks continue to stay for the good prices of our food. We have buffet-style dining, where the customers can pick what they want.” Lately, Zewdi’s seen more Americans trying East African specialties, with Ethiopians now making up just 50% of his customer base.
Where to begin? A little of everything at Chercher
Chercher’s traditional, beautifully bubbly injera
Peeling Michelin stickers adorn the façade of this midday spot on 9th Street, serving as a testament to Chercher’s recognition over the years as a Bib Gourmand establishment. Outside, you’ll find a patio crafted from warm wood and shining steel. Walk inside and you’ll see Ethiopian paintings adorning the walls, curtains stitched with the colours of the Ethiopian flag and woven-straw baskets hanging above the mantle.
On the grill, tender strips of beef flavoured with onion, garlic and jalapeño peppers sizzle and fill the air with a thick, spicy aroma. They’ll be served with al dente split pea sauce and soft gomen (collard greens) on spongy injera bread.
“I’ve been in DC for 28 years,” says Chercher owner Alemayehu Abebe. “I first opened Chercher as a small restaurant with seating only for 10 in the basement. I now have three locations, my newest one being in Columbia Heights on 14th Street which will soon have a bakery to make fresh injera in house.”
TVs hang around a wooden bar and gold light fixtures drape from the ceiling. Ethiopian families snuggle together to snack on plates of crispy, lentil-filled sambusa pastries, as steam rises up from the spouts of hot coffee pots. Shaded awning reaches over the street, the restaurant’s signage in Ethiopian colours: green, yellow and red. A firm fixture of the Ethiopian community, Dukem has been in business for 27 years and hosts famous visiting chefs, local politicians and community leaders.
One of the area’s longest-running Ethiopian establishments, Dukem is named after a town just outside Addis. “My late husband Tefera was a hustler, he wanted to have his own business and had the urge to open a restaurant,” says owner Hiwot Gebru. “We started with a small carry-out, one or two tables. Over time it grew.” Upstairs is a uniquely Ethiopian nightclub, the Apple Lounge, which is decorated with large, white-marble columns and has hookah on the menu. It’s open as late as 3am on the weekends.
Find more great food and other fun in the US capital with our super-quick guide to Washington, DC.