When Queen of Sheba debuted in 2005, there were no multistory condominiums with dog parks on the roof and sweeping vistas of the Shaw neighborhood. There was no Chaplin’s next door with $14 bowls of ramen and $20 pours of Japanese whiskey. There was no shortage of parking, either.
But in the 11 years since Nigisti “Queen” Gebreyesus and her husband, Embzam Misgina, open their Ethiopian restaurant, Shaw has become a developer’s playground, and all the shiny new commercial objects have put a squeeze on the couple’s business. In fact, before I spoke with Gebreyesus, I noticed Queen of Sheba was for sale. But the Queen told me the online listing was premature. The couple had been contemplating a sale but decided to give themselves more time to reverse their fortunes.
The sound you hear is the $20 Diner exhaling loudly — at least for Queen of Sheba, which, based on two recent meals, is turning out some of the finest Ethiopian fare anywhere. We don’t need to lose another standard-bearer on the Ethiopian dining scene. Earlier this month, the owners of Zenebech Restaurant announced they would be selling their property and closing their injera-based business after an 18-year run on T Street NW, located basically next door to the renovated Howard Theatre.
For the past month or so, I’ve been eating at one Ethiopian restaurant after another, trying to better understand the decentralized and ever-evolving scene. One observation is irrefutable: Little Ethiopia on Ninth Street NW, the block-long corridor that thrived a decade ago, is essentially toast. Gentrification has slowly stripped away much of the area’s East African character, replacing it with compact urban apartments, a retro-hip eyewear store, designer donuts and other trappings of the modern Washingtonian.
Sure, you can still find plenty of old-school Ethiopian joints in the District and elsewhere, the kind of places with colorful mesob wicker baskets that double as your dinner table. But you’ll also find other forms of dining, such as the fast-casual Ethio Express Grill in Silver Spring or the wine-focused, full-service Ethiopic on H Street NE.
Given the ongoing flux of the scene, it struck me that many of the best Ethiopian restaurant lists online are outdated or incomplete, including one or two of my own. I hoped to correct that, to give some old-timers their due while also providing space for new outposts. I’ve ranked them here, but I should provide two caveats: First, that Etete, the Ninth Street NW institution, remains closed for renovations. Second, that on any given day, the No. 5 restaurant on this list may out-perform the No. 1 restaurant. In other words, the margin that separates the top five is pretty slim.
1. Zenebech Restaurant
This is essentially a ceremonial pick. It also serves as a thank you to Zenebech Dessu and Gebrehanna Demissie, the namesake and her husband, who have prepared some of my favorite Ethiopian platters over the years at their modest restaurant, utilitarian in design but rich in tradition. Zenebech is expected to close Monday, which means you have only days to enjoy the kitchen’s finesse with Ethiopian spices. The family continues to search for a new location in the District, but you know how that goes: It could be months and months before Zenebech returns. 608 T St. NW. 202-667-4700. zenebechdc.com.
2. Bete Ethiopian Cuisine and Cafe
The dining room has a worn, claustrophobic feel, which is why you should enjoy the fall weather (and the stews and salads) on Bete’s back patio, under the protective arms of the giant princess tree. 811 Roeder Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-2225. beteethiopia.com.
3. Queen of Sheba
I’m not as enamored of the Queen’s fiery flaxseed wot as she is — I hunt for deliciousness, not heart-healthy fare (don’t start on me!) — but I love her melt-in-your mouth tenderloin tibs, her glistening mound of raw kitfo, her pile of savory, barely chopped collards and many other dishes. 1503 Ninth St. NW. 202-232-7272.
4. CherCher Ethiopian Restaurant and Mart
Once just a dingy subterranean spot with excellent raw-meat preparations, CherCher has expanded into a sleek, Shaw-friendly space upstairs with excellent raw-meat preparations. 1334 Ninth St. NW. 202-299-9703. chercherrestaurant.com.
5. Meaza Ethiopian Cuisine
Owner Meaza Zemedu’s space is looking a little threadbare these days, but her cooking remains as robust as ever. Her special kitfo, a cold-blooded flamethrower, continues to set the standard by which all others are measured. 5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church. 703-820-2870. meazaethiopiancuisine.com.
6. Beatesub Market and Carry Out
In a sunny space in downtown Silver Spring, this newcomer feels like an antidote to the once-standard Ethiopian experience, in which men (always men) huddle in dark, secluded corners to talk, argue and eat. Yet the food, fragrant and nuanced, tastes as if it caters to the expat community. 8201 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-448-1625.
7. Enat Fine Ethiopian Cuisine
Enat occupies an anchor spot at the Lincolnia Shopping Center, which looks as inviting as a biker bar at midnight. Don’t be fooled. Inside this unassuming storefront lies a restaurant and staff that lives up to the name of the place: Enat is Amharic for mother. They’ll treat you to some stylish home cooking, pungent and uncompromising. 4709 N. Chambliss St., Alexandria. 703-642-3628. enatrestaurant.com.
8. Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant
Dukem remains relevant even as new players strut onto the stage, thinking they can take a bite out of this U Street institution. Even in the daytime, when the place looks tired and the servers bored, the kitchen produces a platter that makes you realize you can never dismiss Dukem as yesterday’s news. 1114-1118 U St. NW. 202-667-8735. dukemrestaurant.com.
9. Ghion Restaurant and Lounge
Like other spots along the U Street corridor, Ghion frequently assumes a lounge persona on weekends: heavy on DJ mixes, light on Ethiopian spice mixes. But when the place focuses on food, the results are surprisingly strong, although not perfect. The lamb tibs, spiked with jalapeno and cardamom, make you sit up and pay attention. 2010 Ninth St. NW. 202-681-2008. ghionethiopianrestaurantdc.com.
10. Ethiopic Restaurant
I admire how this H Street NE restaurant has elevated the setting for Ethiopian finger food. I only wish the owners wouldn’t defang the more ferocious elements of the cuisine, whether tamping down the heat or limiting the menu to more American-friendly plates. 401 H St. NE. 202-675-2066. ethiopicrestaurant.com.
Runners-up: Nile Ethiopian Restaurant (7815 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-882-1130); Abay Market (3811-A S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church. 703-998-5322); Ethio Express Grill (952 Sligo Ave., Silver Spring. 301-844-5149); Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant (8301 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-589-6700); Askale Cafe (3629 12th St. NE. 202-758-0077); Lilypad on the Run (check the truck’s Twitter account @LillypadontheRun for locations).