It’s Saturday evening and the wait for a table at Zenebech Restaurant is 45 minutes. A crowd forms outside on one of the restaurant’s last weekends in business here as a waiter jots down the names of hungry patrons on a pad of paper.
Every seat is filled, crammed with middle-aged Ethiopian men speaking Amharic and 20-somethings dressed to hit the Shaw neighborhood’s trendy bars after dinner.
The authentically folksy family-owned restaurant navigated the tide of rapidly gentrifying Shaw, keeping its longtime Ethiopian customers while introducing the neighborhood’s new, deep-pocketed residents to Ethiopian cuisine. Zenebech Dessu and her husband purchased the building and opened the restaurant in 1998, back when storefronts stood vacant and the city hadn’t yet invested in reopening the crumbling Howard Theatre nearby.
“When the area changed, it’s been good for us,” said Zenebech Dessu, 64, the restaurant’s owner and namesake. “Most of my customers are American now.”
In a neighborhood filled with residents who can pay more than $2,000 a month in rent, Dessu’s family turned down offer after offer from interested developers over the years. But this year they decided to sell, and the restaurant, which is scouting out new locations, plans to close this month. It’s a loss for the tight-knit Ethiopian community and the restaurant’s newer patrons who flock there for a $3.50 beer and a cheap sit-down meal.
The owners of this strip of four rowhouses and small commercial buildings — which Zenebech anchors on the corner of T Street and Florida Avenue NW — jointly decided they would sell to a developer, Monument Realty, which plans to transform the aging strip into an apartment building with retail on the ground floor.
Three of the four buildings are Ethiopian-owned, and the small plaza in front of the buildings, centered on a sculpture of Duke Ellington, has become a meeting place for residents and Ethiopian cabdrivers on break.
Dessu moved to the United States with her husband, Gebrehanna Demissie, in 1990 as a refugee and cleaned hotel rooms, living in an apartment building on 16th and R streets NW filled with other Ethiopian refugees. When they both were laid off from their jobs, Dessu started cooking injera — a spongy bread that is a dietary staple in Ethiopia — and sold it for 50 cents apiece to other Ethiopians.
Her reputation and business operation quickly outgrew their home, and Dessu rented a small kitchen nearby, distributing her injera to the area’s Ethiopian restaurants.
In 1998, the couple purchased their current location and turned it into a takeout spot and grocery store that mostly sold injera. Over time, business slowed as more Ethiopian restaurants started making their own injera, so Dessu transformed her business into a restaurant, serving large vegetable and meat platters atop her signature bread.
Today, Dessu and her husband are still cooking in the back of the restaurant. Their sons and other relatives help manage the business and serve customers while Dessu’s sisters cook alongside her in the kitchen.
“I’m not happy, but I decided I had to sell it,” Dessu said. “With the three of us Ethiopian owners on this street, it feels like Ethiopia here.”
Russell Hines, president of Monument Realty, said that the deal has not yet closed and that he couldn’t comment on how much the company paid for the prime real estate. The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue values each of the four properties at about $1 million.
About the same time Dessu and her husband purchased the restaurant, two other Ethiopians bought the buildings next door, which are mostly residential. Zenebe Shewayene said he paid about $120,000 for his building in 1996. Since then, he said, his property taxes have increased more than tenfold.
His building includes apartment units and a now-shuttered bodega, Smada Market, on the ground floor. Shewayene has long rented to Ethiopians who recently arrived in the United States in need of a cheap starter home. Dessu and Demissie also hire newly arrived immigrants from the Ethiopian community so they can gain their footing in their new city.
“We wish we had stayed, but in terms of money, we’re doing okay,” said Shewayene, who can often be found outside his building chatting with neighbors and friends. “I know I’m going to miss talking outside, doing what I’m doing right now. I’ve had a family thing here.”
James Patterson, 80, has lived in the fourth building, which is African American-owned, since 1985. He is a former maintenance worker at the Howard Theatre and has been doing maintenance on the building where he lives for more than 50 years. He said his landlord has charged him $650 for a one-bedroom apartment and ground-floor office space since 1985, and in exchange, he helps around the building.
“I’m good with changes about 75 percent of the time,” said Patterson, who plans to move to a house he purchased years ago in Southeast Washington. “But there are so many people who don’t have the finances to deal with the changes.”
Ethiopians began streaming into the United States after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1970s, and many Ethiopian entrepreneurs are credited with breathing life into neglected strips of the city, including Adams Morgan and later Shaw. About a decade ago, the local Ethiopian community unsuccessfully lobbied the city to recognize the Ninth Street NW area between U and T streets in Shaw as “Little Ethiopia” because of its many East African-owned establishments.
Belainesh Araia, who originally is from Eritrea, has purchased injera from Zenebech for more than 20 years. She said she’s frustrated to see Africans who have helped to revitalize neighborhoods leave once the areas become too pricey and more desirable to others.
“I feel bad. I come here every day. What am I going to do now?” she said. “The city should do more to keep us here, to keep this as a multinational area. You have to keep everyone together.”
Dessu said she plans to reopen Zenebech and is looking for a new space. She said she received a fair price for her building, but it’s still hard to purchase another storefront in the booming neighborhood within her price range.
Renderings of Monument Realty’s building that will replace the restaurant show that it will keep portions of the original facades on the ground floor, though it will resemble many of the newly built, glass-heavy luxury buildings in the neighborhood.
“I’ll open another place, but where, I don’t know yet,” Dessu said. “I don’t want to be far away from this area.”
Until that happens, customers say they’ll miss one of the last remaining no-frills restaurants in an increasingly upscale neighborhood.
“I’ll miss it,” said James Tetrick, who drives from Rockville a few times a year to dine at Zenebech. “It’s a great place to eat.”