Less than a year after shutting its doors in Shaw, Zenebech Injera Restaurant will reemerge in Adams Morgan, the neighborhood that once buzzed with Ethiopian restaurants and nightlife. Zenebech’s owners hope to reopen in June at 2420 18th St. NW and pick up where they left off: as the best Ethiopian restaurant in Washington.
Zenebech announced the reopening Thursday on its Facebook page, which was first reported by PopVille. Michael Demissie, son of restaurant founders Zenebech Dessu and Gebrehanna Demissie, confirmed the news in a phone call. Demissie, 25, and his older brother, Surafal, 34, will manage the operational side of the new Zenebech, but their mother will continue to run the show in the kitchen.
The brothers’ father, however, has decided to step away from day-to-day operations, though he’ll be an informal advisor. “He wants a break,” Michael Demissie says.
The new location will have a larger dining room, with space for about 75 customers, but its kitchen will be smaller than the one at the previous restaurant on T Street NW, which Dessu and Demissie sold last year after rejecting countless offers from developers. In practical terms, the smaller kitchen means Dessu will be able to prepare her famous injera only for diners, not for those who want to take the fermented flatbread home.
In moving to Adams Morgan, the matriarch and her two sons plan to make a few changes. For starters, they’re applying for a liquor license so they can operate a full bar. They plan to hire an experienced bartender to manage it and create cocktails, perhaps even drinks with Ethiopian flavors. They also plan to expand the vegetarian and vegan options, a nod to the trend toward more plant-based eating.
Because the family is now renting, instead of paying a mortgage, they expect prices to increase. Michael Demissie says the prices of some dishes, but not all, could rise by $1 to $1.50 each. “It will go up a little bit because our overhead will go up a little bit,” he says. “We’re trying to stay as affordable as possible.”
One thing that won’t change? The way in which the food is prepared and served. Zenebech doesn’t plan to follow the trail blazed by Etete, which closed last year for renovations and morphed into a modern Ethiopian restaurant in March. At Zenebech, Dessu will continue to serve her stews, tibs and salads on platters lined with injera, so diners can gather around the table and eat with their hands. It’s the Ethiopian way, Demissie says.
But the brothers are thinking about the future, about that day their mother retires. Their plan is to learn everything they can about how she prepares the food. “So down the road, we can teach someone else,” Demissie says. Or, he adds, so they can better understand how they might tweak recipes as the Ethiopian scene continues to evolve.
Speaking of evolving, Adams Morgan looks to be enjoying an East African renaissance, with the relatively recent additions of Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant and Quara Ethiopian Restaurant, both on 18th Street NW. Back in the 1980s, the neighborhood was the hub of Ethiopian life, centered around such bars and restaurants as the long-running Meskerem, which quietly closed in 2015 after a 30-year run. Michael Demissie has heard about the neighborhood’s history from his mom.
Did it influence the family’s decision to choose Adams Morgan?
“We noticed” the history, he says, “but it wasn’t a major factor.” Far more important was the price of rent, the location and the ability to transform the property into the new Zenebech without bankrupting the family.
In other words, the best Ethiopian restaurant in the business doesn’t have time for nostalgia.