ASK ETHIOPIANS WHEN AND WHERE their first restaurant opened in America and they’ll probably tell you it happened in Washington, D.C., in 1978 with the arrival of Mamma Desta. That’s what The Washington Post reported on June 11, 1978, in a review of the restaurant.
Araya Yibrehu knows better. One of the deans of Ethiopian food in America – he co-owned Sheba, New York City’s first Ethiopian restaurant, when it opened in 1979 – Araya put me on the trail of Beyene Guililat, a raffish and peripatetic Ethiopian who made culinary history 12 years before the legendary Desta Bairu.
Araya was a great help to me during the writing of my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., and one day, as we chatted about the first Ethiopian restaurant in America, he remembered something. Back in the 1960s, he told me, an Ethiopian fellow by the name of Beyene Guililat opened a restaurant somewhere in California. Araya still lived in Ethiopia at the time, and he’d only heard stories of Beyene after coming to America. He couldn’t remember exactly where or when Beyene opened his restaurant, or what he called it. But he knew such a place had existed.
So I began searching online databases for any trace of Beyene Guililat in California in the 1960s. All I could find was a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times: “Reward. $50 for positive information regarding Beyene Guililat. Last known address 1959 Locust Ave., Long Beach, Calif. Call 632-2572.” It ran for five days in April 1966.
Then, several coincidences and some deep library research later, I finally excavated this:
FROM THE LAND OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA – Definitely the most unusual new café in town is the Ethiopian Restaurant, 732 E. 10th St. It’s a former house converted into a modest dining place which seats 30 in two rooms. The owner is Beyene Guililat, a young Ethiopian man who is in this country studying to become a commercial air pilot. His dinners consist of authentic native dishes, including chicken. They’re from $2 to $4, according to how many courses you wish.
This squib appeared on page A-24 of the Long Beach Press-Telegram on July 21, 1966, and it introduced America to a new cuisine. Beyene’s restaurant only lasted a few months – you can read much more about it in Mesob Across America – but that was enough for it to earn its place in history. (Note: Adjusted for inflation, those 1966 prices would be $13 to $26 today.)
To create his restaurant, Beyene remodeled a house in a residential Long Beach neighborhood. Pictured below is how the house looks today on Google Maps (click to enlarge). The building became a Headstart facility just after Beyene closed his restaurant, and no doubt the kids ate well thanks to the kitchen he left behind. Today it’s a private residence once again.
Three years later, Beyene revived his Ethiopian Restaurant at 248 W. Washington St. in San Diego, and the San Diego Union wrote about his unique enterprise.
On Jan. 9, 1969, columnist Frank Rhoades published a squib about the restaurant’s impending launch. “The place is being remodeled and Beyen [sic] Gulilat, formerly of Long Beach, has applied for a health card, but job hunters, vendors, etc., can’t find him,” Rhoades wrote. “And none of them know what is Ethiopian food.”
Beyene eventually turned up, and his restaurant opened. In the newspaper’s March 9, 1969, issue, he told Rhoades that he prepared enough food every day for 40 meals, and he sometimes had to turn people away.
“I am not in business to make money,” Beyene said, “only to introduce the culture of my country. I am very proud of it, and the patrons all seem delighted with my chicken and beef.” Rhoades adds that Beyene was enrolled at the local Mesa College and was studying to be a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines.
From 2008 to 2010, I tried many times through many avenues to get in touch with Tesfaye Guililat, Beyene’s brother, who also lived in America. I had some leads, and several kind Ethiopians – who knew some of Tesfaye’s friends and relatives – tried to get messages through to him. In Falls Church, Va., one summer afternoon, I even stumbled across two retired Ethiopian men who knew Beyene back in the day. But I had no luck in finding Tesfaye, and I had to publish my book without talking to the person who knew Beyene better than anyone.
Then, one day in November 2010, about two months after the book’s publication, I got a phone call in my office: It was Tesfaye, catching up on his correspondence – and his life – after a long and debilitating illness. He had heard I was trying to get in touch with him, although he didn’t know why. We talked for about half an hour, and so I learned more details of Beyene’s quixotic life.
Mohamed Ibrahim, a long-time Los Angelino who opened his own Ethiopian restaurant, Awash, in 1991, had attended the ribbon cutting at Beyene’s restaurant and remembered eating there. We talked about Beyene during the time I was researching my book. Mohamed remembers Beyene bragging that he planned to take flying lessons. But, Mohamed said, it never happened.
In fact, it did.
Tesfaye says Beyene learned to fly from a small private company in Gaithersburg, Md., when he lived there in the early 1960s. When Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, visited President Kennedy, Beyene put a huge Ethiopian flag on his plane, and as the emperor’s plane taxied, so did Beyene’s. This got the attention of the emperor, who told him that when he came to Ethiopia, he could have everything he wanted.
An unlikely conclusion to the tale of Beyene’s flying lessons? Perhaps. But it’s what Tesfaye remembers, and it speaks to the charismatic Beyene’s peculiar legend, which has become more oral history – a product of grand lore and fading memory – than documented fact.
But there’s no question that Beyene took flying lessons, and there’s video to prove it. In October 1963, Emperor Haile Selassie made a celebrated trip to America, spending time with President John F. Kennedy and touring the nation. He met with many young Ethiopians studying here, and in a 20-minute documentary about the visit, Beyene appears at 19:00 minutes (see clip just below), taking a lesson from his flight instructor and then flying a plane over Washington, D.C., and environs. It’s a remarkable piece of historic footage about the man who brought Ethiopian food to America.
People who knew Beyene in the 1960s claim that on a later visit home, he told the emperor of his desire to open an Ethiopian restaurant in America, and the emperor was so impressed that he gave Beyene some grant money.
Araya lived in Ethiopia in the 1960s, and he remembers hearing that Beyene won the prestigious Haile Selassie Prize Trust Award, given to people who strengthen “the spiritual and cultural bonds between the Ethiopian people and the peoples of the African continent and the whole world,” the Trust’s preamble states.
Yigzaw Ambaye worked for Ethiopian Airlines back then and attended Ethiopian day school with Beyene when the two were children. A New Yorker now for many decades, Yigzaw remembers the adult Beyene flying back and forth in the 1960s, from Ethiopia to California, with teff given to him by the emperor, free of charge, to help promote Ethiopian food and culture in America. A tourist agency helped Beyene to promote Ethiopian food, arts, and crafts in America, Yigzaw recalls, and before Beyene opened a restaurant, he was a milkman, delivering door to door.
My friend Menkir Tamrat, who’s lived in America since the early 1980s, shared a yarn he once heard about Beyene’s pilot days. “It’s said that he was impulsive and could sell ice to Eskimos,” Menkir says, and this story might just prove it.
The tale revolves around a friend of Menkir’s, a classmate from back home in Ethiopia who came to America in the early 1970s, and who flew with Beyene to a wedding in Denver from a small airport in New Mexico some time around then.
“As the story goes,” Menkir recalls, “a group of Ethiopians started driving to some
wedding in Denver from Albuquerque. I think it was in a Mustang, and Beyene might have been at the wheel. They were contemplating the long drive when they came upon a small airport on the roadside. Next thing they know, Beyene turns into the airfield, gets out of the car and goes into some office. They don’t know what was said, but before they knew it, they were all flying on a small plane to Denver with Beyene at the controls.”
Then there’s the story Menkir heard about the time Beyene took a group of friends to dinner at a fancy restaurant. When the bill arrived, it turned out that Beyene didn’t have any money, and no one else at the table had enough to cover the tab. “People started looking at each other,” Menkir says. Then Beyene asked to talk to the manager, and a few minutes later, the matter was settled and they all left. No one in the group knew what Beyene said to get them out of their jam.
“I think Beyene’s life had more adventure and suspense than Bonnie and
Clyde’s,” Menkir says, “and they made a movie about those guys.”
These anecdotes layer memory on memory and tale on tale. But Beyene certainly did renovate a brick house in a residential Long Beach neighborhood to open his restaurant there. Ethiopian and American flags flew at the ribbon cutting, and the mayor of Long Beach attended.
So did Mohamed Ibrahim, who ate at Beyene’s place during its short lifetime. Mohamed came to America in the summer of 1963 after getting an art degree at Addis Ababa University. He studied for a while at Cornell before moving to Los Angeles, where he met Beyene. He knew him for decades, and over the years they kept in touch, which wasn’t so easy to do.
“Beyene never stayed put in one place,” Mohamed remembers. “He was good at starting things but he never finished. When he was done with Los Angeles, he moved to San Diego.”
Mohamed says that Ethiopian Restaurant in Long Beach only lasted for six or seven months before Beyene closed it. His San Diego place, too, didn’t last very long, although Emperor Haile Selassie himself may have visited it on his 1969 trip to California – or so some Ethiopians now reminisce, more than four decades removed.
Mohamed knew of only a few dozen Ethiopians living in the Los Angeles area in the 1960s, and the Census Bureau report for 1970 listed only Africans, with no breakdown for Ethiopians. So while Beyene’s restaurant may not have survived because Americans weren’t ready for such exotic cuisine, or because there were too few Ethiopians to keep it alive, “it was also probably just the way Beyene ran his business,” Mohamed reflects. “That was Beyene.”
In light of this legend, his name is a little bit ironic. The word beyene comes from an Amharic verb that means to decide as a judge does in issuing a ruling. Guleh means “evident, obvious, or conspicuous,” and from that word comes a term for a highly visible decoration that an aristocrat puts atop his house to distinguish it from others. So you could say “Beyene Guililat” means “a conspicuous decision.” He seems to have made many of them in his life, one after the other, as he sojourned from adventure to adventure.
“If you came to me and asked me for ten dollars,” Tesfaye said as he reminisced about his beguiling brother, “I’d tell you to go get a job. But if Beyene asked you for a thousand dollars, you would give it to him with a smile on your face.”
Beyene and Tesfaye sometimes fought like brothers, and even though Beyene was older and bigger, Tesfaye fought back fiercely. Still, he always admired his older brother’s daring and enterprise.
“His ability to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear has always fascinated me,” Tesfaye says. ”He didn’t speak English with proper grammar, but it didn’t matter. He could still set out to do what he wanted to do.”
The problem was that he rarely finished what he began, which is why his historic Ethiopian restaurant in Long Beach only lasted a few months, as did his San Diego establishment, after which Beyene moved on to something else, and after that, something else again.
Tesfaye recalls that the restaurant in San Diego was even bigger than the one in Long Beach. “It was a classy place,” he says, clearly fond of the memories and of his brother. “None of the ones now could compare to the ambiance and the quality of that restaurant.”
The men were actually half brothers: Beyene was their mother’s son from her first marriage. Beyene’s father was a wealthy Addis Ababa businessman, and when he lost it all, Tesfaye’s father purchased his home. “Growing up,” Tesfaye says, “I considered Beyene’s father – he married my mother when she was very young – like a grandfather. We were always happy to see him when he came to our house.”
As a young man in Ethiopia, Beyene joined the Navy, and then “probably stowed away and made his way to America,” around ’61 or ’62, Tesfaye says. Beyene was very generous to his friends and relatives, and they took advantage of that, often talking about him behind his back. Not that he didn’t give them plenty to talk about. “He had children everywhere” in Ethiopia, Tesfaye says, and “he did a lot of things that weren’t acceptable in the class of the middle echelon of Ethiopian society.” But he doubts that his brother had any children in America because none have contacted him.
Emperor Haile Selassie toured America in 1969, and in Los Angeles, he welcomed a group of Ethiopian students. Beyene and Tesfaye were among the group, and Tesfaye has some dramatic memories of the encounter.
At the time, Tesfaye worked at a bank and was putting himself through college. Politically, though, he says he was a “radical,” and when he challenged the emperor to bring democracy to Ethiopia, the emperor called him a “vagabond.” Tesfaye was missing a finger from an accident earlier in his life, and he kept his hand in his pocket to hide the disfigurement. The emperor’s minister of foreign affairs scolded him for this. But the minister forgot to zip up his pants, and so Tesfaye says he told him, “You are standing in front of the emperor with your pants unzipped.” That’s about the time “Beyene began kissing up to the emperor and apologizing on my behalf, ” Tesfaye says. The emperor gave everyone at the gathering $100 – everyone except for Tesfaye.
Some older Ethiopians told me that the emperor gave Beyene money to start up his restaurant and teff to make its injera. Not so, says Tesfaye, on both counts, and he adds, “Money didn’t last long with Beyene.”
Beyene Guililat’s life ended about 10 years ago, but Tesfaye isn’t sure of how it happened. He knows his brother returned to Africa, and the story goes that he died at a casino in Kenya, where “burglars supposedly came in and killed him.”
And as for that 1966 classified ad in the Los Angeles Times – the one seeking information on the whereabouts of the missing Beyene – “it was probably one of his creditors,” Tesfaye says. Beyene had a tendency to borrow money to start a business, and when the business failed, he couldn’t reimburse people. His pioneering Long Beach restaurant was “beautifully decorated, but he didn’t do good financial planning, so he wasn’t able to operate it,” Tesfaye says. “That was one of my brother’s shortcomings. He started and then never finished.”
IN THE LATE 1960s, if Southern California had more Ethiopian restaurants after the demise of Beyene’s two places, they kept a low profile: The Los Angeles Times didn’t mention one until more than a decade later. “You have heard of an Ethiopian restaurant,” food columnist Lois Dwan wrote in 1979. “Very good reports, too. It is Walia, 5881 W. Pico Blvd.” The city had at least four restaurants by 1981, and in the 1990s, not far from West Pico, a two-block stretch of South Fairfax Avenue had become a gathering place for Ethiopian restaurants and markets, so the city dubbed it Little Ethiopia. By then the cuisine had begun to spread to big American cities.
Here are a few other firsts in the development of Ethiopian cuisine in the United States. You can also visit my list of many cities’ first restaurants.
♦ 1978: Desta Bairu, an Eritrean-born woman (Eritrean was once a part of Ethiopia), finally stopped preparing meals for people in her home and began to do it at a restaurant. Mamma Desta – which she lent her name and her cooking skills, but which she didn’t own – was the first eatery of its kind in Washington, D.C.
♦ 1978: Workinesh Nega, an Ethiopian woman who moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., with her husband a few years earlier, decided to begin making authentic Ethiopian spices like berbere in her kitchen and selling them to her friends, who longed for a taste of home. So began Workinesh Spice Blends, the first company of its kind in the country. It still exists today, but it’s run by Lemlem Kebede, Workinesh’s daughter. Workinesh and her husband retired a few years ago and moved back to Ethiopia.
♦ 1979: Araya Yibrehu, Workye Ephrem and a few others opened Sheba, New York City’s first Ethiopian restaurant. Araya now makes Axum Tej, and Workye owns Ghenet, an Ethiopian restaurant she opened in Soho in 1998 and moved to Brooklyn in 2009.
♦ 1984: Nega Sellassie and Tekle Girmay opened NTS Enterprises in Oakland, Calif., becoming the first company to import Ethiopian spices for sale in the U.S. NTS still sells a wide range of Ethiopian foods, beers and wines nationwide. The company’s name stands for “Nega Tekle Shareholders.”
♦ 1984: Chicago got its first Ethiopian restaurant, Mama Desta’s Red Sea – and yes, it was the same Desta, minus an “m” in “Mamma,” who cooked the food at her eponymous restaurant in Washington several years early. Desta left the D.C. place after a few years, lived in Wisconsin for a while, and then went into business with Tekle Gabriel, a young Ethiopian businessman who lived in Chicago. She left the new business after a few years and died on June 20, 2002, in St. Paul, Minn., at the age of 88. Tekle closed his restaurant in 2009.
♦ 1998: The first Zelalem Injera machine began operation in Dallas. Invented by Wudneh Admassu, an Ethiopian-American engineer, the machine makes injera using an efficient conveyor belt system that saves time and labor. The company launched a second machine in Washington, D.C., in 2004.
♦ 2004: Los Angeles officially named a several-block stretch of South Fairfax Avenue, between Olympic and Pico boulevards, Little Ethiopia to recognize the many Ethiopian restaurants, markets and other businesses there. Rosalind’s, the first Ethiopian restaurant on the strip, opened in the mid-1980s, and many more have since joined it.
♦ 2010: My book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., declares the cuisine to be “The New Chinese on the Horizon.” It’s history in the making, impatient to be written.
University of Pittsburgh