VIRTUALLY EVERY ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT IN THE COUNTRY is owned by its chef or by a relative of its chef: the owner’s wife, or mother, or an assortment of family members (usually women but occasionally men). Corporate ownership hasn’t reached this homegrown industry yet, and there are no Ethiopian restaurant chains.
So the names of each restaurant can often mean something special to the owner.
Some owners name their restaurants after themselves or members of their family. On U Street in Washington, D.C., you’ll find Almaz Restaurant, named for its owner. Up the street and around the corner is Etete, the nickname for its owner/chef, Tiwaltenigus Shenegelegn. Not far way, in Arlington, Va., there’s Dama, named for the family members who own and operate it.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., Altaye Tadesse named her restaurant Altu’s, after herself. Alem Ethiopian Village, owned by four Milwaukee brothers, is named after their mother, Alemnesh. Markos Regassa of Madison, Wis., named Buraka after his great-grandfather. And you wouldn’t think that Major Restaurant in Indianapolis is eponymous, but it is: Eden Major cooks the food and co-owns it with her husband. In Atlanta, Hiwot Kifle named her two restaurants Ledet, after her daughter, Ledet Kifle.
Then there’s the deceptive Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant in Toronto. No, that’s not the name of the owner or chef: It’s named after the famous 3.4-million-year-old fossil of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia in 1974. The restaurant’s business card has both “Lucy” and “Dinkenesh” written in Amharic, the latter being Lucy’s name in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia . It means “you are beautiful.”
But not all restaurant names are quite that personal. Some owners choose the names of famous Ethiopian cities or natural wonders, like rivers, lakes and mountains, perhaps from cities or regions where they grew up. Others honor aspects of Ethiopian history, especially great leaders. And some draw from a variety of cultural elements and religious traditions.
Here, then, are the meanings of many Ethiopian restaurant names. Eritrean restaurants may also use these names, too, although after this Ethiopian list, I’ll share the names of some restaurants that are almost certainly used only by Eritrean owners.
Abay. The Amharic name for the Blue Nile (see below).
Abol. In the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the “abol” is the first of three cups consumed by the celebrants.
Abyssinia. The ancient name for the country now known as Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa. The capital city of Ethiopia since 1889. The name means “new flower” in Amharic. Some restaurants will just take the name Addis.
Arada. A neighborhood in Addis Ababa with a large marketplace built in the 1980s.
Aksum/Axum. The capital of the ancient Aksumite empire, the first great civilization in Ethiopia.
Awash. A major river in eastern Ethiopia.
Bati. A town in north-central Ethiopia.
Blue Nile. The famous river that begins in the Ethiopian highlands and wends its way through the country, meeting the White Nile at Khartoum to form the Nile, which journeys on to Egypt. The Blue Nile, called the Abay in Amharic, contributes about 75 percent of the water to the Nile.
Demera. This Amharic word means “bonfire.” A demera often refers to a bonfire of twigs set in celebration or joy.
Dessie. A city in north-central Ethiopia.
Dukem. The name of a small city south of Addis Ababa.
Empress Taytu. The wife of Menelik, the emperor (1889-1913) who brought Ethiopia into the modern era.
Enat. The Amharic word for “mother.”
Fasika. The Amharic name for Easter. The word has numerous different spellings in English.
Fasil. This is a man’s name, so it could be the name of an owner. It could also refer to Fasilides, a 17th Century Ethiopian emperor who established Gonder as the nation’s capital.
Finfiné. In Afaan Oromo, the most widely spoken first language in Ethiopia, this means “natural hot spring.” It’s also the Afaan Oromo name for Addis Ababa.
Ghenet/Ghion. The river mentioned in the Bible that flows out of Eden. “Ghenet” is the river’s name in Amharic, and it means “paradise.” Today, the Biblical reference is believed by some to be to the Abay, or Blue Nile.
Gojo. The Amharic word for a traditional thatch-roof Ethiopian hut, called a tekul in Tigrinya.
Habesha. An ancient name, preceding Abyssinian and Ethiopian, for the people who occupied the northern portion of what is now Ethiopia. The word Abyssinia comes from Habesha.
Harar. A major eastern city of Ethiopia where excellent coffee is grown. The city is largely Moslem in population and character.
Horn of Africa. This term refers to the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti, located on the eastern portion of the African continent that juts into the Red Sea.
Ibex. A type of antelope native to Ethiopia.
Kokeb. The Amharic word for “star.”
Lalibela. A legendary emperor of Ethiopia (1189-1229) who ordered the construction of stunning churches hewn from the rocks of the rugged northern Ethiopian terrain. Many of these churches still stand today and are a popular tourist attraction. The city named Lalibela was, before the emperor’s reign, called Roha, and some Ethiopian restaurants take this name.
Langano. One of Ethiopia’s largest lakes, located in the great Rift Valley.
Marathon. Some restaurants choose this name to honor the country’s many great athletes who have won international marathons.
Menelik. The name of a famous conquering Ethiopian emperor (1889-1913) who brought the country into the modern era.
Merkato. The name of a large, well-known, open-air market in Addis Ababa.
Meskel. An Ethiopian Christian holiday that celebrates the discovery of the true crucifixion cross in the fourth century. A demera is lit at the celebration.
Meskerem. The first month of the Ethiopian calendar, and the Amharic word for “spring.”
Mesob. The large round colorful wicker basket on which the plate of food is placed for all to share.
Nyala. A type of antelope native to Ethiopia.
Queen Makeda. Makeda is the name of the monarch known to history and the Bible as the Queen of Sheba or Saba.
Queen of Sheba. According to legend, Makeda was the queen of the land of Saba (known to us as Sheba) in what is now Ethiopia. She bore a child named Menelik with King Solomon, and that child began the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopian rulers. There is no historic evidence for this, but the story remains a cornerstone of Ethiopian cultural identity.
Ras. An Amharic word that means “governor” or “regional ruler.” Most restaurants with “Ras” as their first word pay tribute to a figure from history, with the exception of Ras Dashen (see below).
Ras Dashen. The highest mountain peak in Ethiopia.
Ras Kassa. Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1968), born Kassa Haile Giorgis.
Rasselas. The name given by Samuel Johnson to his fictional Ethiopian ruler in his 1759 novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
Roha. The ancient name for the city now known as Lalibela.
Shashemene. A town given by Emperor Haile Selassie to a group of Rastafarians.
Saba. The Amharic word for Sheba, an ancient land once believed to be in what is now Ethiopia. See Queen of Sheba.
Sheba. An ancient land once believed to be in what is now Ethiopia. See Queen of Sheba.
Shebele. A river in Ethiopia.
Sidamo. A region in western Ethiopia famous for its coffee.
Sodere. The name of a resort town in east of Addis Ababa, known for its hot mineral springs.
Tana. The Ethiopian highland lake that’s the source of the Abay, or Blue Nile.
Tekul. The Tigrinya word for an Ethiopian cone-shaped thatch-roof hut, called a gojo in Amharic.
Walia. A type of Ethiopian antelope.
Zoma. A city in south-central Ethiopia.
Finally, these next few restaurant names will usually mean that the owner is from Eritrea, where the cuisine is the same as the Ethiopian “national cuisine.” Eritrean restaurants will sometimes present themselves as offering “Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine” because the brand name Ethiopian cuisine is better known, and some will call themselves East African restaurants, like Duo East African Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., which serves “authentic Ethiopian, Eritrean food.” Because Eritrea was an Italian colony for more than half a century (ending in 1941), some Eritrean restaurants have Italian-flavored names like Bella Restaurant or Aurora Café.
Adulis. The name of an ancient port on the Red Sea, now a part of Eritrea.
Ambassador. The name of a hotel in Asmara where young people often gather to socialize.
Asmara. The capital of Eritrea and its largest city.
Dahlak. An archipelago of islands off the coast of Eritrea.
Keren. A city in central Eritrea, and the second largest city in the country.
Massawa. A Red Sea port on the coast of Eritrea.
Red Sea. The famous body of water that separates the horn of Africa from Arabia. Ethiopian territory once included the province of Eritrea, which is now an independent country. With Eritrea’s independence, Ethiopia became landlocked.
Sawa. A city in Eritrea, and the site of the country’s military training center, located in the west of the country, not far from the Sudan.
Zula. A small town in Eritrea on the Red Sea coast.
University of Pittsburgh