Come One, Come All!

The city's Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants serve up more — way more — than delicious food.

14 min read
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Beyonce's "7/11" was on and no one on the dance floor could stay still. 

Past midnight at Dahlak Paradise, one of Philly's oldest Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants, the party was going down. The lights shined a purple cast on those gathered in the narrow space, as friends grabbed each other's hands and strangers stopped feeling so strange and everyone swayed, bopped, or turned around to back that thing up. 

Meanwhile, as DJ Ayo melted "7/11" into Doechii's "Crazy," half a dozen people were seated in the adjacent dining room enjoying food, quieter conversation, and hookahs. At the back of the dance floor, a mirrored hallway led to a bar where still others were grabbing drinks and watching the Sixers play the Kings. Follow the exit from there, and you emerge in a heated outdoor terrace where, even in the icy chill of January several more patrons were hanging in the fresh air.

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Such is often the scene at Dahlak, a single address that operates as many different places all at once. Alongside the restaurant, in business since 1986, their lineup of events includes parties where you can hear up-and-coming DJs, but also open mics, comedy shows, quizzo nights, and karaoke. Their food is just as varied. As the restaurant makes its late-night transition, their classic menu offerings — like yebeg wat, a slow-braised lamb neck and shoulder, and yemisir alicha, a lentil curry stew — are replaced with their twist on bar eats: elotes, wings, and berbere-spiced cheesesteaks, a beloved remix of a local favorite that select Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants in the city serve.

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As the Sixers were on their way to a commanding win over the Kings, a regular named Darnell Schoolfield was keeping tabs on the game while chopping it up with another patron, Jay Bent.

"It's kind of like a refuge, if you need to go somewhere," Schoolfield, who is 33, said of the establishment.

"Or a safe haven," Bent, 25, added. 

"Yeah!" Schoolfield agreed. "If you need a place to go you can come here. And mom dukes!" 

Schoolfield's gushing referred to Dahlak's owner and founder, Neghisti Ghebrehiwot, who was doing her thing in the kitchen, not far away.   

"I love mom dukes. It's all love here," Schoolfield continued. 

As if on cue, Ghebrehiwot emerged from the kitchen, all smiles, waving and wishing Schoolfield and Bent a happy new year. 

"For me, it's like Cheers," Schoolfield said, "everybody knows my name." 

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Dahlak has earned a reputation as a unique cultural center in Philadelphia that few restaurants in the city — if not anywhere — can lay claim to. At the same time, Dahlak shares a sensibility with other Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants in the area. Many, like Salam Cafe and Kaffa Crossing, are multi-hyphenate eateries: restaurant-bars and restaurant-cafes where you can dine-in, order a beer, sip a tea or even all of the above. Several are open late, like Gojjo, Era Bar and Abyssinia Bar & Restaurant. An invitation to meet up at one of these locations, depending on the context, could mean having a casual coffee, catching up over happy hour, fulfilling a desperate need for late bites, decompressing with a game of pool, or a chance to turn-up. 

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Many Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants in Philadelphia are perhaps best understood as embodying so-called "third places" — that is, spaces where people can go for easy social interaction, to meet strangers, to catch up with loved ones.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg created the term third place in the late 1980s, demarcating the home as the first place, work as the second, and a third place as where we go to seek out and find community. Oldenburg has long described third places as "vanishing." As he observed nearly 30 years ago, "Most residential areas built since World War II have been designed to protect people from community rather than connect them to it." 

This topic has intensified as of late, as pandemic lockdowns kept us away from the few third places we have left, leaving many of these businesses to struggle and eventually shutter. While urban planners have long lifted up third places, extolling the importance of parks, libraries, and yes, neighborhood dive bars, in recent years our collective yearning to connect has led many in search of these rare places. In Philly, in certain neighborhoods, many residents need not look further than the family-owned Habesha spot around their way. (Many Eritrean and Ethiopian people identify as "Habesha," a term which encompasses the broader regional culture and population, regardless of ethnicity and tribe.)

The Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in Philadelphia started growing in the 1980s, as refugees from both countries resettled in the US. During that time period, explained Solomon A. Getahun, a history professor at Central Michigan University and co-author of the book Culture and Customs of Ethiopia, decades-long war in Ethiopia over Eritrean independence had intensified, as Ethiopia also faced a historic famine and political infighting, each taking a deadly toll.

West Philadelphia is now home to many of the city's most cherished Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants. They are most commonly found in the neighborhoods adjacent to University City, where, among other institutions, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are situated. This is an area that has seen tremendous change and skyrocketing housing costs in recent years, while also carrying the weight of generational trauma from mass displacement in the past.

Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants attract a divergent cross-section of diners, drawing in patrons of different ethnicities and genders, students and professionals, queer folks and straight folks, longtime residents and newer arrivals, and dining parties with otherwise challenging dietary restrictions. 

Getahun explained that these restaurants are essentially carrying over elements of Habesha dining culture, which has long emphasized sharing and eating communally. "Politics, economics, social gossip, or matchmaking… all these things are done around the table," said Getahun, noting that Ethiopians and Eritreans, both with colonial histories, have historically lacked other forums to express themselves. "The meal is not just a meal. The meal is where we exchange information about individuals, about your country, about what's going on."

To treat owning a restaurant as a practice of building community wouldn't be foreign for Ethiopians and Eritreans, in short, because in their culture, building community is a matter of survival. Many emergency services can't be accessed in the same ways that they can in the US, Getahun explained.

"It is your neighbor. It is your community. That is your 911. That is your firefighters. That is your hospital. That is the first responders in your area," he said, "We depend on each other. Reliability is very important… This applies to everything that Ethiopians and Eritreans do. It is reciprocity."  

Ask Tedla Abraham, the owner of Abyssinia Bar & Restaurant, how he managed to grow his establishment into a place that also serves both culture and community, and he gets straight to the brass tacks. If it's not too obvious, the food can't disappoint. Abraham, who opened Abyssinia in 1995, explained that they use fresh ingredients to prepare dishes just like they would've back home in Ethiopia and that their authenticity yields return customers across races.

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Abyssinia serves breakfast, offers happy hour everyday, and has a separate room for its spacious bar. To further explain their winning recipe for community, Abraham broke it down this way: "We have a big space; the food tastes good; we have mixed drinks. We try to make the customer happy. The price is reasonable. That makes people come."


The intentions of Dahlak's founding couple, Ghebrehiwot and her late husband, Amare Solomon, were always more layered than simply serving food. "My restaurant is a mode of communication for me," Solomon told the student newspaper for the University of Pennsylvania in 1998. "It helps me maintain and teach my ethnic background."

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Ephream Amare Seyoum, Solomon and Ghebrehiwot's son, remembers his father serving his food and teaching customers how it's traditionally eaten. He moved like an ambassador for the cuisine of the Horn of Africa. Solomon loved music, favored unity over competition, and loved building community in their West Philly neighborhood, earning the nickname, "The Mayor of Baltimore Avenue." When his father died, in 2005, Seyoum was a high school senior preparing to transition to college.

"It woke me up. It rocked our world," Seyoum said of his father's passing. "I had to step in and really figure out what we were going to do." Now 35, Seyoum manages the restaurant with his mother. And while he's helped usher it into being an eclectic haven for new music and cultural events, he didn't view its present incarnation as a drastic shift so much as an extension of what his father started. 

"My dad passed and, really, it woke me up. It rocked our world. I had to step in and figure out what we were going to do."

Ephream Amare Seyoum, Co-Owner, Dahlak Paradise

"I could attribute some of this to my father's knack for music," explained Seyoum, "Also [him] appreciating people and giving them a chance to bless the space. I think that I recognized what he had done, all of the glory that people would give him. After he passed, they would tell me stories and stories, things I didn't even know about him. And it just kind of evoked a fire in me to continue that legacy. I didn't want to let him down. I felt like to honor him would be to allow for a variety of functions to take place here," he said.

Seyoum wanted Dahlak to feel like home because, growing up, it had often been exactly that for him. He started to compare the restaurant to a living room. While curating events, he explained, he prioritized inclusivity and a "radical open mind," another trait that his dad passed down.

"There's an aesthetic of, like, respect in the space. I want people to follow that aesthetic," said Seyoum, who doesn't charge at the door, welcomes and considers event ideas from strangers who approach him, and is known as a supporter of safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. "As long as you do that, respect other people, avoid being exclusive, I'm always open to event ideas."

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When Seyoum overhears people describing Dahlak to the uninitiated, the details invariably change, he said, based on whatever night they came through. One person might see it as a hippie enclave, another as a place for musicians to jam, yet another as a gay bar. 

"I'm like, you can say what you want." Seyoum said. "We're everything." 

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant's story can help or inspire another. We're proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.


Cassie Owens
Cassie Owens

Journalist and filmmaker

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