R.I.P., Meskerem: The Ethiopian restaurant that shaped Adams Morgan

The Washington Post
By Tim Carman
Published on May 4,2015

Restaurant openings are essential nutrients to food writers. We can’t survive without a few juicy coming-soon scoops, filled with all manner of detail about chef, cuisine, decor, investors and anything else we can squeeze out of an available source.

But what about closings? How often do we offer more than a dashed-off tweet to acknowledge the passing of a beloved restaurant? I mean, for every CityZen closure, there must be a dozen others that never merit a word from the Food Media Complex, many for good reason. But Meskerem was different, not just because of its ripe old age, but also because of its role in shaping the personality of Adams Morgan in the 1980s and 1990s.

Before it closed on April 15, Meskerem was apparently the oldest Ethio­pian restaurant operating at the same address in the United States. It opened on March 15, 1985, says Harry Kloman, a journalism instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has been researching Ethio­pian eateries for more than a decade.

Meskerem was a bit younger than the original Blue Nile, which opened on July 1, 1983, in a small storefront in midtown Detroit, says owner Seifu Lessanework. But over the years, that Ethio­pian restaurant moved twice before settling in Ferndale, Mich., just outside of Detroit. “We never closed,” Lessanework says. “Not for a single day.”

Meskerem wasn’t even the first Ethi­o­pian restaurant in Washington. That honor went to Mamma Desta, which opened in 1978 at 4840 Georgia Ave. NW, according to Kloman. Many Ethiopians, in fact, claim Mamma Desta was the first Ethio­pian restaurant in America, but Kloman has unearthed an earlier one: the prosaically named Ethio­pian Restaurant, which debuted in 1966 in Long Beach, Calif. Its life span was only a few months, Kloman says.

But even if Meskerem wasn’t the first Ethio­pian restaurant in America, or even the oldest operating one, the establishment had a colorful past that helped define Adams Morgan for a generation. It deserves an eulogy, especially given the way it closed: without a peep. Even semi-regulars didn’t know it was gone until days after.

Once Mohaba Mohammed and his sister, Nafisa Said, finalized the sale of their three-level building for $1.7 million, they didn’t announce the restaurant’s imminent closure so longtime Meskerem customers could enjoy one last meal. The owners just shut it down, no questions asked.

“From my vantage point, they ran a restaurant and business” for 30 years, says Mychael Cohn, a partner with Lorton Corner Road LLC, which bought the property. “They were ready to retire.”

And apparently ready to retire from the limelight, too. Neither Mohammed nor Said could be reached for comment.

With its colorful combination plates and tangy injera, Meskerem offered many locals their first taste of Ethio­pian food. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
With its colorful combination plates and tangy injera, Meskerem offered many locals their first taste of Ethio­pian food. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

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