At Das Ethiopian restaurant, located at the corner of 28thand M Streets, Sileshi Alifom is eager for people to try out the food of his culture, offering guidance along the way. For instance, Alifom highly recommends eating the moderately spicy shrimp tibs or mushroom ingudai tibs with a good dose of injera bread, which helps cool down the overall flavor.
The mild Ethiopian cheese, he said, is made on the premises. The process involves washing, spreading and drying cottage cheese multiple times before mixing.
Looking around the dining room, it becomes clear that this business is a work of love for Alifom. “Restaurant business is a passion,” he said. The décor’s color scheme features a variety of neutrals: beige, white and black. The pictures were also carefully chosen to reflect the ethnic diversity of Ethiopia.
Das Ethiopian has been in Georgetown for eight years, though Alifom’s dream to have his own restaurant was one that he had for quite some time. “I’ve always loved restaurants,” he said.
Alifom came to the United States from Ethiopia when he was 16 years old. He said that he always worked in restaurants while he was in school. Upon graduation from high school, he worked for Marriott Hotels for more than 20 years, including in Washington, D.C.
Food is an important part of Ethiopian culture, said Alifom. He explained that all of the different ethnic peoples in Ethiopia can be unified through food: “We are one Ethiopia.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Ethiopian eateries were emerging, but Alifom remembers when there wasn’t an Ethiopian food scene. “There was nothing going on in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Within the Ethiopian community, people who were known to cook good food would invite three or four people to their house; these guests were expected to pay for their meals. After the first Ethiopian restaurant opened in the D.C. metro area in 1978, the demand for Ethiopian restaurants grew, including from outside the Ethiopian community.
When rents started to rise, Alifom decided to open a different kind of Ethiopian restaurant. In other restaurants, it was all about providing Ethiopian food without any bells and whistles, even when entertainment was included in the mix, he said. Alifom believes in the importance of consistency, good service, a nice ambiance and beautiful food presentations, saying: “You eat with your eyes first.”
Alifom said he never really identified with the label “black” because of the way he was raised. However, he would call himself a minority business owner and believes in the importance of working hard in order to feel that he truly owns his restaurant. “I have to work hard everywhere,” he said.
With Das Ethiopian featured in the Michelin Guide and people telling him that he’s doing the right thing with his restaurant, Alifom is making strides in the food world. “That has given us a confidence and exposure we needed to have in order to continue,” he said.