1334 Ninth St., NW; 202-299-9703
This rowhouse restaurant may have a Ninth Street address—on the restaurant row off U Street that’s known as Little Ethiopia—but it lies blocks from its competition. The cooking, too, stands apart, with a complexity and robustness that are testament to the unspoken but unmistakable desire of the operation, owned by Alemayehu Abebe, to cook for Ethiopian expats. You don’t have to have grown up in Addis to appreciate this passionately uncompromising approach. You might have tasted dozens of versions of beans and tomatoes, but it’s unlikely any has come close to this remarkable depth or richness. Likewise the yebeg wat, its hunks of lamb thickly coated in a stew-like sauce that looks more like melted chocolate than the red of an all-day marinara that some places favor, and whose flavor can’t be chased with a long sip of St. George, the Ethiopian equivalent of Heineken.
Also good: Kitfo (an Ethiopian beef tartare); mesir wat (red-lentil stew).
1505 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-920-5620
The versatility of the place alone ought to earn it a spot in your dining-out rotation. At breakfast, it’s an easygoing antidote to greasy spoons or corporate cuisine. (Get the ful, a dish of stewed favas, garlic, and olive oil with warm, crunchy bread.) Midday, it’s a pit stop for coffee and an Italian-style pastry or cake from the adjoining bakery. Come dinner, its enormous value becomes readily apparent. Bring along a group of like-minded friends and watch the table bloom into a lavish and colorful feast of complex, powerfully spiced stews—50 bucks rarely brings so much warmth, comfort, or deliciousness. (If you’re more experienced with the cuisine, try springing for the teff injera, a nuttier-tasting alternative to the thin, lightly fermented bread that serves as both utensil and wrap.) Dama has in recent years made meatless cooking a priority, with another entire menu devoted to the Gondarian staples that make up the contemporary Ethiopian table—among them, a fascinating and tasty wat, or berbere-spiced stew, with tender, roasted garlic cloves.
Also good: Yebeg tibs (a lamb stir-fry); beef tibs; kitfo (a beef tartare); vegetarian combo.
4709 N. Chambliss St., Alexandria; 703-642-3628
Even at noon on a sunny weekday, the lights are dimmed, the shades are closed, and the air is musky with incense at this white-tablecloth Ethiopian dining room. Nobody seems to care—all the better to focus on the cooking, which serves vegetarians and vegans particularly well. No veggie sampler in the area comes close to the one here, with its round of injera holding a rainbow of vivid little piles. The collards, which in lesser hands can be dull and one-note, leap with flavor; green beans and carrots are bright with black cardamom; and the yellow-split-pea stew called kik alecha is a soothing, warming contrast to the cold salads. The injera—lacy, sour flatbread used as both plate and utensil—is so good you’ll want to keep it coming long after you’ve cleaned your platter.
Also good: Kitfo (raw or lightly cooked beef); doro wat; beef tibs.
401 H St., Ne; 202-675-2066
Naming the best Ethiopian in Washington is a bit like picking a top New York slice—great options abound, and small differences at each spot (the tenderest tibs,house-made injera) breed loyalists. What keeps us coming back to owners Samuel Ergete and Meseret Bekele’s serene restaurant: the quality of ingredients and the care with which the kitchen prepares each dish. Stepping into the warmly lit, brick-walled dining room feels like entering a home, as does the pleasant welcome and offer of a drink from the varied list of Ethiopian beers and wines. If anywhere, this is the place to try kitfo, the traditional tartare-like dish, here made with prime beef and house-made spiced butter. The seven-vegetable combination plate makes for a wonderful share. Garlicky collard greens, deeply caramelized string beans, lentils, and split peas (bright kik alecha, richly spiced mesir wat) make for a satisfying tour of the kitchen’s breadth.
Also good: Tomato-jalapeño salad; doro key wat (spicy simmered chicken legs); awaze beef tibs.
1780 Florida Ave., NW; 202-265-5764
Even rainy weeknights can mean a wait for a table at this cozy Ethiopian-Eritrean restaurant in Adams Morgan. Credit the warm welcome and generous, home-style dishes that rarely edge past $10. You won’t find all the staples—there’s no kitfo or pricier proteins like lamb—but the kitchen excels with its concise menu. As at the best diners, breakfast is served all day, and you can pick your buzz between potent Ethiopian coffee and a cold St. George beer. The ful—a sort of bean chili topped with jalapeños, tomatoes, yogurt, onions, and two scrambled eggs—is delicious at any hour. Groups should go for the house special: a shareable platter of injera ladled with two kinds of stewed lentils, tomato salad, braised cabbage, and other vegetarian pleasures, with a soulfully spiced heap of beef tibs at the center.
Also good: Fata with egg sisi (chopped injera with eggs and spicy tomato sauce); special tibs with chicken.
6040 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville; 240-296-3030
When owner/chef Kelem Lemu is at the stove, the cooking at this erstwhile Donut Connection, now an Ethiopian coffeehouse and diner, rises a notch and transforms the place into a cafe of cozy, communal warmth. Be sure to ask if she’s in. And while you’re at it, be sure to let your young and gracious servers know you want your beef tibs—a dish analogous to a meat stir-fry or fajitas—cooked derek, or extra-dry (the marinated morsels become more interesting than if they’d been left pink in the center: crunchy and full of savor). One dish you won’t find at many other Ethiopian restaurants in the area is ayeb gomen, in which garlicky, chopped collards are tossed with a soft house-made cheese. An Ethiopian beer such as Bedele or St. George is the ideal pairing with the rich, spiced food, but don’t pass up one of the best cups of coffee around; the soy lattes are creamy and sublime, and more satisfying than some desserts.
Also good: Kitfo leb-leb (chopped, spiced beef tartare cooked lightly); vegetarian combos; doro wat or yebeg wat (chicken or lamb in berbere-laced sauce).