Photo of gomen with zilzil tibs by Alison MacGibbon

Good news has been hard to come by with regard to one of D.C.’s most celebrated ethnic cuisines, as several Ethiopian restaurants have shuttered over the past year and a half, including Meskerem and, most recently, Zenebech Restaurant (which hopes to relocate). Use some injera to soak up those tears, because there is one very bright spot: Columbia Heights restaurant LaTena from first time restaurant ownerYamrot Ezineh.

Set to open Oct. 19 in the heart of Columbia Heights (3100 14th St. NW), LaTena will be both a 20-seat coffee shop and 30-seat cafe. It will feel most like a fast casual restaurant where you order at the counter before scoping out a table to dine. Everything on the food menu is less than $20, and they will eventually serve beer and wine, including Tej—an Ethiopian honey wine.

The menu is divided into meat stews, tibs and kitfo, salads, vegetarian selections, combination platters, and a few dishes from other parts of the world like spaghetti bolognese (should you bring a real stick in the mud to dinner). You can choose between a small or large size, as well as whether you’d like it served with traditional injera bread, flatbread, rice, or in a wrap. (Sample menu at bottom of story).

Photo by Laura Hayes

Like a few other area restaurants, diners in-the-know can ask for injera made from 100 percent teff flour from Ethiopia. Ingredients, Ezineh says, are so important to Ethiopian cooking that she traveled to Ethiopia for three months last

summer to find the best products.

Ezineh has been in D.C. for 10 years. Her favorite Ethiopian was Madjet, at 1102 U St. NW before it closed. She liked it so much that she hired a former chef from the restaurant to run the kitchen at LaTena, though he’ll be using some of Ezineh’s family recipes. Ezineh hails from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but moved to the United Kingdom when she was 15.

While she worked in family restaurants growing up, she became a chemical engineer after graduating from college and also received an MBA. “Whenever I go to a restaurant, I see it either from a business point of view or a process point of view,” she says. That’s why she took such a meticulous approach to determining which neighborhood would be home to her first restaurant.

“I live here, three blocks from here, but I never considered it until I looked at neighborhood profiles,” she says. “I went through all of them, and Columbia Heights was the last one I looked at, but it happened to have the right demographics. We have millennials who are more into Ethiopian food than later generations.” She adds that neighbors would always ask about the closest Ethiopian restaurant, and she’d have to point them to 9th Street NW, commonly known as Little Ethiopia. 

Photo by Laura Hayes

The space at LaTena is vibrant. Colors of ground spices lacquer the walls studded with wooden carvings. “I’m sure you’ll hear from most people that it’s too modern for an Ethiopian setting,” Ezineh says. She wanted to represent all parts of Ethiopia in the design, which is why it doesn’t look like other, more traditional Ethiopian restaurants in town.

“Southern Ethiopia hasn’t been represented well,” she says. “Most of what you see here is from the south because they have good wooden art there. I wanted to bring that out.”

LaTena will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The coffee shop side will serve Ethiopian coffee and offer free wi-fi. When the restaurant eventually launches brunch, there will the option to partake in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

LaTena, 3100 14th St. NW; letenarestaurant.com