In 2010, Elias Zeleke and his cousin Mesfin Gegziabhear opened Ras Restaurant & Lounge, an Ethiopian and Jamaican eatery and bar that seemed poised to fill a crucial niche in upper Petworth: It was a place to grab dinner and a few drinks, and stick around for a hip-hop, reggae, or raucous punk show. The idea from the beginning, says Zeleke, was to pick up where his old lounge, the Kaffa House, left off. But now, a bitter familial dispute threatens to derail future all-ages programming at Ras—-and possibly the restaurant’s existence. Ras has been closed to the public since last Tuesday. Zeleke says he has no idea whether it will open again.
The Kaffa House should be familiar to anyone who hung around D.C.’s underground hip-hop and punk-rock circles between 1995 and 2002. During that time, the venue at 1212 U St. NW meant a lot of things to a lot of people: It was a spoken-word stage, a hip-hop launchpad, a punk-rock venue, a favorite dive. (As a high school student, I took the Metro from Wheaton, Md., to see punk shows there between 2001 and 2002.)
Eight years after Kaffa House closed, the cousins opened Ras Restaurant & Lounge in a space that previously housed a pharmacy and dollar store owned by Gegziabhear. Through its Façade Improvement program, the Latino Economic Development Center helped the business build an attractive, glassy storefront. Ras opened in August 2010, serving beef tibs and jerk chicken side by side, and booking an admirably all-over-the-map lineup of all-ages concerts. “Every day we had a different kind of event,” Zeleke says.
Petworth resident Chris Moore, 26, says he booked about 15 hardcore shows at Ras over the last year or so. Moore had planned to host a Paint It Black-headlined show at the restaurant Dec. 21, but heard from another promoter that the place was closing, and moved the concert to St. Stephen’s Church in Columbia Heights. Cory Stowers, a co-owner of art and graffiti store Art Under Pressure, hosted events at Ras, including his long-running hip-hop night, Power Moves, which originated at the Kaffa House in 1998. (City Paper contributor Head-Roc hosted the monthly showcase.) But Stowers began relocating some of his happenings to the Art Under Pressure headquarters next door, in response to what he describes as Ras’ changing booking practices. He says Gegziabhear wanted to take his business in a new direction—-focusing on more lucrative 21-plus events, rather than all-ages shows full of kids who can’t drink alcohol. “They were really trying to build up their bar business,” says Stowers. (I called Gegziabhear multiple times for comment, but he didn’t answer, and his voicemail box is full.)
Zeleke says that the feud with his cousin is all about money—-specifically, Ras’ revenue. “We were pretty good [at] maintaining,” Zeleke says, but no one was getting rich off the business. “Nobody get paid. I don’t get paid,” he says. “This was a long-term plan.” He says his cousin and his wife, who’s also the landlord, felt frustrated with the direction Ras was headed in, and wanted to make big changes. Last week, according to Zeleke, either Gegziabhear or the landlord locked the restaurant, and it’s been closed for more than a week. The cousins were scheduled to meet yesterday, but Gegziabhear canceled, says Zeleke.
“He’s really got a great heart when it comes to giving musicians and performers…opportunities and space,” Stowers says of Zeleke, “and he’s never really asked much from everybody.” From Stowers’ perspective, Zeleke’s ambition with Ras has always been “to get back into a space…to feel that kind of synergy that was created at Kaffa House.” But it seems like the business owner hasn’t yet figured out a way to make that profitable.
Zeleke says he’d like to patch things up with his cousin, with whom he’s been close for decades. “He was the best man at my wedding,” he says. “We came up through a whole lot of stuff…and we have roots.” Initially, the two shared the same vision for the place—-serve food, serve drinks, and host concerts by all kinds of performers. When the money started going south, their relationship went with it.
As for the future of shows at Ras, Zeleke says he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. He hopes he and Gegziabhear can “iron out our differences and try to keep the shows.” Losing the restaurant would be painful, not to mention a waste—-but putting an end to the live music seems to strike a particular chord with him. Asked whether he wants to keep the concerts going, he says “I would love to. That’s my passion, you know?”