On our second evening in Lalibela, our guide, Shamble, took us to an amazing restaurant for dinner. We are clearly not the only ones to be impressed by the Ben Abeba. The Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland gives it this write-up:
TOP CHOICE Ben Abeba
Hands down the coolest restaurant in Ethiopia, this Ethio-Scottish-owned, Dali-esque jumble of walkways, platforms and fire pits is perched on the edge of the ridge for 360° views. And while it would be expected to jack up the faranji prices, it doesn’t. The only improvement would be a bigger menu, but what it does, it does well.
The first thing that strikes you about the Ben Abeba is its quirky architecture. You enter via a spiral walkway, off which are assorted pod-like structures where you can sit and eat or simply take in the stunning sunset views while you enjoy a drink.
We arrived just as the sun was setting, so we wandered around the various pods, taking photos. The restaurant perches on top of a cliff with magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. Back at our table, we were offered gabis to wrap around us as protection against the evening chill and we were then welcomed by the Scottish co-owner, Susan.
Susan’s inspirational story is one of those remarkable tales of ‘Brits abroad’ which we often hear as we travel around this planet of ours. A few years ago, approaching retirement, a friend of hers asked Susan if she’d like to accompany him on a short trip to Ethiopia to help out in a school he was involved in. With nothing better to do (her words!), she agreed. As is often the way in these cases, Susan’s friend returned home to Scotland as planned and she stayed on, eventually opening the restaurant with an Ethiopian business partner.
Susan didn’t have a background in the hospitality industry – she was a teacher – but she had a ton of common sense and a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude. The incredible building you see today was designed by Ethiopian architecture students. The practice of giving opportunities to young people continues in all areas of the business today. Susan’s only criteria for employing someone is that they must not have worked in any other restaurant. She doesn’t want to un-teach bad habits! Susan began by training all of her waiting and kitchen staff herself, using the British NVQ in food hygiene as her model. Now, her senior staff train new recruits. Many of the practices she insists on are alien to Ethiopians, but jobs at the Ben Abeba are highly sought after and relatively well-paid when compared with similar positions locally, so new staff soon come to adopt these strange ways!
The name of the restaurant is a mix of Scottish (Ben meaning ‘hill’) and Amharic, the main Ethiopian language (Abeba meaning ‘flower’). We visited in the dry season, but I’m assured that, in the wet season, the name ‘Hill of Flowers’ is wholly appropriate!
So much for the restaurant’s design, location and philosophy, what about the food and drink on offer? Lonely Planet is right in that the menu is limited, but for me, that’s no bad thing. What there is, is absolutely delicious. Susan introduced some British dishes and, over time, has encouraged her Ethiopian staff to develop them and give them some local flavours. The result is a delightful fusion which gave us, without doubt, the best meal we had in Ethiopia! We had Scotch eggs to start with. As you would expect from good ones, the yolks were vibrant yellow and just set, the coating was crispy, and the ‘sausagemeat’ layer, made from spiced chickpeas, was sublime! For main course, we both ordered shepherd’s pie. Mine was traditional and Mark’s was Ethiopian, a fabulous combination of minced goat, spiced aubergine and perfect mashed potato. We were also given a complimentary salad and a bowl of home-cooked chips. To drink, we started with gin and tangy homemade lemonade, and moved on to local beer.
Another nice touch was that we were each given a souvenir in the form of an A4 glossy, double-sided sheet with photos and information about the restaurant and the surrounding area. Finding out there was a Gaelic speaker in our group, Susan proudly brought her a version in her native tongue and told us she had got it printed in 42 languages so far. Only the day before our visit, the Ben Abeba had had its first Lithuanian diners. They had taken the document to translate and would bring it back in a few days – in return for a free dinner!
Now in her early seventies, Susan told us she had no plans to retire – “After all,” she said, “there are worse places to die than in the place where all humankind began.”
You can read more about the Ben Abeba restaurant and the problems of running a business in Ethiopia in this article from The Economist.