When 2018 rang in, there were no Ethiopian restaurants in Bethesda; by March, there were two. Chercher restaurant, whose chef and owner is Alemayehu Abebe, opened on Bethesda Avenue in the former Suma space on Feb. 1. Barely six weeks later, Mekonnen Abraham and his wife, chef Seble Lemma, began welcoming diners at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant, taking over the space on Cordell Avenue that housed Grapeseed restaurant for 17 years. (At press time, Delina Eritrean Urban Kitchen, which will serve Ethiopian and Eritrean food, was scheduled to open soon in the former Heckman’s Delicatessen space on Cordell Avenue.)
Chercher and Lucy have a lot in common. Both are second locations whose first outposts opened in 2012—Chercher in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood and Lucy on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. (Abebe’s third Chercher is slated to open in Arlington in October.) Abraham’s and Abebe’s families were in the restaurant business in Ethiopia. Abebe hails from Chercher, a region in eastern Ethiopia, where, he says, the highest quality meat, fruit and vegetables come from. Abraham and Lemma come from Dilla, in southern Ethiopia. They named their restaurant after the 3.2 million-year-old female hominid—dubbed Lucy by archeologists—whose fossilized skeletal remains were discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.
Abebe and Abraham both took over what were essentially turnkey operations and made cosmetic changes. Chercher, which seats 67 inside and 30 outside, still sports its predecessor’s goldenrod-yellow tufted banquettes and modern black wooden side chairs. A backlit shadowbox wall display now shows off Ethiopian basketry and serving vessels. New decorative touches include magenta accent walls and paintings by Ethiopian artists.
At Lucy, gone are the sienna-colored walls of Grapeseed, replaced by bold murals by D.C.-area Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Wondmagegn throughout the 125-seat space. One behind the bar, textured to resemble cave drawings, features a depiction of what the original Lucy might have looked like.
Both sets of restaurateurs allude to the same reason for finding Bethesda appealing—they believe that the influx of millennials moving into many new residential buildings provides a pool of diners interested in vegan cooking, a cornerstone of Ethiopian cuisine.
The offerings at Lucy and Chercher include dishes typically found on Ethiopian menus, such as vegetarian or meat stews called wots; tibs, which are cubes of beef, lamb or fish sautéed with spices and aromatic vegetables; and kitfo, raw ground beef dressed with a spice-infused clarified butter known as niter kibbeh and a fiery chili-based spice mix called mitmita. Another seasoning mix found in many Ethiopian dishes is berbere, a chili-based blend that is milder than mitmita and enhanced with other spices, such as black pepper, ginger, cumin, coriander, cloves and cardamom.
Savory dishes are piled atop one giant round piece of injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread made from teff flour and wheat flour, and are served with more injera on the side. (Both restaurants also offer gluten-free, teff-only injera.) Use your hand to tear off a piece of injera to scoop up bits of stew, tibs or salad and pop it into your mouth. (Continued on next page)
Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant
Overall Rating: B
4921 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-6500, chercherrestaurant.com
Favorite Dishes: Deluxe vegan platter, beef or lentil sambossa (pastry pies), doro wot (chicken stew), Chercher special tibs (beef or lamb), salmon tibs
Prices: Appetizers: $6; vegan platter: $18; entrées: $13 to $18; desserts: $5
Libations: The beverage selection here is not extensive: 12 beers, five of them Ethiopian ($5.50); and a dozen wines by the glass ($7), half of them Ethiopian. Tej, Ethiopian honey wine, is also available. There is also a full bar, but the servers usually do double duty as bartenders, so this is not the place to order an esoteric cocktail.
Service: Friendly and pleasant, though you may have to flag the server down from time to time
Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant
Overall Rating: B+
4865 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-347-7999, lucyrestaurantmd.com
Favorite Dishes: Vegan combination platter, girgiro (marinated beef or lamb cubes sautéed with jalapeños and onions), whole fried croaker with tomato salad, Gurage kitfo, baklava
Prices: Appetizers: $4 to $8; vegan platter: $18; entrées: $14 to $24; desserts: $6
Libations: Lucy’s offerings are extensive. Among the 18 cocktails (most are $12) are a classic martini, a margarita and a Long Island iced tea. The Lucy Mule is finished with a splash of Ethiopian beer. A spirits list includes scotch/whiskey offerings. There are 20 bottled beers (five are Ethiopian) and eight on draft. The 50-bottle wine list has a few Ethiopian selections, including tej. Rodney Strong Chalk Hill chardonnay (California) goes for $44 ($13 a glass); Meiomi pinot noir (California) is $48 ($14 a glass).
Service: Attentive and eager to please