Lingering on the Palate: Mamma Desta’s (1978 - 1983)

Desta Bairu’s Ethiopian cuisine offered the comforts of home and was the first Ethiopian restaurant in DC.

Opened in 1978, Mamma Desta’s would be the first and most well known Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC. A 1982 review from The Washington Post stated that the restaurant was a “simple vision of eating; lots of stews, which are sopped up with great pieces of spongy bread,” but it was so much more than that. 

In 1959, Desta Bairu came to the U.S. from the Eritrean city of Asmara to serve as the chief cook for the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United Nations. She cooked in her apartment until “the complaints started,” and it was time to establish a restaurant. Within a year of its opening in 1978, sources say that Mamma Desta’s, at 4840 Georgia Avenue NW, had an average of 2,000 customers per week. In a Washington Post article from 1979, the experience and ambience of the restaurant is described: “The mother figure who unites the Ethiopian eclecticism under her restaurant roof, is sitting in her domain - the kitchen. Her knotty hands skillfully demarble some beef for alithca, a peppery dish of cabbage and chopped beef. Directions in Amheric fly around, as the steamy room is filled with the sizzle, pop and boil of food.”

The interior included moseb – vividly-colored baskets that were reused as tables. Dishes served included kitfo, made of seasoned raw beef made thick with butter and a soft burn of spice, as well as doro wat, a stew of chicken with boiled egg. Mamma Desta’s menu was popular in the ever-evolving and changing American menu. However, in the press at the time, the restaurant was seen through the eyes of the white food critic. Desta was rarely mentioned by name and only referred to as “Mamma Desta.”

Competition eventually forced the restaurant to close, only a few short years later in 1983, but DC continues to be known for its Ethiopian cuisine.

This is a stop on the Lingering on the Palate: the Ghosts of the DC Food Scene Tour.



4840 Georgia Avenue NW