20 Years, 20 Stories: Dahlak

Jun 20, 2017 37 days ago

All year we are publishing stories in our 20 Years, 20 Stories series to celebrate UCD's 20th anniversary. This story focuses on Dahlak (4708 Baltimore Avenue), the Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant that has been serving Baltimore Avenue for over 30 years. Dahlak is one of 30 University City restaurants participating in University City Dining Days

“It’s like a love story,” Ephream Amare Seyoum says. The 28 year-old is talking about his parents’ romance, which spanned two continents, but Ephream could easily be talking about Dahlak, his family’s restaurant on Baltimore Avenue. Because the restaurant is almost like a love story--a romance between a family and a community as much as between the two people who opened the restaurant over 30 years ago.   

Ephream is the son of two refugees from Eritrea, a small country near the northern tip of Africa that borders Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Ephream’s father, Amare Solomon, and his mother, Neghisti Ghebrehiwot, knew each other in Eritrea. They fled the country at separate times when tensions were high between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and each wound up in Pennsylvania. They reconnected, married, and settled in West Philadelphia.     

Dahlak, now a renowned Baltimore Avenue restaurant serving Ethiopian cuisine, was opened in 1986 by Neghisti and her sister Belinish. From the start it was a family business that employed relatives who came to America. 

“This restaurant has been around all my life,” says Ephream, who now serves as the general manager of Dahlak. Ephream smiles easily and speaks softly, and is a constant fixture at the restaurant. Although his mother and aunt started the restaurant, Ephream notes that his father was instrumental to Dahlak’s early success.   

“A lot of people from [the University of] Penn knew my father because he used to work there,” Ephream explains. “He was one of the chefs. Within the first couple of years of the restaurant opening up, he brought in a lot more Penn students.”

Amare provided the marketing, both at Penn and on the streets, and Neghisti served as the culinary expert, creating American twists on traditional Eritrean and Ethiopian dishes. “In Etria,” Ephream explains, “you wouldn’t have a chicken stew dish that’s not on the bone. She created something we’ve name-branded as Dahlak Tips, which is boneless chicken breasts chopped into a stew that uses berbere, a traditional Ethiopian flavor that blends spices like ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, garlic, and some other ingredients.” Ephream continues, “It’s all about the ratios you use that makes one berbere unique to others. My mom perfected her own berbere--it influences all the food we prepare, and all the stews.”

The majority of Ethiopian cuisine is comprised of stews, usually with an onion and tomato base, served on a bed of injera, a spongy flatbread. The food is meant to be eaten with your hands, although Ephream says, “We provide the forks if you need it.” The food can also be served over rice if you don’t like the injera. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t though,” Ephream adds. “Our injera is its own work of love by my mother.”

“Together they were good,” Ephream says about his parents. “We still get people from 20 years ago, alumni, who come by and say, ‘I remember when your father fed me by hand!’” 

He’s referring to an act called gursha, a tradition in Ethiopia. “My father would hand-feed new people, people who didn’t know how to eat the food. Gursha is a sign a love, and a communal act.” In Ethiopia, friends or family will feed others by tearing a piece of injera, wrapping it around some wat (the stew) or other ingredients, and feeding the injera in another person’s mouth.   

The traditions and cuisine at Dahlak resonated here in Philadelphia, and the restaurant’s reputation grew. Ephream remembers a time he was visiting DC, and when someone realized he was from Philadelphia with roots in Eritrea, they asked if he knew Dahlak. “I laughed and said ‘yeah, that’s my family’s restaurant.’” 

And Dahlak truly is a family restaurant. When it first opened, Amare and Neghisti lived in rented rooms above the restaurant. As the business grew and began to prosper, they bought a house across the street to raise Ephream and his two siblings, a brother and a sister, who are also involved in the business. 

“Me, my sister, my siblings, we’re all blessed to have this. My mother has put a lot of work into starting this business up. My father worked to bring in the crowds.” Ephream and his siblings have helped at the business since a young age, from doing chores like sweeping to graduating to more substantial tasks like unlocking the doors for the cooks. Dahlak expanded twice, first into an adjoining space that now serves as an additional dining room, and then with a bar and an outdoor patio in the early 2000s. 

“Almost immediately after the bar opened people in the neighborhood were excited,” Ephream says. His father would spend hours standing out front, by the sidewalk, “In this cool pose, just saying hello to everyone who walked by. I remember seeing him always in a conversation with someone. He pretty much made friends with the entire neighborhood.” Ephream says the bar only enhanced a sense of community, and with open mic nights and music events for the community, it truly became “a community inside of a community,” as he describes it.  

“People would call Amare Solomon the mayor of Baltimore Avenue,” Ephream says about his father, who he believes is largely responsible for the growth of the Ethiopian community in West Philadelphia. “Running the restaurant the way he did, making friends in the neighborhood, adding the bar, that stimulated the area for business. Back then, when I was a kid, there weren’t many restaurants on this strip. We were one of maybe three or four, and most of those were African restaurants. I might be biased, but I say it’s because of my dad. He convinced people he knew from Penn who might not have dared to come in this direction.” 

Amare Solomon’s untimely passing from heart disease in 2005 led Ephream to become more involved in the business. “I was 17,” he says. “I stuck around a lot more, spent nights closing up.” Ephream’s uncle Berekep Solomon helped steady things after Amare’s death.

Although Amare Solomon passed away, his legacy still looms large. A bench in Clark Park bears his name, and his likeness features prominently on a mural titled The Heart of Baltimore Avenue, located close to Dahlak on the 4700 block of Baltimore. 

Ephream went to college and graduated from St. Joe’s with a degree in Organizational Development, where he learned business etiquette, how to work as a team, group dynamics, and leadership skills. “I also learned a lot just by being here,” he says, gesturing to the restaurant around him. “Through trial and error.” He has helped introduce a new, more American late night menu, including injera rolls and Ethiopian cheesesteaks. 

Being a part of the community is still very important for Dahlak. The bar has hosted karaoke every Tuesday for seven years, local musicians play on weeknights, and Dahlak has been a participant in UCD’s Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll since it started. “At the Dollar Stroll, I see people I know, I see people I don’t know--it puts us on the map.” If you’ve ever sampled the injera rolls during the Stroll, you’ve probably met Ephream and his mother Neghisti. Dahlak contributed to UCD's fundraising campaign for Trolley Portal Gardens by adopting trees, and their contribution will be honored with two plaques, one with the name of Dahlak on it, and one dedicated to Amare and Neghisti.  Starting this summer, Ephream is working with local partners to expand his impact on the community with the opening of Pentridge Station, a community beer garden in southwest Cedar Park. 

As we conclude our interview, Ephream leads the way to the Heart of Baltimore mural close to the restaurant to take some photos. It’s now Amare Solomon’s son who stops to chat with everyone outside, and shares greetings, handshakes, and hugs. It's like he's made friends with the entire neighborhood. On the wall above us, overlooking a neighborhood he helped energize, a painting of his father smiles. 

Visit Dahlak at 4708 Baltimore Avenue. They are one of 30 local restaurants participating in University City Dining Days, running from July 13th-23rd. See Dahlak's Dining Days menu here.  

Comments

There is no better guy than Ephream and Know better place to introduce someone to the best of west philly. Who doesn't love E?

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