Ethiopian cuisine has long been one of our favorites. You may have noticed this in my thinly-veiled idolatry of my hometown Ethiopian joint Little Africa. Once you have a favorite restaurant of a certain type, you constantly find yourself trying to recreate it anywhere else you live or travel. Sometimes that restaurant can live up to the original experience; sometimes it’s different enough that it’s equally good on it’s own footing. That’s how we’ve arrived at Lalibela being our favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Columbus.
Lalibela is a simple and quiet restaurant in Whitehall on South Hamilton Road. The small parking lot out front is often crammed, but you can find parking next to the grocery one door down. The entryway lands you next to the bar, ringed with bright neon blue lights. You’ll typically find a few regulars – all Ethiopian – sitting around the bar. As a caucasian, I find this to be re-assuring when I’m seeking out ethnic food. When I’m in the minority in a particular, I’ve found the right place.
Either a server or the owner will lead you further back to the dining room. Usually there is music playing, and often the TV in the corner is showing Ethiopian programming. We’ve seen the restaurant busy, but never crowded. The servers are soft-spoken and incredibly friendly. During every meal the owner comes by to check in on you with a big smile and a welcoming handshake.
We usually visit Lalibela with a group of four to six people, so we order a shared platter of mostly vegetarian dishes. These include things with grape leaves, tomatoes, onions, root vegetables, various lentils, occasionally with a meat dish of stewed beef. We often add a side of shiro, which is yellow peas simmered in veggies and spices.
Ethiopian food is eaten by hand. You tear pieces of injera, a spongy and slightly sour bread made from teff flour, and scoop up individual bites of the food. The entire platter is served on a layer of injera, with extra rolls of the bread served on the side as well. The joy of this type of food is eating together. Rather than sitting hunched over our individual meals, we’re turned toward each other, reaching in and around our arms to scoop up bites from the same plate. This is something I think we can learn to do better in the U.S. We often forget that food is community.
Lalibela has a full bar as well, and we’ve often ordered one of the Ethiopian beers available. The St. George Beer is a light lager with a honey finish. It’s a perfect complement to the rich and often spicy food.
Like I said, Lalibela is our go-to for Ethiopian food in Columbus. It’s a little bit of a drive, out to Whitehall, but we’ve found that the food and welcome is more than worth it.