Lalibela: Please Eat With Your Hands

Aficionados of Ethiopian cuisine have favorably compared Lalibela to the best such restaurants this side of the Atlantic. Washington D.C., home to world-class Ethiopian food, doesn’t hold a candle, they say. Started by Yonas Asfaw in 1998, it is now guided by the sure hand of Asfaw’s sister-in-law, chef/owner Shilmat Tessema. These days, the restaurant’s food is even more authentic, spicier, and still great fun – you eat with your fingers.

Tessema, who came to Bridgeport from Ethiopia in 1997, grew up in a big family and her mother loved to cook. “Cooking is a gathering of family, talking about foods, the flavor, the spices,” Tessema says. “I love cooking.” Although she dreamed of owning a restaurant, she didn’t cook professionally until she bought Lalibela five years ago. While she attended accounting school in Bridgeport she helped out at Lalibela by cooking, waitressing, whatever was needed. As owner she updated the decor and expanded the menu, adding Ethiopian drinks such as beer and honey wine. Saturday-night diners clink glasses to Ethiopian music played by Charlie Sutton.

Lalibela, named for an Ethiopian holy city, specializes in vegetarian and vegan food. For the carnivores among us, however, the offerings are chicken, beef, lamb, and seafood. Tessema’s palette runs the gamut from mild to extra spicy.

Can’t get to the restaurant on Temple Street for lunch? Stop at her two food trucks: one in the Prospect Street parking lot at Ingalls Rink, the other on Cedar Street near Yale-New Haven Hospital. (The lamb and seafood dishes aren’t available from the trucks.)

No Ethiopian meal would be complete without the essential of Ethiopian cuisine – injera bread made of teff. Tessema says, “you use your hand to cut the bread, then you pinch the sauce so you use your hand to eat the food. Traditionally we want you to use your hands.” And, she smiles, “it’s fun for the kids.”

Mara Lavitt


Restaurant Website:

• The Detes: 176 Temple St., New Haven. Hours: Open seven days. Lunch buffet: Monday-Saturday, noon-2pm. Dinnner: Sunday through Thursday, 5pm -10pm; Friday & Saturday 5pm -11pm

• Lunch Truck: Yale-New Haven Hospital on Cedar Street, and Ingalls Rink parking lot, Prospect and Sachem Streets. Monday through Friday 11:30-2pm .

• Price Range: Appetizers $5, Entrees $11-15.

• Style of Food: Ethiopian

• Favorite dishes: Fosolia (green beans, carrots, spicy onions), Doro Wat (spicy chicken), diner’s choice combination dishes

• Vegetarian/Vegan? Most definitely

• Drinks: beer, wine, and especially Ethiopian honey wine

• Encouraged: Forget what your mother told you – eat with your fingers!

• Music: Charlie Sutton plays Ethiopian music every Saturday from 6:30-10:30pm.


3 thoughts on “Lalibela: Please Eat With Your Hands

  1. What a joke. I understand that you aim not to “review” these restaurants, but you’re hardly being objective.

    “Afficionados [sic] of Ethiopian cuisine have favorably compared Lalibela to the best such restaurants this side of the Atlantic.” Even the journalists at the elementary school newspaper have learned how to properly cite a source. Who are these “aficionados”?

    You don’t mention what Tessema went to school for. From my personal experiences at her establishment, I can make an educated guess that she didn’t major in “restaurant management”

    LaLibela’s food & service are mediocre at best; and the hospitality is so inconsistent, it’s hardly worth the seeds you’re trying to sow.

    The notable high praise you’re singing of some of the city’s most downtrodden establishments, you come off as being paid to make these visits. Considering the dying breed of media you write for, it doesn’t surprise me that a newspaper journalist would do anything to sell another paper.

  2. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for letting me know about my typo, I’ve corrected it. Perhaps you skimmed my feature on Lalibela a bit too quickly but it does mention what Tessema studied (second paragraph, fifth sentence). As I have written previously, in this economy I’m all for giving any positive boost to hard-working entrepreneurs in our community. It’s so much more rewarding to support them than bash them, don’t you think? I see my blog posts as short features on the variety of places to eat in New Haven. Unfortunately, my internet-based blog can’t sell more papers, but it can get clicks and reader engagement, for which I thank you since you did both.

    • Mara,

      I agree that it’s better to support, and my intentions were not to “bash” anybody, but it’s hard to reward mediocrity. They catered directly to you. Send another staffer in there unannounced and see if you still have the same opinion.

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