Hill of Flowers
A Lalibela restaurant delivers authentic cuisine and nouveau design.
Like most tourists, my dad and I visited Lalibela, Ethiopia, with the intent of marveling at its roughly 900-year-old churches chiseled from stone. Just before arriving in the small town, though, I added another agenda item to our list: to eat at Ben Abeba, a hybrid restaurant popular for its remarkable design and food.
When visiting other countries, my family makes a point to eat locally. So after reading about Ben Abeba in a guide book, I knew it would be the perfect place to experience Ethiopia’s cuisine: its traditional wat, a spicy stew with many different varieties; and injera, the flatbread made from a grain called teff.
Walking on Lalibela’s small, rocky roads on our way to the restaurant, we felt a world away from the bustling and active capital of Addis Ababa. In the dry heat, we jaunted past some of the town’s vibrant 17,000-plus residents, as well as narrow, dusty side roads, hotels, and brightly painted souvenir shops and shoe repair stops, among other things.
After traipsing for a good while, we caught a glimpse of a cone-like structure piercing the sky. Even in the distance, Ben Abeba’s modernity stands out from any other structure in the town. Shaped like a wizard’s hat, a spaceship or an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque building (take your pick of description), Ben Abeba perches on the edge of a picturesque valley.
The restaurant is the brainchild of local Lalibelian Habtamu Baye and Scottish-born Susan Aitchison.
Aitchison, 64, a former home-economics teacher, moved to Ethiopia from Scotland in September 2007 to teach at a newly built school roughly 35 kilometers from Lalibela. Soon after, she got to know one of her drivers, Habtamu, who owned a transport company.
When 32-year-old Habtamu mentioned his dream of one day operating a small restaurant — “to do something special for Lalibela, for Ethiopia” — Aitchison decided to join him in making that dream a reality.
In November 2009, they leased land from the Ethiopian government — chosen for its spectacular views of the surrounding hills — and spent the next couple of years obtaining permits and building the structure. The design stemmed from the imagination of young Ethiopian architects trained in their native Addis Ababa. The team held the restaurant’s grand opening in October 2011.
Since its debut, Ben Abeba (coined from Scottish and Amharic words to mean “Hill of Flowers”) has grown to include a full-time staff of 40 people. The diverse menu — described as traditional Ethiopian food as well as a selection of less-spicy foods for tamer palates — is created at the discretion of the chefettes, Aitchison’s affectionate name for the chefs. On any given day, patrons can
enjoy anything from wat and injera, to banana crepes, to traditional British shepherd’s pie.
More than 50,000 trees thrive on Ben Abeba’s property, which altogether grows coffee, bananas, papayas, guavas, avocados, mangos, pomegranates, cabbages, carrots and tomatoes. The restaurant also grows olives with trees originally from the south of France and Italy, donated by a Frenchman who was experimenting to see if their fruits could be produced in the region.
For food that isn’t grown on-site, the staff purchases products from two nearby villages and transports canned tuna and South African wine from Addis Ababa.
Ben Hargreaves, 22, of Sydney, Australia, ate at the restaurant three times in the course of his three-day Lalibela visit and declared it the best food he’d enjoyed during his six-week stay in Ethiopia — not to mention the scenery and atmosphere.
“It was calming and relaxing,” he says, “knowing that you had the best location possible to sit, enjoy a cold beer and watch the sunset.”
As of June 2014, Ben Abeba ranked as Lalibela’s top restaurant according to the travel site TripAdvisor and also received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, for consistently receiving positive reviews.
But the customers aren’t the only ones giving the restaurant high marks. Many locals have found employment at Ben Abeba, and a scholarship fund has even been created to help send locals and other Ethiopians to college.
As for the future, Aitchison and Habtamu have already started work to build four individual bungalows for visiting guests, with the goal of completing construction sometime in 2015. Twelve more are planned to follow soon after, in addition to a meeting space and conference center.
In all of these efforts, the pair says they hope to contribute something of lasting significance to Lalibela. And indeed, they seem well on their way. Tourists who flock to Lalibela expect to be astonished by the churches, but perhaps in the near-to-distant future, they’ll visit the town for yet another inspiring landmark to stand the test of time.
A Taste of the Menu
Injera and Biyeynot—Ethiopian injera (a spongy flatbread made from a grain called teff) topped by a selection of vegetarian wats (curry or stew).
Shepherd’s Pie—A British casserole of minced lamb with stewed onions and carrots, topped by mashed potatoes.
Hot Toddy—A traditionally Scottish cocktail that helps soothe an upset stomach, made from fresh lemon, local honey, whisky and boiled water.
Coffee Ceremony—Ethiopian coffee served in the traditional way is available each afternoon, accompanied by homemade scones and jam.