Savory aromas and groovy music spill out of Massawa’s large open windows and onto the sidewalk, drifting up and down Amsterdam Avenue and enticing customers old and new. People stop by to inspect the newly renovated Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurant.
Those who enter are welcomed with a smile and a handshake from the owners before being seated for their meal. Many are long-standing customers who remark on the restaurant’s transformation.
Founding owner, Almaz Ghebrezgabher, was working as a cab driver when she ran across a property on the corner of Amsterdam and 121st Street for rent. For many years she ran the restaurant with her husband, Amanuel Tekeste, making it one of the most popular Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurants in Manhattan. Four years ago, her sons took over the restaurant and began preparing for what became a yearlong renovation.
Massawa opened its doors again earlier this August, and brothers Abraham and Yohanes seem deservedly enthusiastic about the reopening. In addition to regulars’ favorite dishes, new small dishes and seasonal options are expected to be added to the menu. Breakfast will soon be served as well, featuring a juice and espresso bar.
“We decided to expand the space to make it more attractive, more modern, but also more comfortable for anybody to come inside and feel happy to be here,” Yohanes said.
Interior changes include clean white walls complemented by black fixtures and warm wooden furniture. A fully stocked bar lines one wall, and a small couch offers a place to wait for your table. The sophisticated and modern space would be unrecognizable from its previous appearance, if not for the familiar artwork and intrinsically homey atmosphere.
In partnership with student musicians at The Juilliard School, Massawa will soon host live music on Tuesday nights in another push by the Tekeste brothers to make Massawa a welcoming neighborhood hangout.
For Abraham, this “happiness to be here” stems from history and culture, in addition to family. The dishes represented on the menu draw from the many religious, historical, and environmental influences and traditions.
Massawa’s menu provides a wide array of dishes for vegans and meat lovers alike. Instead of silverware, food is served with traditional injera, a flat African bread used to scoop and sop up every spice and flavor packed onto the plate. For anyone unsure of what to order, staff members are eagerly available to explain and make suggestions.
A meal at Massawa will run you about $20 without drinks. The portions are generous and the ambiance superb—perhaps a new go-to for when parents are in town.
Shiro, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, is a delicious stew of pureed split peas, ginger, and spices. As part of a partnership with the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, which provides support to small business owners in the Harlem and southern Bronx areas, Massawa hopes to soon package and sell their shiro in retail locations.
When asked what to expect from a trip to Massawa, Abraham smiled broadly.
“Expect to get your hands dirty and experience flavors you never have before,” he said. “It is about family, and enjoying the experience.”