It’s hard to predict exactly who will show up to a group dinner. Something that started out as you inviting three close friends to catch up often results in one of them dropping out last minute, another suggesting to fill her place with her kickball teammate, and the third bringing along his new boyfriend without even running it by the group. But regardless of how well you know the people at the table, you can be sure that it won’t be an uncomfortable experience if you have dinner at Abyssinia.
And that’s because Abyssinia, an Ethiopian place in University City, is basically awkward-dinner-proof.
There are a few ways you can approach a meal here, but the best route is to focus on the combination platters, each of which comes out looking like a giant edible watercolor palette and can be shared by at least two people. Things like doro wot (spicy chicken in a rich berbere sauce), yebeg qey wot (tender lamb in a puddle of garlicky stew), and ye’kik alicha (oniony yellow split peas) come out in messy but delicious piles on top of spongey injera bread that would make a heavenly mattress topper. In between breaking off pieces of injera with your hands and using it to scoop up different flavors, you’ll inevitably become closer with the people you’re sharing food with. So much so that it can make a dinner that started out with the ice breaker, “So how do you feel about Daylight Savings?” turn into one where you’re giving someone you just met your HBO Go password.
The entire restaurant is just a single, small-ish room with wood paneling, faded wallpaper, and a few Ethiopian tapestries and paintings hung on the walls. It’s warm, casual, and constantly filled with people - which makes meeting your friend’s boyfriend for the first time somehow feel less intimidating. And once dinner’s over and you’ve met someone who hates musicals as much as you do, it’s a pretty seamless transition to the small upstairs bar, Fiume. The worn-in room with peeling paint on the walls and a few uneven barstools is intentionally divey, and you can get some drinks here that are interesting without being pretentious, like a take on a sloe gin fizz and the Abyssinian, with a mix of rum, lime, Batavia arrack, and fernet.
On an average night, there are maybe one or two people on the entire Abyssinia waitstaff, which means you might wait a few extra minutes for your beef tibs. But that just gives you extra time to get to talk to your new friends - even if your original intentions were to put on your Big Daddy sunglasses and pretend to be invisible. By the time the check comes, there’s a high chance you’ll actually like the people around you (and about a 20% chance that your friend’s kickball teammate genuinely has a bad personality). And since everything is shared, there won’t be any arguing over who pays for what. Unless, of course, one of the random people you didn’t even invite wants to tally up how many bites of injera everyone took. In that case, maybe get some hard commitments next time.
If you don’t eat meat, or just aren’t in the mood for it, the vegetarian combination is your best bet. It’s filled with six different dishes, like string beans in turmeric sauce and spicy lentils cooked with onions, mustard and jalapeno, and it’s more filling than most fully-loaded burgers.
The meat combination platter is a similar set-up to the vegetarian one, except that three of the vegetable dishes on the plate are replaced with meats - like beef simmered in berbere sauce and spicy chicken legs. There are also two other “special” combinations that are variations of the meat platter. All of them are perfect, and telling you which one we like the most would be like picking our favorite child - which we would never do, except special #2 (which switches the chicken legs and beef tibs out for lamb stew and spicy minced beef) is the best one.