"When the musicians came to help the Ethiopians' hunger, it was about that time we opened the restaurant. And a lot of people came and said, 'This has to be a joke.'"

Amare Solomon's Dahlak restaurant offers patrons the opportunity to enjoy authentic Ethiopian food in traditional Ethiopian style, from a common platter placed in a covered table.

Photo by Dwight Luckey

Cook, Class of 1920 Commons
Length of service: 13 years.
Other stuff: Known as the "Mayor of Baltimore Avenue." Has organized local merchants and helps immigrants set up new businesses.

Amare Solomon was relaxed the afternoon we met, but it was the calm before the storm: it was Dining Out for Life night, and in a couple of hours, his Ethiopian restaurant, Dahlak, would be filled to the gills with customers.

Solomon, who fled civil war in his native Eritrea in 1981, arrived in Philadelphia that same year determined to learn new skills, which led him to settle near the University. After abandoning plans to become an auto mechanic, he landed a job with Penn Catering in 1984, which taught him some important lessons about the food business. At about the same time, he and his wife Neghisti, a fellow refugee who he met in Philadelphia, decided to open a restaurant near their home at 47th and Baltimore.

Since then, Dahlak -- named for the island where both Amare and Neghisti lived -- has gained wide recognition: it has been written about in newspapers as far away as Florida, and the "Zagat Survey" named it one of the city's best restaurant values two years ago. Before treating me to an Ethiopian feast, Solomon sat down and talked about his restaurant over mango juice.

Q. What gave you the idea to open the restaurant?
A. Ethiopian food naturally brings people together. In Washington, D.C., when we would go to visit, there were a couple of Ethiopian restaurants, big ones, and a lot of people from all over would come to them, and a lot of Americans which we used to meet on trips enjoyed our food. So Washington is very crowded, so they said, "Why don't you open one here?"

Q. Has it always been a success?
A. For a couple of years, it was very difficult, because a lot of professors and students moved away from the area. When the musicians came, who sang for the Ethiopians -- "We Are the People," to help the Ethiopians' hunger [Live Aid, in 1985 -- ed.] -- it was about that time we opened the restaurant. And a lot of people came and said, "This has to be a joke. We just came from this concert."

Q. But they came in anyway?
A. No, it took a little pride and hard work to promote it; it wasn't easy, but, thank God, being involved with the University and meeting people, meeting a lot of students, we got to where we are now.

Q. What percentage of your business is from the University?
A. When you talk about universities, we were attracting more Swarthmore and Villanova than Penn [students]. But in the past couple of years we've started getting Penn students. We now get a lot of Penn students.
   While I'm working at the University, I deal with a lot of students, but it's hard for me to promote it at Penn, because of the work I do -- it may not promote it enough [serving in the dining halls]. But the students who do come here love it. If I get one student, I tell you, he comes [back] with his parents.
   I am also attracting a lot of professional people -- a lot of artists, a lot of musicians, a lot of doctors, lawyers; they come here at nighttime, and they have a very romantic meal, and when they leave, it's very peaceful -- nothing happens to them.

Q. Have you always been involved in the food business?
A. No, I just learned how to cook here.

Q. So your wife's really the expert?
A. She's very expert. I learned from watching her, and working in Dining Services I learned a lot. I learned communication, I took management principles, and I put what I learned at work into practice here.

Q. Have you had any thought of adapting Ethiopian cuisine to the dining halls?
A. We do a lot of catering for some colleges. We're doing Swarthmore, and we've done some other small colleges. We've never tried to promote Ethiopian food at Dining Services, but the students have asked for it.

Originally published on April 2, 1998