Feast Your Eyes: Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café in Berkeley

Gezu Mengistu, owner of Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café in Berkeley. Photo: Andria Lo

Feast Your Eyes is a photo-driven introduction to an East Bay restaurant that’s been open for at least one year. We hope these stories will inspire you to check out these eateries for the first time, or remind you to visit again. If you have a recommendation for a restaurant we should feature, email us at nosh@berkeleyside.com.

The East Bay is home to many Ethiopian eateries — many of them clustered within a mile or two around the Berkeley-Oakland border. Lemat opened last summer in the middle of this hub, and after one and a half years, has carved out its own loyal following.

The restaurant is a family endeavor. Owner Gezu Mengistu runs Lemat with his wife Ejigayehu, and her sister Tigist Gelan is the head chef. Before cooking at Lemat, Gelan ran a business out of Oakland called Walia Catering, popular among the local Ethiopian community.

The family’s tried-and-true recipes are at the core of Lemat’s popularity. They pride themselves on serving traditional dishes and authentic flavors. Their homemade injera — the springy fermented bread that is a centerpiece of Ethiopian cuisine — is made, in accordance with tradition, entirely with teff, a grain native to Ethiopia that is naturally gluten-free.

Lemat Kitfo. Photo: Andria Lo

The food is a reflection of generations-old recipes from Ethiopia’s Gurage region. Lemat imports its spices and serves regional dishes like kitfo, a marinated beef tartar. Kitfo is one of Mengistu’s favorite dishes, one that he “can’t live without.” At Lemat, kitfo is served with housemade Ethiopian cottage cheese and collard greens.

Shiro Wot. Photo: Andria Lo

Another of Gezu’s favorites is shiro wot, a comfort food made from roasted and ground chickpeas simmered in a crockpot with garlic, onions and either hot spicy berbere or turmeric.

The veggie combo (beyaynetu) and the meat combo with injera. These are Lemats most popular dishes. Photo: Andria Lo

Although originally from Ethiopia, Mengistu has been rooted in the East Bay for the past 20 years (with a few years overseas). He’s a chemist by training, with a day job in biotech, but you’ll find him at the restaurant most nights and weekends.

Baskets traditionally used as a serving vessel for injera hang from the ceiling at Lemat Ethiopian Restaurant and Café in Berkeley. Photo: Andria Lo

Lemat is named after the traditional serving baskets for injera. These handwoven baskets are among the first things you notice when entering the restaurant. Dozens of lemat hang from the ceiling, and some larger baskets are used as tables, creating intimate seating areas.

Ethiopian coffee at Lemat. Photo: Andria Lo

Ethiopian coffee beans are freshly roasted at Lemat in Berkeley, and the brew is served black. Lemat offers a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony which, Mengistu said, is an integral part of social and cultural life in Ethiopia. Guests who call ahead can experience the ceremony, which lasts about 45 minutes. All aspects of coffee making, from roasting to pouring, are done table-side. Guests who are shorter on time can still order individual coffees served in the traditional vessels.

“An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality,” said Mengistu. “Performing the ceremony is almost obligatory in the presence of a visitor, whatever the time of day. The ceremony can take a few hours back home. It’s hard to mimic, so we do rush it a little here.”

Mengistu is enthusiastic about sharing his culture’s history through food and decor, but guests also get a dose of pop culture with contemporary music videos playing in the background. The restaurant hosts live Ethiopian jazz nights the first Saturday of every month.

Artwork and paintings from Ethiopia adorn the wood walls of Lemat, which was formerly a judo studio. Photo: Andria Lo

Andria Lo is a freelance food and editorial photographer living in Berkeley. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.