The moment I walked into Shewhat, Abby Dair came out of the kitchen and greeted me with open arms. A person watching my entrance may have assumed we knew each other, but this was my first visit to Dair’s Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurant on the border of Oakland and Berkeley. While her warm welcome may have been partly because she could tell I was Ethiopian, Dair has an easy, friendly vibe with all who visit.
The restaurant is decorated with Eritrean art pieces and a large television, which on my visit was blaring Eritrean music videos. With only seven tables inside, dining at Shewhat is an intimate eating experience. And often, you’ll find a small group of regulars who treat the restaurant as their second home.
Shewhat opened in August 2018, and is Dair’s first restaurant. She named it after her mother, who taught her how to cook at age 14. “My mother was very patient with me. She treated me like I was her best friend,” she said. Growing up in Eritrea, she learned all her mother’s recipes, and her friends and family members would constantly rave about her cooking. When Dair immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, she was determined to share her mother’s dishes with her new community.
Although born in Eritrea, she embraces both the Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures. The two countries at the horn of Africa have had a long history of conflict, which reached its peak when Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia in the early ‘90s. Just last year, the neighboring nations ended their 30-year border conflict with a peace agreement. Dair says she prefers not to talk politics when creating or serving her food. Instead, she wants to showcase the beauty of both cultures, showing how they can co-exist in harmony.
“I believe in God and I’m Christian. I don’t believe that one side is better than the other,” Dair said.
Although she is the head chef and owner at Shewhat, Dair still works part-time as a cashier at Berkeley Bowl West. Being a single mother with two jobs means she has a very packed schedule. On weekdays, she wakes up early to take her daughter to school, works an early shift at Berkeley Bowl, then picks up her daughter from school, drops her off at home, then heads to Shewhat for dinner service. On weekends, she’s at Shewhat all day.
Her sister, Selam is the only other Shewhat employee. Selam covers the weekday morning and lunch service from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. while Dair works at Berkeley Bowl West.
When I sat down and looked at the menu, one of the first things I noticed were huge X marks over a list of American cafe offerings. When I asked about this, Dair just shook her head and laughed. “No one wants to eat the American food here. They just want to eat Ethiopian and Eritrean food,” she said. A ham and cheese sandwich, bagels with cream cheese and a grilled chicken panini were all taken off the menu during her first month of business.
Typical Ethiopian meals are served on a large family-style plate, with a huge piece of injera lining the plate topped with entrees. Dair recommends the Shewhat Combo ($17.99) for all first-timers so they could get a taste of each of her signature dishes. It comes with chicken and spinach tibsy and your choice of beef or lamb tibsy, along with a side salad. I chose the beef, which was cut in strips and simmered in garlic, butter, onion and berbere (a chile and spice blend). It was a bit mild for me, but the meat was juicy, tender and balanced well with the sour injera. The chicken dish is Dair’s favorite. It’s made with cubed chicken breast sautéed with the leafy greens, which have a slight, but pleasant bitterness.
Ethiopian cuisine is widely known for being gluten-free (the injera at Shewhat is made of 100% teff flour; not all Ethiopian restaurants offer this) and vegetarian-friendly. The Shewhat Veggie Combo ($14.99) features both red and yellow lentils prepared into chunky mashes seasoned with garlic and spices, served with atkilt (spiced potatoes, cabbage and carrots), gomen (sauteed collard greens) and a side salad.
To drink, I recommend the Ethiopian hot tea flavored with green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. It’s a soothing refreshment to accompany a flavor-heavy meal.
I also tried one of Dair’s Eritrean breakfast dishes. Fitfit ($9.99) is made with bite-size pieces of bread soaked in butter and berbere, served with a side of yogurt. At Shewhat, Dair offers the dish made with kitcha (an unleavened bread that’s most commonly used for this dish), injera or French bread. I had the fitfit prepared with kitcha. The dish is shareable, but it’s so tasty and addictive, you might find yourself eating the plate all by yourself. Fitfit is always paired with coffee.
An Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an essential cultural tradition that brings a community of people together. The ceremony starts with roasting green coffee beans on the stove. Then the pan of freshly roasted beans goes around the room so everyone can inhale the aroma. Finally, the beans are ground and served from a traditional clay coffee pot called a jebena.
Dair has worked for the Berkeley Bowl company for 12 years. It was her first place of employment in the U.S. “I can’t leave this job because I love it. They are like family to me,” she said, adding that when she’s working, some customers wait in her line just so they can catch up with her.
When she told her co-workers and customers that she was opening her own restaurant, they all stepped up to help her. One customer designed her menu. Another helped advertise her restaurant by bringing in friends on a weekly basis to try out dishes.
But Dair’s proudest moment was when the owners of Berkeley Bowl West told her that they wanted to sell the Shewhat Veggie Combo in its cafe. “I was so surprised. I was so happy that my friends and customers were supporting me.”
Between Berkeley Bowl West and Shewhat, Dair works more than 70 hours a week. She enjoys being a businesswoman but stresses that it’s important for her to be a strong independent single mother. Her motto is to always think positively. She believes if you work hard and long enough, you will succeed in your goals and dreams.
“I am always busy. I never have free time, but I am never stressed because I always focus on the positive,” Dair said.
Dair is grateful for her regulars — a mixture of both the Ethiopian/Eritrean community and the Berkeley Bowl West community — that visits her every day, like a second family.
“I keep working for them. I want to feed my family.”
Shewhat is open for lunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner, 5 p.m to 9 p.m., Monday, Wednesday through Friday (closed Tuesday); 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.