Oakland’s beloved Ethiopian spot expands into huge new space
Address until August: 6427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Opening September 6: 5849 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland
In case you haven’t noticed the painted windows on Telegraph Avenue proclaiming the news yet, another venerable 31-year-old restaurant is closing its doors. But no need to shed tears, because it’s the start of a great new chapter for award-winning Café Colucci, which is one of Oakland’s oldest Ethiopian restaurants. This month it will close and next month it will move into a space three times its current size, but only a five-minute drive from its home of more than three decades.
Café Colucci General Manager, Daniel Aderaw Yeshiwas, has been eating at Café Colucci since it opened in 1991, when he was 4 years old. His mother, Selamawit Kekede, is a lifelong friend of the restaurant’s founder, Fetlework Tefferi, whom he calls “Auntie” (a sign of respect for an elderly relative).
For most of the past few years, Tefferi has been in Ethiopia, running his spice and herb processing plant in Modjo, which employs 45 people to cultivate and blend the essential components of the ancient cuisine of Colucci and his company of spice retail, Brundo.
Meanwhile, Yeshiwas was looking for a space that would allow the restaurant and its sister spice shop to expand. He is delighted to have found it, less than two miles away, at 5849 San Pablo Ave. This location was once home to the Soul Slice cookie pizzeria, which opened and closed over the course of several months last year; before that it was the home of Noodle Theory Provisions. (The East Bay Express was the first to report the news.)
Colucci’s expansion is a great comeback story for a company that nearly closed during the pandemic. “COVID has completely changed our whole operation,” Yeshiwas said. They could no longer serve their large shared platters, and it was nearly impossible to have social distancing between cooks in their tiny kitchen.
The size of the kitchen was just one of the constraints of Colucci’s current location: since it’s on the ground floor of a residential building, they couldn’t offer live entertainment or music, like they had always hoped for it. Even upgrading the electrical system to accommodate the addition of an espresso machine was a challenge, Yeshiwas said.
Luckily, the new location’s kitchen offers three times the space for its cooks to spread out. Most visibly, the new space also allows them to open an injera-making station, where patrons can watch cooks make the spongy, slightly sour flatbread that serves as a tablecloth, plate, and utensil.
Tefferi and Yeshiwas also have big plans for the bar they inherited in their new space. Their cocktail slate — a first for the restaurant — will incorporate traditional herbs and spices, such as fat-bellied bessobela, a sweet and spicy lemonade infused with Ethiopian basil that tastes like mezcal. They will also serve Ethiopian beers and honey wines.
There are also plans to produce their own tej (wine made from honey) and tella (beer made from sorghum and teff) in a few months. They already have the oak barrels to age them. Tefferi is working to create recipes for these libations incorporating gesho, the brewing hops she grows in Ethiopia that will add a subtle flavor to drinks.
The new Café Colucci will serve the same menu plus additional dishes, many of which will complement a broader day of service that will eventually kick off with spicy lattes, baked goods like ginger teff cookies and seed-topped banana bread nigella and small bites for breakfast. The meals will extend into the evening, where they will feature live music, with one or two musicians, such as an Ethiopian jazz pianist and a singer. For people who prefer to dine out, when the restaurant opens it will offer outdoor seating on the terrace behind the restaurant for all meals. Eventually, Yeshiwas said, they will also add curbside seating in front.
Weekend brunches, which they plan to start in October, will include dishes such as sapin enkulal (scrambled eggs with jalapeños and clarified butter), spicy chicken dish doro wot fitfit, azifa (lentils cooked in lavender with garlic, onions and lemon), homemade cheese and a pale yellow vegan dish called buticha, which is a creamy cloud of chickpea flour, olive oil, garlic and onions with a hint of jalapeno.
All brunches will include a version of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an ancient ritual in which a woman lights incense, washes and dries green coffee beans, roasts them in a special pot and passes them around for the guests enjoy it. Then she grinds them and boils them in water in a special handmade long-necked black clay pot called jebena. When the brew is deemed ready (which may require back and forth from the jebena to another container), the finished coffee is poured from the jebena held above a tray of cups, which are then passed.
The common thread running through all of these meals is Brundo, the spice company Tefferi started in Ethiopia to ensure that the dozens of spices and herbs used in his restaurant’s recipes retain their authentic flavor. (In 2015, she described to Nosh her company’s goal: to help Ethiopian farmers prosper using their traditional farming methods and to support the women who are the master spice blenders.) Brundo will have a space dedicated to inside the restaurant’s new location, and will offer spices for sale.
These spices can offer a key to culture. Cooking Ethiopian cuisine takes time, for example, onions, which are the basis of almost all dishes, must be sautéed slowly, sometimes for hours. Spices can provide a less laborious way to maintain the cultural bond. “As a second-generation Ethiopian, having grown up outside the country, I still want to enjoy the distinctive taste of spices,” Yeshiwas said, “but maybe without having to cook the onions for hours.” . He creates dishes that mix the two worlds, for example avocado toast, topped with their mixture of Berber pepper.
Another of Tefferi’s goals is to educate diners who appreciate her native country’s 3,000-year-old cuisine on how they can use these spices at home. The new space will provide space for their popular cooking classes, which they hope to start running on November mornings. Topics will include how to use traditional herbs and spices to create a variety of vegetarian dishes, or how to make injera.
Café Colucci’s Telegraph location will close at the end of August, and the new location will open with limited hours and offers on September 6. The aim is to shake things up by 9/11 i.e. Enkutatash, Ethiopian and Eritrean New Year. It’s the biggest holiday of the year, said Tefferi and Yeshiwas, a holiday that honors new beginnings.
Featured Image: Cafe Colucci General Manager Daniel Aderaw Yeshiwas (left) and Fetlework founder Tefferi. 1 credit