Illustration by Sarajo Freiden
Saturday night at Rosalind’s on Fairfax Avenue is sumptuous. It’s not just hip, gritty, nicely circumstantial (that Saturday afternoon that slouches into evening and finds you and a friend still wearing minimal makeup, shopping gear and a movie calendar folded on the back seat — what the hell?), even a lean cut of romantic — but sumptuous. Rosalind’s is exactly that because, for several hours every weekend, it soaks up all the color and nuance of a very Ethiopian block like a great piece of spongy injera, Ethiopia’s national bread.
The scene starts about 8 and peaks ’round midnight. It begins with serious dining: Waitresses pass by my table balancing hubcap-size platters of Ethiopian cuisine; honey wine flows; post-coffee incense burns. But what I came to sample most tonight is eskista, not a dish but a delectable Ethiopian dance whose chief ingredients are swaying heads and shoulders so sharply spasmodic they look as if they’re being touched with an electric cattle prod. I have seen a little of eskista on videos and am curious to witness it in the flesh, to study any possible transcontinental links to Soul Train, breakdancing, ’80s Michael Jackson.
As the hour grows later, the food service slows to a trickle; drinks keep coming while the population at Rosalind’s swells to nightclub proportions. Ethiopians across the spectrum of the country’s roughly 70 ethnic groups file in: men in business suits talking rapidly in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language; kids barely out of their teens in Tommy Hilfiger and baggy denim; women in velvet gowns and neck scarves and occasionally in the traditional Ethiopian dress made of heavy crinkled cotton and trimmed in bright brocade. The band starts up, and the eskista is on. To Ethiopian tunes flavored with pop beats and reggae and a wee bit of funk, the capacity crowd ducks and bounces and shimmies with gleeful abandon — all from the waist up (rump shakers who think they pay full homage to the motherland, take note). Women face off and dance with each other, swapping grins; one older man throws his hands up in the band’s direction and dances alone. People let go some hollers that loosely translate into "Party over heah!" It’s all very scintillating and socially egalitarian, which I didn’t expect, and a great way to burn off all the injera, which I never manage to do because I am too busy watching and surreptitiously trying to work my shoulders to that eskista pop, eating to the beat, thinking that none of the Jacksons — Michael, Janet, self-esteem doyen Jesse, who so solemnly championed the tortured phrase African-American — have got anything on this.
The block of Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Whitworth has been distinctly Ethiopian for about 12 years now; as ethnic enclaves go, it is still relatively new, and still growing. I discovered it through a good friend who moved to L.A. from New Jersey and immediately started hunting for Ethio-pian food, her favorite. As often happens with out-of-town friends, she introduced me to a place that had been flourishing right under my nose — well, right outside my car window, which means that if the pope had been standing on Fairfax giving away holy cards, I would have driven right by him on my way to the 10 freeway. All Angelenos know the transmutative power of walking, of getting out of the car and taking half an hour or so to see what’s what. First I did Rosalind’s, then, as the scene grew, the Blue Nile, Chibo, Nyala. A few of these places, the Nile and Chibo, closed over the years but were speedily replaced by more Ethiopian businesses and restaurants.
Rosalind’s owner, Fekere Gebre-Mariam, 46, says the block weathered its toughest times in the early to mid-’90s, when the statewide recession and local riots one-two punched many a small business in metropolitan L.A. Profits plummeted 40 percent in that time, but things are looking up considerably; in the last year alone, three new places have debuted: Abyssinia restaurant, Ledeta Market and Safari gift-and-goods shop.
Gebre-Mariam was the first to locate here and has been called the mayor of Little Addis, or simply the godfather, a notion that makes him laugh heartily, but also one that, at bottom, he seems to take seriously. He studied international relations in college and once dreamed of becoming, in his words, the African Kissinger, though ending up as Fairfax’s street-level diplomat and cultural ambassador suits him fine. "I’ve never considered leaving [Fairfax], even when things were pretty bad," he says one afternoon at Rosalind’s, seated in a booth covered by an Ethiopian thatched roof known as gojo. "There is a very strong community here that needs a place like this." He should know; he has been in the USA since 1971, and as immigrants like him dig into L.A. and the years put more and more distance between them and their homeland, places like Fairfax become more and more significant. "I visit [Ethiopia] now and then, but that’s it," he says, flashing the perfect diplomat’s smile that is his trademark.