Stepping into Letena is a feast for the senses. At once, you smell the distinctive and vibrant berbere sauce, an Ethiopian classic made from a unique blend of spices. You hear the sounds of the La Marzocco traditional espresso machine as the barista prepares a latte or cortado. Letena’s atmosphere is part cozy home dining room with dark wood furniture and brightly colored throw pillows, and part art gallery with walls adorned with Ethiopian artifacts and paintings—some of which the owner commissioned herself. Guests indulge in large injera-lined platters of beef stew, yellow split peas, and sautéed collard greens.
Seeing an opportunity to share the authentic flavors of her home country’s cuisine, Yamrot was determined to make her dream a reality. Finally, her hard work paid off in October 2016 when she opened Letena in the heart of Columbia Heights. The restaurant’s name means “for health” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and Letena’s menu reflects that ideal by using only the highest quality, all-natural ingredients.
Yamrot is from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, and moved to England as a teenager. She studied chemical engineering in college and later earned an MBA. That education is reflected in her knowledge of cooking methods and the interaction of different ingredients, and in her ability to operate a successful business. She and her spouse moved to the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC in 2007, where they’ve since started a family. When their two children were young, she began gravitating back to the cultural, nutritious foods of Ethiopia which eventually inspired her to open Letena.
Yamrot recalls the changes she has seen in Columbia Heights in the past ten years. She remembers when Subway was the only place to eat, and before the Giant and other retail stores moved into the area. Today, Columbia Heights is a bustling neighborhood with a wide variety of restaurants and businesses. Yamrot and her staff take joy in seeing the many familiar faces that come into the restaurant and they greatly appreciate their support over the years. While there are still some challenges to owning a small business, Yamrot attributes much of Letena’s success to her dedicated staff and their strong relationship.
“I always say, if it wasn’t for the locals, we would not be where we are now,” Yamrot shared. While Yamrot spends most of her day taking care of the administrative tasks, she loves when she can work in the kitchen. She really enjoys preparing ingredients for Ethiopian cocktails and iced teas from scratch and experimenting with new dishes. She values being involved in the community and believes wholeheartedly in the early childhood education and support services CentroNía provides to children and families in the neighborhood. Letena has participated in ¡Buen Provecho! A Taste of Columbia Heights the past two years and Yamrot is looking forward to sharing Ethiopia’s cuisine and culture with participants again this year.
*** Special thanks to Michelle Long our friend, supporter and Advisory Committee Member for writing this beautiful story.