The Blue State of the Ohio

More than a month after restaurateur Betty Ayele was shot and killed in Northern Virginia, a family member confirms that the native Ethiopian’s promising soul-food joint, the Ohio Restaurant and Bar on H Street NE, has died along with her.

To the Ayele siblings who either worked at or owned part of the Ohio, their sister’s death has settled the restaurant’s questionable future once and for all. They do not plan to reopen the Ohio, which has been closed since the fatal shooting on Oct. 25 at an intersection in Alexandria. They have put the business and the property on the auction block.

“We don’t want to have anything to do with the restaurant….At this point, we just want to sell it,” says a family member who requests anonymity. “This was not [Betty’s] baby. This was strictly a business purchase for her.”

The closing and sale come as no surprise to those who knew Ayele.

Depending on whom you believe, the Ohio was either breaking even or Ayele was sinking $2,000 a month into the place to keep it afloat. Whatever the financial situation, it wasn’t enough to appease the businesswoman whose father, a wealthy entrepreneur back in Ethiopia, cast a large shadow over Ayele.

“She looked up to her father tremendously,” says Harry DaCosta, Ayele’s chef at the Ohio and close friend. “I think she just wanted to make her father proud of her….The success that he achieved there, she wanted to achieve it here.”

Ayele’s “hunger for success on a grand scale,” as DaCosta calls it, led her to look into a variety of ventures, some with more urgency than others: a check-cashing operation, a liquor store, a KFC, and a 7-Eleven, among them. “We talked about the 7-Eleven extensively,” the chef recalls.

With the Ohio locked up tight, the restaurant has become a money pit for the family, which continues to pay the mortgage. Ayele and her brother, Million, paid $535,000 when they bought the property at 1380 H Street NE in November 2005. Despite the negative cash flow, the family is in “no rush to let it go below fair value,” the relative says. “If we don’t get a fair offer, we have no problem in leasing it.”

Even before her death, Ayele was reportedly close to selling the property. Running a restaurant “was never what she wanted to do. She was just profit-driven,” the family member says. “She found that it was not meeting her [financial] expectations…so she wanted out.”

Pizza Movers?

As if the jumbo-slice folks in Adams Morgan don’t already have enough competition for the late-night dining dollar, two new operations are gearing up to provide even more enticing foodstuffs for drunken Hill interns to puke into the streets.

Scott and Arianne Bennett, owners of the Amsterdam Falafelshop, plan to open M’Dawg Haute Dogs later this month in partnership with Greggory Hill, chef at David Greggory. The wiener-and-fries-heavy menu hasn’t been finalized yet, but the Bennetts and Hill plan to feature a number of sausages, from half smokes to veggie dogs, all made from outside producers until the team has time to develop dogs of its own. So what is Hill’s role in the meantime?

“All of the sauces are going to be his, all the toppings,” says Arianne. “He’s going to make chilis and coleslaws and cabbages and sauerkrauts and all sorts of little pickled relishes.” The shop will be located at 2418 18th Street NW, in the old Mumbai Chef’s Kitchen spot, and will share several traits with its sister restaurant across the street—namely artwork by G. Byron Peck, a self-serve-topping concept, and a 4 a.m. closing time on weekends.

More immediately, Adams Morgan diners can enter the alternate universe of YaZuZu, a Space Age–like Middle Eastern cafe run by longtime collaborators Maher Chebaro and chef Tutu Altaye Mihrete. Located in the former Peacock Deli space at 2120 18th Street NW, YaZuZu (a term that, according to my Arabic source, means “a little gayish of the mind”) looks like a cross between Space Mountain and a school cafeteria.

Lebanese-native Chebaro has opened more than 10 operations, from a nightclub and a Nuevo Latino restaurant in Beirut to Middle Eastern joints in the Midwest. The Ethiopian-born Mihrete has worked in Chebaro’s kitchens since Souk, a flashy, hookah-and-haute-meze restaurant that opened in Chicago in the late ’90s; she even joined Chebaro in Beirut when he sold Souk and made a go of it in his hometown.

But between the unrest in Lebanon and the lack of decent, midpriced restaurants in D.C. (where Mihrete has family), the pair figured they’d try their luck in the nation’s capital, which has seen few concepts as surreal as YaZuZu’s. Mihrete slings Middle Eastern comfort food—the kind of North African and Eastern Mediterranean dishes usually found in the home, not in restaurants—in a high-tech, high-concept, lipstick-red pneumatic tube of a cafe.

YaZuZu’s versions of Old World home cooking—whether an apricot-braised leg of lamb or a side of hindbeh, braised dandelion greens with caramelized onions—went down well when I sampled them on opening day, Nov. 30. You can be sure the items won’t taste as good to some old-school pizza vendors.

“Any place that opens late will probably have an effect” on business, says Mike Chisti, manager at Pizza Mart, which saw business drop after the Falafelshop opened in 2004.—Tim Carman

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x466.

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