Lalibela, Ethiopia is a holy city, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its 12th century churches cut into the rock of the earth. On the opposite end of the architectural spectrum, just a short walk away, is Ben Abeba, a snail shell of a building that looks more like a spaceship landed on top of that rock.
Ben Abeba is a restaurant of wide-open spaces, located next to the historic architectural wonders of Lalibela. Perched high on a hill on the north side of town, it’s often described as looking like a bouquet of flowers or some sort of cooking pot.
The whole enterprise was the dream of owner Susan Aitchison, a retired home economics professor who came to Ethiopia from her native Scotland, initially to help a friend set up a school. Faced with leaving such a magnificent place and going home to Glasgow, she opted to stay. A chance ride with a local transportation company owner led to a business partnership, and to one of the best restaurants in Lalibela.
Aitchison and her partner, Habtamu Baye, hired local architects to put her ideas into motion, and the curved decks jutting out from the building’s central, spiraling staircase give patrons unobstructed views of the breathtaking river valley below. The award-winning restaurant serves a menu mixing traditional Ethiopian dishes and western fare, sometimes combining the two. Rising to the challenges of running a restaurant in a place with sometimes-sketchy electricity and less than reliable refrigeration, they pride themselves on giving valuable training to their young local staff, and especially their sourcing of local ingredients.