While there’s no foolproof formula for judging a budget-priced restaurant by its cover, I have identified some promising markers. One is “an immigrant chef/owner who is also server, cashier, busboy, and chief bottle washer.” Beyond leisurely paced service, this often means you’re in for the kind of traditional cuisine favored by the chef’s fellow expatriates. Such is the case at Lucy’s Ethiopian Café, which functions both as a fine neighborhood café/restaurant near Symphony Hall and a gathering place for the local Habesha (Ethiopian and Eritrean) community.
The dishes served here with injera — soft, spongy sourdough flatbread — are among Lucy’s standouts. These include the Addis combo ($7.99), individual stews of red lentil (complexly spiced with fiery Berberé spice paste), selata (soft-cooked root-vegetable greens), and split pea (rich and earthy). Lega-tibs ($10.95) is a ferocious sauté of beef, onions, green pepper, and tomatoes with serious capsicum heat, black pepper, and a large sprig of fresh rosemary. Scooped up with the slightly tangy injera — baked daily by the chef/owner’s wife from wheat and teff flours — these make hearty meals. Less substantial but offering similar fresh flavors is the Lucy omelet ($6.99), filled with barely sautéed scallions, red onions, and tomatoes, plus some thin pita bread and crisp home fries studded with sesame seeds and dusted with ground dried chili. Light, fresh-tasting pita-wrap sandwiches ($7.99) top lettuce, tomato, and scallions with fresh avocado, hummus, tuna, or scrambled egg. A variety of Middle Eastern pastries are available, notably a high-quality baklava ($3.25/two) and mille-feuille ($4.50).
Coffee drinks ($1.85–$3.99) are offered hot or iced, the espressos superior to the thin filter brews. Honey-sweetened peanut tea ($2.50) is novel and delicious, decidedly peanut-buttery. Teas ($1.85–$1.95) include several honey-sweetened, sweet-spiced Ethiopian black-tea blends. Better than the dull American soft drinks ($1.99–$2.99) are vivid fresh-squeezed juices ($4.99) of carrot or Granny Smith apple. Besso ($5.99) is a nutty, grainy, frappe-like beverage made from roasted barley and honey, striped with chocolate syrup. The sunny front dining area is plainly furnished but brightly decorated with Habesha photos. More beautifully appointed is the back room, where the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is performed on weekends (call for times and reservations), in which the server roasts, hand-mortars, brews, and serves coffee, with participants lingering for at least three cups. It’s an inherently social ritual that, along with Lucy’s homey cooking, provides a fascinating, affordable glimpse of less-familiar, ancient foodways from the Horn of Africa: an unexpected find in the heart of the city.
Lucy’s Ethiopian Café, located at 334 Mass Ave, Boston, is open Monday–Thursday, 11 am–9:30 pm; Friday, 11 am–10 pm; Saturday, 9:30 am–10 pm; and Sunday, 9:30 am–9:30 pm. Call 857.389.1824.