After two and a half years, Los Angeles’ most famous Ethiopian restaurant is ready to reopen its dining room. And Genet Agonafer, its semi-retired chef and owner, is ready to return to the frenzy of excitement, the hugs of longtime guests and the glow of candles along Fairfax Avenue.
When the pandemic temporarily closed Meals by Genet in early 2020, it took Agonafer months to weigh its options. He decided, for the sake of his sanity, his health and that of his family, to never open dinner service again, changing your business model takeout only and offering the dining room for private events.
In 2021, everything went smoothly. In 2022, and especially in 2023, a relentlessly difficult year in which Over 70 notable closures in Los Angeles alone. — business lagged and Agonafer faced a difficult decision: reopen Meals by Genet for regular service or close it permanently. In the end he chose his passion, cooking.
“I love, love, love my job,” Agonafer said. “I don’t know what he would do. I would fall apart if I stopped cooking and doing this. In fact, I enjoy every minute of it. I love what I do.”
Now, he’s planning a new business model: reopening for dine-in starting Jan. 5, Friday through Sunday, allowing for what he hopes is an ideal work-life balance for the now 70-year-old operator. and a return for a legion of fans.
“Meals by Genet was always a place to gather friends around a shared feast, exchanging gossip, laughter and intense debates about politics or movies between bites of Agonafer’s cuisine,” writes Laurie Ochoa, general manager of LA Times Food, “ served in the always-bustling bistro that for years attracted hungry diners to L.A.’s Little Ethiopia.”
Last year, LA Times food critic Bill Addison the restaurant was inducted into the List 101 Hall of Fame. Last year, the Michelin guide said Agonafer’s dishes “delight” and noted that its offering extends “far beyond the region’s best-known items.”
“I would be devastated if I never tried Genet Agonafer’s doro wot again,” said the late LA Times restaurant critic. Jonathan Gold once wrote“and I’m not the one who works in the kitchen for three days preparing the sauce.”
Customers continued to purchase takeout to celebrate special occasions such as anniversaries or Valentine’s Day. The children, Agonafer said, were born and then raised on their food. She is excited and grateful to see them again and she notes that although the days and hours will be limited, the menu will not be.
He has taken advantage of the last two years of semi-retirement to rest and relax. He has binged “Schitt’s Creek” several times, a luxury of time he has never had before. “I don’t regret taking that time,” she said. “It gave me peace of mind. But now I don’t want peace of mind; “I need to make money, I need to keep my employees and myself happy.”
Agonafer used to work 18 or 19 hours each work day and would get up early to arrive at his restaurant by 5 or 6 a.m. Before the pandemic, Meals by Genet had four prep cooks in the kitchen and three service employees in the back. dining room every night.
Without a full staff and limited hours, it will reduce its cooks and servers for service that runs from 6 to 9 p.m. on weekends, and possibly reconfigure dining room tables in an attempt to run the restaurant more efficiently.
Before March 2020, it served between 100 and 120 customers a night in its intimate dining room. But what he would make on a good day, before the pandemic, he would make in an entire month in 2022 and 2023. Agonafer reasoned that he would treat takeout-only Meals by Genet as a new business that just needed time to find its footing.
After its 2021 decision to eliminate dine-in service, the restaurant’s private events and takeout boosted the operation. But in 2022, as dining out began to return to pre-pandemic levels, he noticed customers opting for full-service seated experiences elsewhere; In that time, he saw both his private events and his takeout orders decline.
Sometimes there were no in-person takeout sales at the restaurant and few orders were placed through delivery apps; sometimes he earned as little as $100 a night. Throughout 2022 and 2023, the chef said she paid out of pocket to keep the restaurant afloat, spending almost all of her personal savings and contributing $5,000 or more during months of poor sales.
“I started going down and down, and everything I worked for was going to disappear,” he said. “I was healthy, so I have nothing to complain about, but from a business point of view, it was ridiculously horrible. “Like everyone else, I took a very, very bad hit.”
Agonafer watched restaurants close across the city, even near his own home. He began to feel like the option to reopen in the face of permanent closure was a blessing.
A regular customer suggested limited days and hours of operation, which would allow Agonafer enough time to rest, see his son and grandchildren, and prepare for his dinner service each week. The new schedule should allow for travel and family time Monday through Wednesday, with Thursdays reserved for restaurant prep. Once it reopens, she plans to continue offering the space and her kitchen for private events.
He recently told another regular that he would soon relaunch dine-in service, and the customer let out a scream in response. The support, Agonafer said, has been overwhelming.
“Now I can be more grateful and appreciate every penny I earn,” she said. “Before it was taken for granted. You’d make so much money and say, ‘Oh, that was slow.’ You’ll never, ever hear me say that again. I don’t. “Now I know what slow is.”
Over the past few weeks, he quietly began preparing: large quantities of kulet, doro wat pasta (a backbone of Ethiopian cuisine), as well as lentils. She has been replenishing ingredients for rice with vegetables, one of her most popular products, and inventorying honey wine, table candles and other items with her small staff, led by her long-time employee Olivier Hoarau. . The tablecloths and napkins have been sent to the dry cleaners and placed on the tables. The glasses are polished and ready.
One afternoon in late December, a housekeeper dropped off a pile of freshly laundered kitchen towels and napkins in preparation for the reopening. The moment made Agonafer jittery with anticipation.
“You know, this is it,” he said. “It actually made me [feel] That emotion I felt on day 1 in 2000. It’s really happening, it’s really here.”