Tucked away in Timberlyne Shopping Center in the northern part of Chapel Hill, Queen of Sheba has attracted fans of Ethiopian food for eight years – longer if you count the five years it spent on Graham Street downtown.
But it’s been more than a restaurant for owner Friesh Dabei. It’s been her home. Here, she has poured her soul into cooking the recipes she learned from her mother and grandmother as a child in Ethiopia. And here, she treats customers like they’re guests in her home.
That’s why it’s heartbreaking for her to close her restaurant. Saturday is the last day of service. Dabei said she hates to close, but that she no longer can afford the rent.
“It’s not easy,” she said about closing. “You work hard. You set up everything, and then you’re tearing it down. Like building a house and tearing it down.”
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She is hopeful she will find another location, maybe in Chapel Hill, or maybe in Durham, where she got her start. She knows other Ethiopian restaurants have opened in the Triangle. A new one named Goorsha is going to open this spring at 910 W. Main St., in Durham.
“If my life is to continue in restaurants, I’ll accept it,” she said. “Wherever God guides me.”
She moved to the United States when she was 24 years old. She opened Blue Nile on Chapel Hill Road in Durham, one of the few places in the area to serve authentic Ethiopian food. For a year of business, she served food from a small take-out window. “I wanted to test the waters,” she said.
After almost 10 years, she moved to Chapel Hill on North Graham Street but was was forced to move after five years to make way for the Greenbridge development.
For 18 months, she couldn’t find a location to house her restaurant, until the spot off Weaver Dairy Road opened up.
Here, her customers have enjoyed her chickpea dip, homemade yogurt and elaborate seven-course meals on holidays. On the regular menu, the Sheba’s Feast offers diners an all-you-can-eat experience for two with the chef’s choice of dishes.
Dabei said she was taught to cook at the age of 8 years old. Girls were required to do so, she said, to make them more appealing to future husbands. If she didn’t know how to properly make a chicken – or know that a chicken has 12 parts – she might get sent back to her parents.
For Dabei, people and food are her passion. Her customers have become her friends and her family.
While she is sad about closing, she said the timing is good. She wants to take care of her younger sister, who is ill.
And Saturday, she will serve one last meal – a dinner buffet to encourage mingling.
“5:30 p.m. until everybody says they are full and they go,” she said.
Music and dancing start at 9 p.m. That’s what she did when she opened Blue Nile.
“This way, we can accommodate a lot of people,” she said. “They can say goodbye, or see you later.”