HABESHA IS CLOSING.
The Ethiopian restaurant, at 801 NE Broadway, was home to an upstairs lounge that became one of Portland's most welcoming venues, hosting a diverse set of shows that covered all types of stylistic ground. One of my fondest memories there is seeing Beijing rock band Carsick Cars perform a blistering set on its impromptu stage, but that was just one of many memorable nights in Habesha's short history.
The place was run by the Kabede family, who took it over three years ago from its earlier incarnation as Mudai. According to bartender and booker Brandon Nikola, they were kind employers who allowed him free rein with the upstairs space while they ran the restaurant downstairs. When the landlord raised their rent, the Kabedes elected not to renew Habesha's lease.
"They were very family-oriented people, and when they took it over, it was under an odd set of circumstances," Nikola says. "I don't think that they were really looking to open a restaurant and I don't think it was ever a labor of love for them. It was something that they got thrown into."
Before working at Habesha, Nikola was a veteran of throwing house shows, and the local market where he bought all his beer told him about a potential job opening at Habesha, where they were looking for someone to manage the bar and its events. At that time, Nikola says, "I had maybe five house shows scheduled to be at my house, and I didn't want my neighbors standing outside my door with pitchforks and whatnot."
Nikola expanded on the bar's regular karaoke night to include live shows of all stripes, plus a weekly open mic and occasional DJ dance parties. The events were successful from the beginning.
"The first one that I ever did there was Wooden Indian Burial Ground, Old Light, and Au Dunes," he says. "I had a friend helping me bartend—it was my first night ever bartending—and you could not fit another person in the place. Thank god I had her to help me. She was a very experienced bartender, and at the end of the night, I asked her, 'Is that normal?' And she said, 'Good luck to you.'"
Habesha's final events will include a show from Portland bands the Sarcastic Dharma Society and Fire Nuns on Wednesday, the ever-popular weekly karaoke night on Thursday, and on Friday—closing night—an installment of the recurring Babymakers dance party.
I ask Nikola what show sticks out in his mind as the apex of his time there; he singles out the Cower reunion show from last December. "It was a foggy blur," he says. "People were crowd surfing, stage diving. I had to send four or five different friends out at various points in the night to get beer, because we kept running out. It was absolutely insane, and it went off without any problems."
After Habesha's closing, Nikola will take some time off, but plans to return to booking and bartending, as well as working on the debut EP from his band, Ice Queens, which is due out in late summer or early fall. In the meantime, he has nothing but gratitude for Habesha's regulars.
"I lived [in Portland] for about five years before working there, and I never felt as connected to the city and the people and to what's going on as I do right now," Nikola says. "And I've felt really lucky to have had such an awesome clientele. Everyone who came there was a total sweetheart and made it really easy on me.
"It's definitely been the best job of my life."