In Ethiopian, “gojjo” means cottage.
Usually the term “cottage” doesn’t hold connotations of a bar and cheesesteaks, but West Philadelphia’s Ethiopian establishment Gojjo Bar & Restaurant – pronounced “go-joe” – sets an atmosphere of its own.
When Gojjo owner Habtamu Shitaye moved from Ethiopia to the United States with his wife and co-owner, Frehimot Desta, in 1990, the two frequented an Ethiopian community center near a historic Irish bar called the Cherry Tree Inn, located at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue.
“We used to come here and have a drink,” Desta said of the former establishment before they decided to buy the space in 1996.
A stained glass fixture hung above the bar with the words “Cherry Tree Inn” pays homage to the former bar, and the place still resembles a tavern.
Next to this hangs a framed poster from the Ethiopian Tourism Commission of a young, smiling girl. A neon lamp lights “Bud Light on tap” next to a small trinket in the shape of Africa. It’s within this establishment that worlds collide among people from many nations.
There are several other Ethiopian restaurants in the area, but Gojjo sees a mix of customers.
“We have some Ph.D. students in philosophy over at Villanova that come in and are best friends with some of the people that are from Kenya,” said Orysia Bezpalko, a server and bartender at Gojjo. “They all just hang out and talk and can find so much in common with each other.”
University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University students are the typical customers because of the restaurant’s location, but Gojjo’s budget-friendly options and late-night eats also draw college students residing outside of West Philadelphia.
Gojjo serves dishes from its Ethiopian-inspired menu until 1 a.m., an hour before the bar closes, which means Gojjo patrons can order menu items such as the Ethiopian cheesesteak – a spicier take on the widely adored Philly classic – and when it’s crowded, drink what they can get their hands on.
“They’ll drink anything,” Desta said.
Bezpalko said when Gojjo is most crowded around at about midnight, it’s hard to carry trays back and forth from the kitchen while people are dancing in the main area as songs are selected from the TouchTunes machine near the bar.
At closing time, as customers leave Gojjo for the streets of West Philadelphia, Desta said she believes the area has become much safer over time.
“I find it more safe now, it used to be scary,” Desta said. “It’s not like it used to be before. Things have changed for good, because of the Penn security.”
Bezpalko, a University of Pennsylvania alumna, said she also thinks fondly of the area.
She said that although the owners have been in the area many years longer than she has, she still has witnessed a transformation.
“I love West Philly,” Bezpalko said. “I’ve been here for five years, and I think it’s one of the best neighborhoods in Philadelphia. This area has definitely seen a lot of growth. There’s a lot of little independent stores and restaurants like this one that come through and are really developing with solid roots in the community.”
Kerri Ann Raimo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.