Pop-up restaurants may be a dime a dozen these days, but back in 2004, when chef Eskender Aseged started hosting his Radio Africa dinners, they were all but unheard of. After eight years hosting pop-up meals out of his home in the Mission and other venues, he finally made his dream a permanent reality in 2012, when he opened Radio Africa & Kitchen at 4800 Third St. in Bayview.
Radio Africa & Kitchen in Bayview.
Described by the Chronicle as the "granddaddy" of the pop-up restaurant scene, Aseged originally came to the U.S. as a refugee from Ethiopia. "Ethiopia used to be a communist country, and I was a rebellious teenager and wouldn't participate in the community activities," he told us. "The way it worked was that if you participate, you could be prosecuted or possibly killed. So my brother and I escaped from Ethiopia [in the early 1980s] and walked to Sudan."
From there, the brothers made their way to the U.S., where they received asylum and initially settled in New York City. But when Aseged visited San Francisco in 1986, he "fell in love," and has been here ever since.
Both brothers initially pursued science educations. "I wanted to be an engineer, and he wanted to be a biochemist," Aseged said. But while his brother stuck with the plan (he's now a scientist who teaches at a small university in Washington, D.C.), Aseged became intrigued with the food industry.
"While I was attending City College and was just about to transfer to UC Davis, I took on a restaurant job and was working with this amazing chef and kind of got intercepted," Aseged said. "I was just falling in love with the idea of intermingling cultures, food, people and travel."
Aseged in the kitchen. (Photo: Radio Africa & Kitchen/Facebook)
He decided to stick with cooking, and worked under the likes of acclaimed food writer Joyce Goldstein (Square One) and Michelin-starred chef Daniel Humm (Campton Place) for more than a decade, honing his skills. His dream was always to open his own restaurant serving authentic African food, inspired by the cuisines of Ethiopia, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan, but he didn't have the money, he said.
But in 2004, he had an idea. "I decided to take a gamble. I said to a dozen of my friends one day: 'Hey guys, starting Thursday, I have a restaurant.' They were like, 'What are you talking about?' I said 'I have a restaurant.' 'Where?' they said. 'It's in my house. Every Thursday at 6pm, you can make a reservation. There is no set price or menu. You just come, eat and pay what you think it's worth.'"
Aseged prepares some of his signature dishes. (Photo: Courtesy of Radio Africa & Kitchen)
The gamble paid off. "In the beginning, it was hit or miss," Aseged said. "The first three months, we'd sometimes get 30 people, and then sometimes we'd only get four or five. But it started to take off."
After seven years of pop-up dinners, the mayor's office approached Aseged in 2011, asking if he would be willing to open a restaurant in Bayview. He didn't hesitate: "My initial reaction was 'Absolutely,'" he said.
"When I started Radio Africa & Kitchen, I was going against the norm of what was going on with fancy restaurants. I was more community-oriented. I wanted to combine community, art and food and music," he said. "That's why it's called Radio Africa & Kitchen, because growing up in Ethiopia, that was the only entertainment we had—listening to the radio and sharing snacks and having a good time."
Radio Africa & Kitchen emerged in a critical moment for Bayview, when the neighborhood was just starting to change. With few neighboring brick-and-mortar businesses, Aseged had to take on catering gigs just to keep the doors open.
But he found subtle ways of establishing his place in the community, starting with the community garden across the street, where he grows some of the restaurant's spices.
The Bayview community garden.
Things have only progressed from there. "We used to be open only at night, now we serve lunch and dinner," Aseged said. "It's such a beautiful corner that we want to utilize the space for more than just a place to eat. We want community gatherings, a little library where people can come and read, but also we want to create a hub. We want to create a cool hangout in here in Bayview. My ultimate goal is to have Radio Africa be that place where people can meet, mingle, eat delicious food and explore the neighborhood."
One unique event the restaurant offers is Community Tuesdays, held each Tuesday from 5pm-8pm. Each week, Aseged and Andrea Baker of Andrea Baker Consulting bring in cultural attractions like art shows, acoustic music sets and comedy shows. Admission is almost always free, and for those interested in dining, Aseged prepares a two-course prix fixe menu, priced at only $10.
Renaissance Bayview at Community Tuesdays.
Recently, Food Network host Guy Fieri visited Radio Africa for an upcoming appearance on the new season of his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. "Guy found my story fascinating, everything from being a refugee in the Sudan to a student to a cook who grows my own food," said Aseged. "He respects that I am part of the community."
Guy Fieri's signature stencil at Radio Africa & Kitchen.
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