San Francisco

Let the Music Play! Sheba Piano Lounge Keeps The Fillmore District Vibrant

Tucked in at the corner of Fillmore and Ellis, Sheba PianoLounge has been a Fillmore District gem for 10 years. Owners and sisters Netsanet and Israel Alemayehu (alla-may-yoo) had a vision when opening this restaurant/live music venue and that was simply to pair their Ethiopian culture with the musical history of the Fillmore neighborhood.

Together, they serve the Fillmore community by offering affordable traditional Ethiopian dinner and live music daily. Hoodline met with the Netsanet Alemayehu to discuss the culture of Sheba Piano Lounge and her involvement in the neighborhood.

What is the significance behind the name “Sheba?”

Well, Sheba is the name of an Ethiopian queen in the Old Testament who was an iconic figure. Legend has it that she took her followers to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon in Israel because she admired his wisdom. She presented him with frankincense, myrrh, gold and precious jewels. The Queen of Sheba tested King Solomon’s wisdom by asking him many questions and giving him riddles to solve. He answered to her satisfaction then taught her about his god Yahweh and she became a follower. This is how some Ethiopians believe Christianity to came their country.

What brought you to the Fillmore District?

My friend Agonafer owned Rasseles Jazz Club (now Origin). He mentioned there was an opportunity to open a live music venue in the neighborhood so I decided to go for it. At the time I had the restaurant “Sheba” in Oakland that didn’t offer live music, so I saw this as a chance to grow our business.  

What cultural traditions did you bring to Sheba Piano Lounge from Ethiopia?

I usually burn frankincense or sage before opening the restaurant as somewhat of a ritual to bring in positive energy, and it works. When people come to Sheba we open our hands. We welcome our customers with a hug no matter how we are feeling because we want them to know that we appreciate them. There are plenty of other places to go, but people choose to come to Sheba so we talk to everyone and get to know them on a first name basis. We explain to them how the food is made and how to eat some of the dishes. That’s our tradition and part of our culture.

Our chef has been with us since the beginning.  Sheba’s food menu and some of the specialty cocktails are prepared with imported Ethiopian spices. Israel and I occasionally take trips to Ethiopia to pick up these spices and sometimes family members bring them along when they visit. When it comes to the food, we don’t modify anything because we want our customers to experience authentic Ethiopian cuisine. 

As a very community–oriented business owner what are some of your goals to sustain Sheba Piano Lounge?

Israel and I are both hard workers and like our neighboring businesses our goal is to make this area vibrant for all people.  For as long as I can remember the intention from business owners in the Fillmore District was to brand this area as a “live music destination area.” Sheba Piano Lounge has not fallen short of that promise because we offer live music 7 days a week with no cover charge.

Sisters Israel (left) and Netsanet (right) Alemayehu at a recent event.

What challenges do you face as a small business in the Fillmore community?

Even though we have lost some of our music venues, it’s still challenging because there is a lot of competition. Live music is kind of losing its audience because there are a lot of DJ’s and dancing. But we also lost a part of the population that likes to listen to live jazz.  We actually offer a variety of music at Sheba. We have traditional jazz, Latin jazz, Blues, R&B and solo pianist. We keep it interesting and entertaining.

Tell us about special deals you offer at Sheba Piano Lounge that most people wouldn’t know about.  

Well, Sheba is a neighborhood spot. It’s like Cheers. “Where everybody knows your name,” The ambiance, food and music made it a tourist attraction.  For the late night crowd we offer appetizers and until midnight, but we don’t limit ourselves. If you are hungry we’ll jump in the kitchen.  We also offer a late night happy hour from 10pm-12am, which is mainly targeted for the food industry crowd, but of course available to anyone who’s interested. We also host a holiday party to show our customers our appreciation and donate food for local community events when we can.

What kind of changes would you like to see in the Fillmore neighborhood?

For the neighborhood, I would like to see some kind of promotion to bring people down here. I appreciate events like Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival. I think more collaborative events like those will really draw new customers. It’s important not to abandon the musical and historical elements of the Fillmore District. Keep it alive!

I also would really like to see more small businesses open with their own identity and not chain businesses.

Editors Note: It looks like Netsanet will definitely get her wish. In 2016 the Fillmore District will have new businesses opening that are already creating a buzz. The grand opening of both Wise Sons Deli and Black Bark are just right around the corner. Hoodline will keep you posted on opening dates.

Are there any changes we can expect from Sheba in 2016?

We are planning to do a lot of renovation with the outside seating. We are playing around with designs, but one thing I can tell you is that we will have heaters. It’s currently in the works. We’ve been 10 years strong and we have many more to look forward to. We are definitely going to keep it up!    

Sheba Piano Lounge is located at 1419 Fillmore St. Its hours are Sunday through Thursday 5pm-1am (dinner served from 5-10pm), and Fridays and Saturdays from 5pm-2am (dinner from 5-11pm). You can find the full line-up of live shows on its site.


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