Busboys and Poets Isn't Just a Café Chain, it's the Essence of Washington

Six locations each host 365 events a year – often political talks with an African-American or radical emphasis. And the food's great, too

When Andy Shallal opened the first Busboys and Poets in 2005, he didn’t figure he was opening a café devoted to black culture, though that’s what it became, and emphatically remains.

As an immigrant who moved to Washington with his family from Iraq 50 years ago, what this serial restaurateur really wanted to do was reflect his city. “It’s a focus on DC culture,” he says, “and it’s a city that for many years has been predominantly black.”

Busboys and Poets is as much a DC café as the café du Pont Neuf is a Paris café. And it’s more than that. The place hosts talks and other events – each one of six locations hosts a full calendar of 365 of them a year – about politics and current events, identity and religion, music and sports.

Walk into the original location at 14th and V, part of Washington’s burgeoning U Street Corridor, and before you get to the comfy furniture and walls lined with a semi-annual rotation of mostly local art against a permanent backdrop collage of poets and singers and boxers and freedom fighters, you hit the books.

The books are a new addition — renowned DC bookstore Politics & Prose began selling in the space just last year — but they’re a natural fit. On a late summer day, there was Ta Nehisi Coates’s book front and centre, which is often is. But unlike every other bookstore table I’d seen it on, it wasn’t the only book by a black writer; there was context for Coates’s complicated thinking. There was Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child and Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk.

Courtesy Busboys and Poets

The business got its name from poet Vachel Lindsay having called Langston Hughes a busboy poet after a young Hughes impressed Lindsay with his literary acumen while serving him his drinks at the Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s. So often, blackness is expressed in restaurants in the United States through various forms of traditional dishes – collard greens and such – which, though perfectly legitimate and authentic, can turn in the heads of white folks like me into a sort of theme park visit: “I had black food for lunch today honey. It was neat. We should take the kids on the weekend.”

Busboys and Poets is blackness expressed in too many ways to take so lightly. It offers literature, ideas and history; it offers event programming in addition to the catfish and collard greens.

I suspect a lot of visitors tend to see Washington as its nation’s capital, home to many of its best museums, a place to go to get an American civics lesson, and see some famous sights. You don’t really experience the city as such until you realize it’s also very much a black city, has been for ages. A tourist ought to be reminded of that.

Courtesy Busboys and Poets

The Zinn Room at the Hyattsville location

That’s a reason to think Busboys and Poets is valuable and interesting, certainly, but maybe not enough to get you to sit down. But you should sit down. The décor varies from location to location – 14th and V is casual, for example like the cluttered living room of a community organizer; at 5th and K, it’s a two-storey modern mahogany look with swirling staircase offering views of the vibrant nightlife the place plays host to. And the food is good.

The broad menu featuring Middle Eastern vegetarian and vegan food, as well as American dishes from various subcultures, changes regularly, but it’s consistently tasty enough to invite you out of your comfort zone, whether that’s opting for the shrimp and grits, or the tempeh reuben sandwich, as good a version of the classic as you’ll find anywhere.

Shallal says he buys local wherever possible, and organic whenever feasible, telling the story of a recent staff meeting at which the issue of free-range organic eggs was debated. The decision was taken to spend the extra $175,000 it would take annually across the chain – now six strong – to adhere to the company’s culinary and ethical principles.

Courtesy Busboys and Poets

Robeson room at the Shirlington location

Busboys and Poets is one of those businesses that’s trying hard to be a force for good as well as profit. And it’s working, on both fronts. Shallal opening his seventh location across the river in the neighbourhood of Anacostia in the next couple of months.

There are many reminders in DC of an American that can so easily slip out of view for large chunks of its own population, and ours. The poorly named National Museum of the American Indian, for instance, and the new (and great-looking) National Museum of African American History and Culture. But for a look at what’s happening now, in a United States as much energized as it is enervated by race and difference and immigration and war, you should add Busboys and Poets to your list.

Published Friday, December 2nd 2016

Header image credit: Philosopher Cornel West gives a talk at the Hyattsville location of Busboys and Poets in front of a picture of late radical commentator Howard Zinn / Courtesy Busboys and Poets



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