Busboys and Poets
Busboys and Poets is a restaurant, bookstore, lounge, and theater in Washington, D.C., founded in 2005 by Andy Shallal. A second location opened in Shirlington in 2007; a third location opened in Washington, D.C., in 2008; and a fourth in Hyattsville, Maryland opened in July 2011. It has been described as a haven for writers, thinkers and performers from America's progressive social and political movements.
The first Busboys and Poets lies two blocks from U Street, a commercial corridor in Northwest Washington, known as "Black Broadway" in its heyday. Concerned that his creation of a trendy artistic space would clash with U Street's traditional identity, Shallal reached out for support from community leaders, neighborhood groups, church organizations, schools and radio stations prior to opening the location. Shallal obtained a loan from black-owned Industrial Bank, located at 11th and U streets. Shallal also decided not to charge rent to Teaching for Change, which runs the bookstore area, until it turned a profit.
The name refers to American poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the 1930s, prior to gaining recognition as a poet. Rejected ideas for the restaurant's name include Writers Block Cafe, Broken Bread Cafe and White Rabbit Cafe, the latter inspired by The Matrix.
Shallal painted the giant civil rights movement-themed mural covering one wall of the restaurant, titled Peace in Struggle Wall. He refuses to sign the mural, saying this would be a "final gesture" that would preclude him from making revisions later. The collage depicts civil rights icons including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It features the words of Langston Hughes, "Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be."
Busboys also occupies the same building as the Langston Lofts, built by PN Hoffmann in 2005, and the theater hall is called Langston Room. Plays performed at Busboys include "Fear Up", about Guantanamo Bay, "Operation: Dreamland" about the occupation of Fallujah from the perspective of an American soldier. It has also hosted a screening of the Guerilla Film Festival.
Shallal had said he would keep Busboys running even if just broke even, but it proved a success from the beginning, even without committing an advertising budget. C-SPAN, NBC News and ABC's "Good Morning America" all filmed segments inside the restaurant within the restaurant's first few months. Kevin Zeese, spokesperson for Ralph Nader's 2004 presidential campaign and director of Democracy Rising, related to The Hill, "Boom! It just became an incredibly important landmark for the community. It definitely has a progressive feel to it; it's in the 'hood, not disjointed from the community like the National Press Club and Capitol Hill are." Shallal said of the restaurant's popularity, "I've opened many restaurants, [but] this is the first time that people came in and got it right away."
The Busboys clientele has included Nader, Cindy Sheehan, Tom Hayden, Harry Belafonte, Amiri Baraka, Rep. Maxine Waters, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Anthony Shadid and Dave Meggyesy, a former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker who quit the NFL in protest of the Vietnam War. Additionally, onetime Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas has performed his poetry at Busboys. Minnesota Senator, Al Franken spoke in Busboys and Poets' Langston Room, Howard Zinn, Alice Walker, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her daughter, actor Matt Dillon, modern hip hop artist Keri Hilson and other celebs have either ate or hosted an event.
The menu offers both American and international dishes. Among the American foods are burgers and pizza, including an Oceanic pizza featuring mussels, shrimp and leeks. Some of the more international offerings include falafel, panini, meatloaf, lasagna and falafel wrap. The menu offers numerous options for vegetarians and vegans.
Shallal initially hired a chef, but changed his mind a week before opening, believing the food called too much attention to itself. He brought the chef over from Mimi's to train the kitchen staff, and Shallal contributed his own recipes.
Additional Busboys and Poets locations have opened in the CityVista complex in Northwest D.C.; in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia; and in Hyattsville, Maryland. According to a recent article by Justin Fair featured on The Pink Line Project, the Hyattsville restaurant "is a benefit to the community and a welcoming guide for other businesses and folks to come into the Gateway Arts District."
- D.C. Restaurant Becomes Hub of Anti-War Activity, Voice of America, September 23, 2005.
- Rainbow Room: The Busboys and Poets Controversy, Todd Kliman, Washingtonian, December 1, 2005.
- The Muralist, David Montgomery, Washington Post, May 1, 2006.
- Busboys and Poets oozes blue-state cool, Elana Schor, The Hill, February 2, 2006.
- Arab Americans Give Back to Their Country, Jamie Kim, Washington Report, December 2005.
- "The Pink Line Project".
- "Busboys and Poets on The Pink Line Project".
- Busboys and Poets official website
- Eatonville Restaurant official website
- Review of the bookstore on THEthe Poetry Blog
- The Pink Line Project official website
- Teaching for Change's Bookstore at Busboys and Poets (14th & V) website with webstore, author events schedule, best sellers, recommended booklists, book reviews, and more.