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Update: Andy Shallal says the new opening date will be next week. It will no longer be March 7 as previously reported.
Five years after owner Andy Shallal announced that Busboys and Poets would be expanding east of the Anacostia River, he will be hosting 500 people, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, at his newest outpost in Historic Anacostia Wednesday evening. The restaurant opens to the public next week.
While continually navigating a terrain of skepticism around his art and social justice-themed restaurant chain, Shallal says he’s committed to bringing quality food and coffee, hospitality industry jobs, and culturally-conscious programming to a side of town that he calls “spiritual and special.”
“There’s a sense about Anacostia that really resonates with folks—even people who don’t live around here,” Shallal told City Paper at the restaurant on Monday. “They understand the challenges that this community has had and they also understand the love and the beauty that comes out of this community.”
The restaurant located at 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE was still a construction zone Monday afternoon, but you could see a sketch of Frederick Douglasswatching over a counter scattered with construction materials.
Busboys and Poets’ art curator Carol Rhodes Dyson greets artists who stream in carrying large-scale paintings. She says 90 percent of the rotating art will be from artists who live in Wards 7 and 8.
To choose an artist for a permanent mural, Dyson fielded entries from people who sketched their interpretations of the best Anacostia has to offer. “I had never seen so much amazing work at one time,” says Dyson, who ultimately selected and commissioned Mia Duvallfor the task.
Duvall’s mural will feature images of deities representing art in the community as well as historical figures with roots in the area such as Frederick Douglass, social worker Ophelia Egypt, and former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
Barry, who was still a Ward 8 councilmember when he died in 2014, will have a room named in his honor. “A lot of people see him with all his flaws, but with flaws come a lot of other things,” Shallal says. “He brought so much good and empowerment to black folks in the city. I think that gets dismissed sometimes from those who don’t know his legacy and his history.”
Curation of this space borrows from Shallal’s playbook when opening other Busboys locations, with four in D.C. proper and two in the suburbs. “I’ve always entered into communities by honoring and respecting the culture and the people who live there,” he says.
But some Southeast residents, such as Nicole Odom, don’t find the restaurant beneficial for their families. “We don’t need a Busboys and Poets. We need childcare. We need schools,” Odom told City Paper in 2018. The reality, according to Shallal, is that the space “was going to be a restaurant—whether it was me or somebody else.”
Outsiders also view Busboys and Poets, many of which anchor new developments in up-and-coming neighborhoods, as a driver of gentrification. “The Busboys and Poets Effect,” a theory coined by real estate blog UrbanTurf, asserts that whenever a new chain opens in a neighborhood, single family home prices in that area increase in a matter of months.
“I think a lot of times it’s just too easy to blame retailers and restaurants for gentrification—that’s really not what causes gentrification,” Shallal contends. “I think people have their energy misplaced when they say a restaurant causes gentrification. What they mean is that once people see something is nice, they’ll want to move there. So what’s the alternative—not having nice things so people don’t move there? That doesn’t make sense.”
And the onus isn’t on him as a business owner, Shallal continues. “The government has to intervene in order to take off the edge of gentrification whether it’s taxes or rent going up,” he says.
What he can do, Shallal says, is open a restaurant in a community that’s long suffered from a lack of quality food options. “We know for a fact that a lot of our customers come from Southeast because they say to us that they don’t have many places to go to if they want to have something vegan, vegetarian, or gluten free.”
He plans to partner with the Anacostia Community Museum, which is closing temporarily for renovations, to bring programming to the space. “There will be conversations about issues that I think are important to this community on a regular basis,” he says. Look for high-profile speakers, too. Busboys and Poets is known for bringing in black powerhouses such as Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker.
While “an overwhelming majority” of the 80 people hired to work at the Anacostia location live in Wards 7 and 8, according to Shallal, the restaurateur says he won’t go through with the hospitality and culinary institute initially billed to operate alongside the restaurant when announced in 2014.
“There are a lot of culinary programs around this area so we didn’t want to just open another one,” says Shallal. Instead, he’s working with his nonprofit landlord, Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, to develop a leadership program.
“So we’re really trying to create partnerships more so than moving people out of the way and taking over—that’s not what I intend to do,” he says.
Busboys and Poets, 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; busboysandpoets.com