Busboys and Poets wants to make sure progressives never bowl alone again.
This sleek, multipurpose restaurant/bookstore/theater, located at the corner of 14th and V Streets NW on the first floor of the Langston Lofts, wants to be “a gathering place for people who believe that social justice and peace are attainable goals” and an environment for the “progressive artistic and literary communities to dialogue, educate and interact” over food and drink. So says Busboys and Poets’ mission statement.
This lofty manifesto calls to mind Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, that academic bible now used to thump America upside the head for its yawning lack of interest in community affairs. From its circle of communal couches, where dinner is served on coffee tables among complete strangers, to its Langston Room, where poets speak and activists strategize, Busboys and Poets asks the digital zombies to pull the wires from their ears and plug instead into the community through which they shuffle every day.
The concept is noble, and in its application, it has attracted a broad range of left-leaning thinkers, writers, and artists to the Shaw operation, from poet Amiri Baraka to activist Dick Gregory to a trio of local filmmakers who recently premiered their documentary on a teenage murder case in Texas. The concept also attracts a ton of Washingtonians hungry not only for politics but for a nice pizza pie, too.
The interplay between the operation’s grand mission and its stomach-sating reality is the primary tension at Busboys and Poets, which owner Andy Shallal opened in September and named in honor of poet Langston Hughes. According to a page on Hughes in the D.C. Public Library’s Black Renaissance in Washington section, the aspiring poet was working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the mid-’20s when he penciled a few lines on napkins and slipped them to hotel guest Vachel Lindsay, a poet of note at the time. Lindsay read them and the “next day” told newspapers that he had discovered a “Negro busboy poet.”
Lost among all this hip historical packaging and idealism is the simple fact that Busboys and Poets is a business, one that needs to sell food more than it needs to sell ideas. The Iraqi-American Shallal may be a fervent peace activist, but he’s also a restaurateur (founder of Mimi’s American Bistro and Luna Grill) with a bottom line to maintain. Lefties huddled over their computers and sipping chai or lingering over a velvety bowl of baba ghanouj won’t pay the overhead. Shallal can’t afford to treat his food as some diplomatic flunky to his larger political agenda.
Busboys and Poets’ menu—devised by a committee of Shallal, restaurant managers, and head chef Hugo Bonilla—lacks inventiveness, but it also lacks high prices, which itself is a statement in these days of overpriced burgers and salads. Its offerings navigate a safe and steady course around Italian, American, soul food, and Middle Eastern staples.
Pizzas, sandwiches, salads, and burgers dominate. Most can be had for less than $10, which might please cash-strapped bohos but surely wouldn’t alienate any conservatives who dare to sneak behind enemy lines. The ample baby-spinach salad with sliced avocados, eggs, and grilled marinated portabello mushrooms could be the first and last thing you order; served in a large, flat bowl, the mound of greens is dressed in a cranberry vinaigrette and crowned with a strip of bacon, which provides the necessary fat to counteract the acidity.
Served with your choice of three sauces, the thin-crust pizzas cover the dietary spectrum, from those for meat lovers to pies for vegans. I sampled one from each extreme, a pepperoni-and-sausage combination and a vegan concoction with mushrooms, green and red peppers, caramelized shallots, and fake mozzarella. The former was chewy and spicy and satisfying; the latter tasted of oily vegetables, which are trapped under runny clumps of a shredded nondairy product that, like too many cheese substitutes, asks your memory to fill in the flavor.
The tomato, havarti, and avocado burger, cooked medium rare, is a knockout. Blanketed in cheese that’s melted and cooled to the transparency of a condom, the burger is then topped with a grilled slice of tomato and a small fan of avocado slices, which add coolness and creaminess to a patty already rich in juices and mineral flavors. The flavor profile of the banana, peanut butter, and honey sandwich on challah, on the other hand, could benefit from a personality overhaul. Perhaps the kitchen should tear a page from the Elvis cookbook and fry that sucker.
Busboys and Poets gives a nod to Elvis country with its catfish entree, a fillet dredged lightly in flour, fried, and draped on a corn cake and a featherbed of collard greens. The dish doesn’t stop there; the fish is then surrounded by a small pool of creamy, lemon-kissed sauce sprinkled with capers. It’s catfish piccata, soul-food style. Too bad its timid flavors don’t do either cuisine any justice.
It’s still anyone’s guess whether cause and cuisine can be equal partners at Busboys and Poets. Its bookstore sales may help promote social justice and its Langston Room events may promote ethnic understanding, but given that these heady offerings mostly preach to the converted, they seem as much about putting butts in seats as instigating political action. Which means that if Shallal & Co. don’t pump more life into their menu, they may find their politics as marginalized as their vegan pizza.
Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW, (202) 387-7638.—Tim Carman
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