Shirlington, You Jest: Shallal to open a Busboys and Poets  in Arlington?
Shirlington, You Jest: Shallal to open a Busboys and Poets in Arlington? Credit: (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

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Naming Rights…and Wrongs

Langston Hughes’ connection to the District is pretty airtight. He lived here. He ambled up and down 7th Street NW doing whatever struggling poets do. He frequented Georgia Johnson’s literary salons. Hughes even, according to legend, was discovered here while working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park.

History, however, has squat to say (well, squat that I could find) about Langston Hughes living on the patch of earth that would eventually become Shirlington. So why, then, is Andy Shallal thinking about calling his new Busboys and Poets outlet in this Arlington neighborhood the same name as the original lefty mecca in Shaw? B&P, after all is named in honor of Hughes.

“The suburbs are becoming heavily populated with people that have come from the city,” says Shallal. “They choose to live in the suburbs, and yet they still want some of the amenities that the city has to offer. So we’re sort of bringing in a little bit of the city feel.”

Besides, Shallal says, not every neighborhood in Virginia bleeds red. His evidence? One of his employees told him the ZIP code where he’s opening shop in late June “has the highest concentration of gays and lesbians in Virginia,” says Shallal, whose new operation will be located near Signature Theatre and WETA.

Shallal plans to customize B&P for Shirlington. It may host Latino events to cater to the area’s sizable population, and it may even raise a fist at the nearby military-industrial complex via speakers or readings. B&P will “deal more with war and peace [issues] here, being that we’re close to the Pentagon,” Shallal says.

There’s also a 50-50 chance the Shirlington operation won’t be called Busboys and Poets at all. Shallal says he personally favors a new moniker, but others are counseling him to capitalize on Busboys and Poets’ strong name recognition.

Shallal and his managers are kicking around possible alternative names, including the name of another Harlem Renaissance artist, Zora Neale Hurston, but “there’s not a very strong connection of Zora Neale Hurston to Virginia.” The most loaded of the potential new handles is Sally Hemings, whose very name still sets some teeth on edge at Monticello.

“That’s a strong name that’s been used around,” Shallal says, “but [we’re] trying to find something whimsical about it and incorporating that in the name.”

Drinking Privileges

The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) notices plastered on the windows at 21 P may have seemed like scarlet letters to owners Mark and Hana Sakuta, whose restaurant was shut down and liquor license was seized. But to two restaurateurs with a thirst for that liquor license, those OTR placards were genuine signs of hope.

In January, OTR officials laid the smackdown on 21 P after the Sakutas’ company, 21 P Restaurant Concepts, neglected to pay sales taxes and file sales-tax returns for nearly a year, says William Bowie, assistant general counsel for OTR. Based on OTR’s assessments, 21 P owes the District more than $100,000, including penalties and interest. When 21 P failed to respond to OTR’s collection notices, the agency was forced to revoke the restaurant’s sales-tax certificate and seize its liquor license.

Seizing the liquor license was a practical matter. OTR can sell the asset to cover the delinquent tax bill. Bowie’s not sure what the license could fetch at auction, but in West Dupont Circle, which is limited to 30 retail liquor licenses under a moratorium, it’s one helluva seller’s market. “We were on the verge of preparing to sell the liquor license,” says Bowie, but on Feb. 13, the restaurant filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which “precluded us from selling the liquor license because it is an asset of the business.”

The matter is now in the hands of Wendell W. Webster, who’s first trying to sell both the license and the restaurant as a package to pay off creditors and help recoup some of 21 P’s original $500,000 investment. The court must sign off on any deal.

Both Ruth Gresser at Pizzeria Paradiso and Frank Ruta at Palena wouldn’t mind getting their hands on 21 P’s license, if not its restaurant.

Gresser wants to expand her tiny Dupont Circle operation, which currently seats about 35 customers. She already has the perfect location: the former health food store below her pizzeria. But she cannot simply apply her liquor license to the neighboring location; D.C. law limits “lateral expansion” in spaces not licensed to sell alcohol, Gresser says.

With no second license in hand, Gresser has no reason to lease the health-food space. But “things could change if I had access to selling liquor down there,” she says. She’s now looking into the fire sale of 21 P’s license.

As for Ruta, it looks like 21 P’s demise came too late. The chef has been talking intermittently for months with longtime investor John R. Phillips about moving Palena into a retail space on P Street behind the Blaine Mansion, which Phillips owns. But the lack of an available liquor license has always been the sticking point.

“I heard that license was available,” says Ruta, who e-mailed Phillips about the opportunity. Phillips, however, thought it was “too late for our project,” Ruta recalls. It seems Phillips couldn’t afford to wait for Palena to secure a license and decided to “develop the property without the restaurant plans.”

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