When Busboys and Poets first opened in Washington, D.C., in 2005, restaurant-goers had no idea how much the establishment would shape the city.
Home to a bookstore filled with literature from writers of color alongside Middle Eastern and soul food, this restaurant-bookstore-spoken-word-activist-safe space-cafe hybrid is anything but ordinary. And for D.C. residents, it totally works.
“I think food and eating and breaking bread … is a sacred human experience at some level,” says restaurant owner Anas “Andy” Shallal. “You know, people just want to put something into their body. There’s some spirituality in that. I think many cultures in the world see food as something more than just nutrients for the body. And I think that’s the case in D.C. too.”
A beacon of activism and politics, Busboys and Poets has hosted numerous readings, events, and speaking engagements.
The events have been hosted by powerhouse figures like Angela Davis, Common, Danny Glover, Ellen Page, and one of Shallal’s personal favorite guests, Barack Obama.
“When [Obama] came, it was pretty much that moment that I think took my and most people’s breath away, which was really kind of weird because I’m not that easily starstruck,” Shallal says. “But someone like him with all his spirit coming into the space? The place went crazy. I mean, people gave him a standing ovation that lasted I don’t even know how long, but there was a sense of awe, that sense of reverence to him, which was really quite amazing.”
The inception of Busboys and Poets began when Shallal was living and working in D.C. The Iraqi-American restaurant owner immigrated to the U.S. with his family in the 1960s. Ever a connoisseur of the arts and activism, Shallal felt at home in Washington, D.C., the center of the U.S. federal government and the site of numerous movement beginnings and political marches.
While Shallal found comfort in the nation’s capital, he was still unsatisfied with how little politics were discussed outside of activist circles.
“I’m an activist,” he says. “I’ve always been an activist, and [I] always wanted to find a space that I would feel comfortable going to.”
Having come from a culture that embraced political discussions instead of deflecting from them, Shallal found America’s ambivalence to political conversations disheartening. The restaurant owner grew increasingly frustrated with Americans’ inability to talk about real issues in social settings.
“I remember when I first voted … I saw a person in front of me and said, ‘So, who are you going to vote for?'” he says. “And it was like I just asked her the most personal intimate question! She gave me that look — ‘How dare you?’ Like, ‘that’s not what we do in America.’ And I thought, ‘That’s odd. Shouldn’t you be public about who you voted for?'”
Shallal continued to face similar interactions whenever he’d try to discuss voting, politics, or other politically charged topics. An early public opponent of the Iraq War, Shallal was not one to shy away from the world’s most pressing issues.
So, how does an ambitious guy who’s spent his adult life reading the works of people like Zora Neale Hurston and Malcolm X get Americans to feel more comfortable talking about war, community policing, and women’s rights?
Through food, of course.
“I think the food is the trick,” Shallal says. “That’s how you catch fish. I think once people are sitting together, they realize that they need to be able to have a conversation, and it’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t hurt. Somebody’s not going to bite you. And there’s a sense of, ‘OK, this can happen, this is possible.’ And I think that’s the beauty of it.”
However, it’s not just the incredibly diverse meal offerings that makes Busboys and Poets such an atmospheric place.
Dishes like shrimp and chicken chorizo pasta and baba ganoush are amazing, but it’s the paintings featuring black American heroes, political figures, scholars, and artists that set this place apart.
In each of the restaurant’s six locations, patrons will find paintings of people like Langston Hughes (the original busboy and poet), Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama.
In contrast to the bland stock photos lining the walls of many restaurants, Busboys and Poets explicitly aims to normalize images of black people by showcasing them in an artistic and humanizing light.
“We have to normalize this imagery,” Shallal says. “We have to think of this in terms of ‘America’ as opposed to ‘black America’ because I think we oftentimes think ‘white America’ is ‘America.’ In order for us to change that, you have to change the imagery and change the perception of what America is. You have to accept black culture in American culture just like white culture was accepted.”
Shallal’s dedication to black and immigrant art has been a pervasive component in his career pursuits.
His ideology hasn’t gone unnoticed by community members. In fact, it’s made him famous in activist circles around the nation. “I think being a non-white person helps me understand the whole idea of justice and injustice a little differently,” Shallal says.
In stark contrast to many restaurant owners, Shallal places race and politics at the forefront of his restaurant’s mission rather than making it a topic to avoid at all costs. This is, in large part, due his knowledge of the history of segregation in U.S. restaurants and its persistence in subtle, but problematic, ways.
“Having grown up in this country, I’ve seen the segregation that happens in restaurants — at one point, legal segregation; and later, of course, is self-segregation,” Shallal says. “I’ve always thought that’s not a healthy way for society to grow and find common ground.”
Shallal’s understanding of restaurants’ segregationist past is accurate.
Historically, restaurants have been some of the most segregated places in the nation. In the civil rights era, black Americans were often refused service when they were not being attacked or facing brutal treatment by the police. In the present day, some restaurant owners still do everything they can to keep black patrons from frequenting their restaurants, including ignoring them, calling the police on them, kicking them out, and just making them uncomfortable.
Shallal counters this pervasive narrative by recognizing the importance of not being colorblind to patrons, and he makes sure his staff knows it too, saying, “There are very subtle messages [in the food industry], and if you were just being colorblind, you’re going to create tough situations.”
The commitment to bridging the gaps between culture, food, and history has made Busboys and Poets even more significant in today’s political volatility.
Since the restaurant first opened, five more locations have opened in the area. Shallal also opened another soul food restaurant called Eatonville, and he’s made public calls for greener institutions.
All Busboys and Poets locations still host well-known speakers and also host open-mic nights for high school and college students.
Shallal, ever the activist, is increasingly aware of just how important the space is in such turbulent times. True to his nature, he welcomes hard conversations and hopes they help to move society forward in a positive way.
“I think [the current state of affairs is] really unfortunate, and I think it’s really putting a lot of stress on families and on relationships,” he notes. “It’s just stupid and makes me really upset. But we’re still [Busboys and Poets], and people know where we stand and that’s not going to change.”
With six locations, a seventh in the works, and ambitious plans to continue growing, Shallal has a lot on his hands. But social justice and helping to move progress forward comes first.
To do that, he says, you just have to act: “I always firmly believed that I want to go at the heart of social justice and create a space that speaks to that issue — this is where I need to begin.”
From what I can tell, Shallal is just getting started.