FEBRUARY 18, 2009
Throughout history, political movements have often developed informal social headquarters alongside their official central commands. The eighteenth- century London Tories had a pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The 1930s French rightists had the Cafe de Flore. George W. Bush’s polo-shirted young Republicans had Smith Point, a preppy bar in Georgetown. And, even though Barack Obama’s reign in Washington is only a couple of weeks old, his followers here have already found an unofficial home of their own: Busboys and Poets, a restaurant cum left-wing bookstore cum performance space one block north of U Street, the former Black Broadway turned hipster hub. On inauguration weekend, Busboys was open 24 hours a day, and lines to fete Obama formed outside Sunday through Tuesday. Alice Walker, Eve Ensler of the Vagina Monologues, and Representative John Conyers all came to toast change beneath paintings of Obama, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Edward Said.
That prominent liberals feel comfortable hanging out in a joint that hawks copies of Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature isn’t so surprising. It was Obama, after all, who made it possible for liberals to have out-there pals like Bill Ayers (who was scheduled to speak at Busboys until the crowd got too big) and still be perceived as normal—even cool. But perhaps even more miraculous has been Obama’s mainstreaming of the left. As one might expect from a place where, up until the inauguration, the biggest mob scene had been a Howard Zinn talk, Busboys has its share of scruffy- bearded activists. But, under the benevolent gaze of the new president’s seven portraits, they drink Gewurztraminer and happily co-exist on leather couches with buppies in elegant stiletto boots.
Andy Shallal, the restaurant’s Iraqi-American owner, admits that when Busboys first opened in late 2005, it had a more radical edge. “That it be an antiwar place was my intent, as an antiwar person myself,” Shallal explains to me over coffee in the Langston Room, the adjoining theater space that recently played host to a night of poetry and performances to celebrate the unveiling of the Edward Said portrait. A bald man with soft, smiling eyes and a nondescript brown coat, Shallal looks a bit like Gandhi, if Gandhi had been bigger and had regularly parked himself behind a MacBook Air. Among the early actions: The women’s antiwar group CodePink installed a huge ziggurat of shoes representing dead Iraqi children outside the door, aggressively defining the restaurant’s politics right there on the sidewalk. (CodePink has appointed Shallal, a serious peace activist himself, their “head of the auxiliary men’s unit.”) Shallal has his own tale of discovering his eatery’s hotbeds of radicalism: “We had a gathering of the Revolutionary Communist Party,” he remembers, “and I turn around, and I see one of my hostesses is a member!”
But, beyond providing a home for his fellow peace-movement travelers, Shallal had a larger aim in opening Busboys, one that would end up jibing perfectly with the Obama ethos: racial reconciliation. Shallal’s friend John Cavanagh, the director of a left-wing think tank, remembers conversations the two had before the restaurant opened: “We would talk about how Washington is an apartheid city, and, to create one of its first really diverse spaces, everything that Andy did—and Andy is a genius—had to be intentional.”
Even the new restaurant’s name needed to strike the right tone. “Broken Bread Cafe” was out because of the negative implications of “broken,” and, as Washingtonian magazine explained in 2005, Shallal ultimately rejected “The White Rabbit Cafe”—which he’d thought up after watching The Matrix—because “[b]lacks would think it was not for them, and ‘cafe’ conjured up a world of bourgeois pleasures.” Shallal even considered hanging a sign in the door that would read, “black people welcome.”
The sign never materialized, but the black people did. Soon after Busboys and Poets opened, now-Mayor Adrian Fenty, then a young city council member in the post-ideological Obama style, started having a chicken sandwich there nearly every day. “I love the atmosphere,” enthuses Fenty. “There’s huge variety—my [Department of Transportation] employees are always there, and then you’ve got the whole U Street crowd.” Fledgling Obama meet-up groups followed suit, phoning Shallal to reserve table space. When Obama finally announced his candidacy in February of 2007, Busboys and Poets’s watch party had the Langston Room packed and an overflow area outside.
But even more than its anti-Iraq-war politics or its black-friendly philosophy, Busboys shared something else with the Obama movement: a belief that even the most hairshirt lefty secretly craves style. “As someone who grew up in the late sixties and seventies and had been involved in a lot of activism, I was always, always uncomfortable, at some level, with having to always meet in dingy, dark spaces—smelly, in some church basement, the lighting’s always bad, the coffee’s horrible,” explains Shallal. “Human beings need aesthetics. You need to create a space that opens up your heart, opens up your mind, opens up your soul, and elevates your sensibilities.” Like the Obama movement, Shallal set about divorcing liberalism from granola and marrying it with a sexy, modern, faintly intellectual hipness. Busboys’s ceiling is coffered, the chandeliers are modish, the CD player loops Amy Winehouse and Akon, there are no grimy plastic tubs to bus your own plates, and only a couple of dishes on the menu feature tofu. Busboys is a place where Democrats, says Shallal, “can actually dress up nicely and there’s no reason to be ashamed to be a liberal.”
Busboys and Poets’s precise variety of cool—is there any other establishment in America that slings Moet champagne-pear cocktails and also sells the Weather Underground DVD?—can be a delicate thing to maintain. This past Mardi Gras, Shallal showed up at the restaurant to discover that somebody had invited over the Bacardi Girls, scantily clad women who go around bars offering people promotional rum shooters. He had to ask the Girls to leave. Another time, by accident, he tipped the equilibrium dangerously the other way by hiring a “visionary activist astrologer” to perform a winter solstice ritual. As the astrologer, beating on tom-tom drums, threaded between the restaurant’s gaping patrons, Shallal realized it had probably been a bad idea. “At that time of night, maybe sixty percent of our clientele is black, and you had this white woman telling everybody to be quiet and she’s going to conjure spirits.”
But, despite the pressure, the restaurant—like its new hero—has made few errors. Especially since the inauguration, it has been constantly thronged with diverse, chic guests; there was even a Matt Dillon spotting. And, in a development sure to surprise even the most visionary astrologer, Republicans have begun to admit that Busboys may represent a vision of the future. Over the past couple of years, the Bush State Department has sent groups of foreign professionals on exchange to witness the restaurant’s scene and have lunch. “The State Department loves us because we represent many of those values that people feel are American,” says Shallal. There’s racial harmony, there’s material ease, and there’s the freedom to sell a Weathermen DVD without having to get all squirrelly about it.
This article appeared in the February 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.