Five years ago DC restaurateur and activist Andy Shallal announced plans for a location of Busboys and Poets east of the Anacostia River. After a string of construction and funding delays, the restaurant opened yesterday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by mayor Muriel Bowser, neighborhood residents, and local politicians.
Shallal says Anacostia now has something “people on the west side take for granted”: a neighborhood gathering place in an area where sit-down, full-service restaurants are few.
The Anacostia Busboys and Poets, the seventh location for the socially conscious restaurant chain, occupies a building that once housed a furniture store on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The Big Chair sculpture—a Southeast DC landmark—was assembled there. Like the other branches in Brookland or Hyattsville, the cafe will open early at 7 AM for breakfast and close well after dinner (11 PM to start) so that patrons can mingle over mojitos or gather after community events. The concept is one-size-fits-all: a coffee joint, bookstore, bar, and all-day cafe with a global mix of dishes—you’ll find Iraqi corned beef hash (Shallal was born in Baghdad) next to Niçoise salad and shrimp and grits. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options are plentiful. Shallal says an event space may host ANC meetings one night and jazz performences the next.
“It’ll be geared by and for the community,” he said. “We’ll keep our ears to the ground and continue to expand our options.”
Shallal hopes the wide appeal will make Busboys succeed where other restaurants like the meat-centric Ray’s the Steaks at East River or health-minded Nurish Food + Drink have failed. He says other businesses took too narrow an approach in “a community that doesn’t even have a coffee shop to hang out in.” The ultimate goal, he says, is for Busboys and Poets to play a leading role in the revitalization of Ward 8.
Its arrival has been met with mixed emotions. Some residents see the opening as a sign of good things to come. Darrin D. Davis, a local real estate broker, is convinced the new Busboys will bring attention—and revenue—across the river.
“This will definitely bring new buyers out,” Davis says. “I think we’re gonna have new people coming from all over the city, not just Ward 8.”
Gina Summers, a business owner who founded EPU Apparel, expressed relief at having the dining option in her backyard.
“I’d usually have to go all the way to Northeast, Northwest—even Silver Spring,” she says. “Now I can hop on the bus and come straight here. I think that’s awesome.”
But not everyone has cheered the restaurant’s debut. Some saw the opening as a harbinger of gentrification.
“They want to move forward with this redevelopment, but it’s not really benefiting my family,” Southeast resident Nicole Odom said in an interview with City Paper last year. “We don’t need a Busboys and Poets. We need childcare. We need schools.”
Shallal concedes that business development contributes to rising costs of living that can drive out long-time residents. But he says that’s the opposite of his goal here. “We try to step very gently where we’re going. We don’t parachute into a community,” he says. One community need that still exists in Anacostia, he says, is a place for people “to intersect.”
“People want to see things they feel they deserve, or feel left out of, like a nice coffee shop or a nice hangout or place to do work outside of their home or office. Those are things that have been missing,” Shallal says.
Busboys’ diverse menu will remain the same, as will prices—a move that Shallal says is meant to be inclusive and cater to a variety of dietary and economic needs. Patrons can get anything from an $8 scrambled breakfast plate to a $12 crispy vegan “chicken” sandwich or a $22 blackened salmon entree come dinner. The main difference at the new location is the decor. Each branch has a room named after an important historical figure. In Anacostia, it’s DC “mayor for life” Marion Barry.
“We felt that he really represents a lot of the challenges, beauty, and opportunity of Ward 8 and what Ward 8 offers,” Shallal says. “He’s the perfect individual to honor, and represents the flaws and the beauty in each one of us.”
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