Busboys and Poets

They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.” – Langston Hughes, 1945

Busboys and Poets, founded by owner Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, activist, and restaurateur, is no ordinary food joint. Shallal created it in 2005 in a progressive DC neighborhood in honor of American poet Langston Hughes who worked as a busboy in the 1920’s before his rise to fame as one of the country’s most admired poets. In its early years, it became a hub for activists protesting the Iraq War and advancing social justice causes. This isn’t just a place where people eat; it’s a place to meet, think critically, organize, present, and improve the world.

The entrance greets visitors with a bookstore. This isn’t your local Barnes & Noble. Every book is as carefully selected as the historical figures on the wall mural that Shallal painted. The collection includes heavyweights Ta-Nehisi Coates and Malala Yousafzai; books with unmistakable purpose occupy the shelves.

You feel good at Busboys and Poets. Cool. Comfortable. Safe. Relaxed. It’s fun to be there. The vibe is right. And Shallal does good by helping the local community. The unique winding staircase and high ceiling will remind you that you’ve been there before when you return–and the restaurant’s mission will make you feel glad to be back.

Busboys and Poets is not a vegan restaurant but it would be easy to confuse it for one. The menu contains dozens of clearly marked vegan and vegetarian options including Baba Ganoush, Vegan “Beef” Sliders, Coconut Tofu Bites, Falafel Salad, and Egyptian Foole Dip, a host of veg breakfast options including Vegan Egg Wrap, Vegan Sausage, and Vegan Bacon, and a punishing array of vegan desserts including Vegan Cheesecake, Vegan Brownie, Vegan Ice Cream, and Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie.

The restaurant also serves non-veg options. While it would be preferable that Shallal eliminates animal products entirely (serving animals isn’t compatible with the social justice causes he champions), environmental, and animal and human rights advocates may find some solace realizing that the menu undoubtedly introduces non-veg eating customers to veg options and normalizes and equalizes meat and dairy alternatives.

I couldn’t help wonder what would happen if Shallal gradually removed animal products from the menu, allowing patrons to find alternatives on the same menu, until all oppression left the kitchen. Cringe-worthy word paintings on the wall that tout meaningless slogans such as “grass-fed beef” and “100% organic eggs” reveal Shallal, like so many other well-intentioned eaters, likely still has much to learn about the duplicity and shameless propaganda manufactured by the animal agriculture industry. The host told me, “All the meat is cruelty-free.” What a mess. I explained as nicely and patiently as I could that killing animals for food is never cruelty-free.

It’s rare that I would start a food review by discussing a waitress. But Ishah left me no choice. There are people who work to make money and then there are people who happen to make money while they work. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would think Ishah is the owner of Busboys and Poets. She’s that invested in ensuring diners have a positive experience. She made dinner better. I would later describe her to the manager, a cordial gentleman named Deonjalo, that she was one of the best waitresses I’ve ever had. Her greeting was sincere, she gladly answered questions and offered accommodations, and she was witty and funny. By the time dinner ended, I wanted to be friends with her. If you visit, request Ishah.

I’ve eaten at Busboys and Poets several times through the years. They have really good vegan food. On this visit, I ordered a veggie pizza without cheese to save calories. It came with so little sauce, I was wondering if I missed a spike in tomato prices. A pizza should have heart (and vegetables?). It should be loved. It should call out your name. This one looked abandoned. I wanted to donate to it. Mentor it. I wanted to make a pizza for this pizza.

When I told Ishah that it lacked sauce, she kindly brought me a side of sauce which improved it. But, in her only mistake (likely following restaurant policy), she charged me $1.00 for the sauce. In those situations, I don’t think it’s worth it to nickel and dime customers. Make it right for no extra charge, especially considering I was charged the same price ($14) for a pizza without cheese. It should have been a sans cheese, sub sauce. No justice.

Vegan pizzas are easy to make and there’s so much you can do with them. I was disappointed that customers are getting that drab option. I root for vegan options to do well. I tell restaurant owners if I think they can do better. Animals’ lives depend on them succeeding. There are several other better options on the menu. Ask Ishah.

I decided to see if I could offset the lackluster pizza with a hot chocolate vegan brownie. If I eat a brownie, I want it to be worth the calories. After I took the first bite, I had no regrets. Pure decadence. Fresh. Not too rich. Delightful. It salvaged the experience. Suddenly I felt like I was marching in the streets again. Alas, justice!

Busboys and Poets does better than most restaurants when it comes to serving compassion on a plate. They deserve praise for their vegan offerings. If every restaurant had their menu, animal agriculture would be getting walloped. But the symbols of peace on the walls fall short of their potential as they serve lambs, chickens, pigs, cows, and other friends for food. They only support peace for some when they include animals on their menu so it detracts from the potency of their message. Peace starts on our plate and should include everyone. As we are not at peace when people are wronged neither are we at peace when we accept that animals are commodities for us to needlessly confine, abuse, transport, and slaughter. Ironically, Langston Hughes wrote, “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” Our friends at Busboys and Poets should take those words to heart and stop serving broken wings.

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