Busboys and Poets oozes blue-state cool

Warning: The lofty ceilings and vintage decor of Busboys and Poets, the U Street corridor’s newest bar-cafe-hangout, may lead to an altered reality.

The superstrong coffee and plush couches, where customers can loll for hours with a good book or an open laptop, belong on the set of “Friends.” The simple but polished menu, which features burgers, sandwiches, salads and pizzas all priced below $10 each, would be right at home at the “Seinfeld” characters’ favorite diner.

Even more surprising is the unique energy of the spot, a mellow and inviting vibe that accommodates families with small children, beer-swilling bohemians and couples on a cozy first date — all on the same weekend evening. Owner Andy Shallal, who also runs Luna Grill and Mimi’s American Bistro, has turned Busboys & Poets into a booming hotspot in the five short months since its opening.

Which leads to a second warning: There is one type of customer who may not feel as comfortable in Busboys and Poets.

“Republicans may learn something here,” Shallal said. “We’d love to have them. ... A lot of times, when you think of progressive, liberal environments, you think dirty basements, dingy, not very expansive and beautiful.”

Busboys and Poets is nothing if not expansive and beautiful. Its wide glass-paned windows overlook a 14th Street growing more revitalized as development brings visitors in from downtown. Its soundtrack is hip but not intrusive, its walls swathed in attractive modern art.

But a look at the programming and events held in the Langston Room, the hall at the back of the main dining room, reveals an identity unapologetically tailored more to George Galloways than George Allens. Earlier this week, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan presided over a raucous “Impeachment Forum,” sponsored by the fundraising group ImpeachPAC, to rally the liberal troops against the Bush administration.

Any unsuspecting red-stater who wandered in to Busboys and Poets on State of the Union night found a watch party promoted on the caf�’s website with: “The president is still lying … Troops are still dying. …”

Kevin Zeese, the Democracy Rising director who helped coordinate the Sheehan event, said Busboys and Poets fills a lefty niche that had long been vacant in Washington, where John Kerry claimed 90 percent of the vote in 2004.

“Boom! It just became an incredibly important landmark for the community,” Zeese said. “It definitely has a progressive feel to it; it’s in the ’hood, not disjointed from the community like the National Press Club and Capitol Hill are.”

The laid-back (and likely liberal) U Street locals who flock to Busboys and Poets, crowding its aisles from morning to night, can choose from several beers on tap and a specialty cocktail menu.

The burgers and pizzas are especially crowd-pleasing, with eggplant, red onion and goat cheese as well as Portobello mushrooms, red peppers and mozzarella standing out in the latter category. The “Oceanic” pizza — mussels, shrimp and leeks — is best left to those with strong stomachs.

Likewise, the sandwich slate is dominated by ciabatta panini hearty enough to serve two people if needed. The falafel wrap is also a solid win, though a combination of peanut butter, banana and honey with challah bread and a side salad is too confusing to be truly tasty.

Among the entr�es, Zeese favors the homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes, but vegetarians are remembered with a piquant pesto lasagna and eggplant Napoleon. Desserts are well worth their high price tags, especially a carrot cake smothered in fresh whipped cream.

Of course, the food is merely one aspect of Busboys and Poets’ grab-bag appeal. If you find yourself overlooked by the unpredictable servers, who are so approachable that they tend to perch on the edge of a nearby seat while discussing your order, the caf�’s bookstore provides nooks to peruse the latest Utne Reader or check out the new Barbara Ehrenreich tome.

All the proceeds from every bookstore purchase directly benefit Teaching for Change, a local educational advocacy group on whose board Shallal serves. The nonfiction titles are largely progressive and political, but many mainstream novels dot the shelves as well. Shallal plans to add a massage chair in the coming weeks so that patrons can destress while waiting for a table.

Despite Busboys and Poets’ lack of an advertising budget. C-SPAN, NBC News and “Good Morning America” have already brought their cameras inside Shallal’s welcoming and inviting space.

The rush of overnight success hardly fazes him. Asked how he managed to capture the capital zeitgeist, Shallal revealed the universal appeal of his outwardly partisan hotspot.

“People love bookstores,” Shallal said. “Even if they don’t read much, they love bookstores. People love lounges, comfortable seating, theater, music. Everything all these people love is together under one roof.”

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