The Heart of Shirlington

The growing chain of Busboys and Poets has offered an array of activities in the Shirlington area.

“Beatnik” may be the first word that comes to mind when you enter the dimly lit Busboys and Poets restaurant in Shirlington Village, but it certainly won’t be the last.

This cozy coffee house, complete with couches, bookstore and poetry lounge, has been a midday retreat for northern Virginia residents for almost a year.

The Shirlington location is the second of the three Busboys and Poets restaurants. The first was opened at 14th and V Streets in D.C., and the most recent was opened at Fifth and K Streets this past September.

Patrons can do everything from grabbing a bite to eat, getting a drink, shopping for books, jewelry and clothes, and using the free Wi-Fi to get work done.

As manager Geoffrey Shallal, son of owner Andy Shallal, said, “We offer more than food here.”

AmbienceThe foyer of the restaurant gives you a pretty good idea about what the place stands for as soon as you walk in. On the left window of the foyer, guests are invited to “Say It & Stick It” for all the other guests to see. Post-its and pens are provided for people to write short messages for the rest of the patrons. The messages range from political endorsements to random quotes.

Also in the foyer is an old wood desk covered with fliers and advertisements for fundraisers, community events, outreach programs and other local businesses. The host or hostess waits on the other side of a glass door to the dining room in plain street clothes, going along with the “go with the flow” vibe of the place. Guests can choose to sit on one of the few couches in the forward dining area, or a traditional booth or table deeper into the restaurant. Busboys and Poets also offers outdoor seating until Nov. 1.

The walls are lined with abstract art, posters and political cartoons, which are available for purchase. One of the most controversial pieces is the three-piece series of pictures behind the bar, featuring animal and human figures blended and layered together. Quirky signs like “Air Poet” and “This Way Up” with a big arrow pointing down pepper the walls throughout. The bookstore is to the right of the host stand and features more clothing and jewelry than books, unlike the first D.C. location. There is still a variety of liberal themed books available for purchase.

During the day the restaurant is bright and warm for the breakfast and lunch crowds. The R & B, Neo-Soul and Jazz playlist is a little lower and there are more than a few laptops open. Visitors sip lattes and pore over textbooks and novels as they lounge on the couch, glancing up at CNN on the television over the bar. Most of the people who hang out during the day are loyal customers. “I know almost everyone in here by name,” Shallal boasted.

When the sun sets, the lights go down and the music goes up as the dining room is transformed into a mellow nighttime hangout for the over-21 crowd. Gothic candles adorn the longest table by the bar, and tea candles light each table. A lot of the evening crowd looks as if they just got off of work, making the vibe in the dining room and bar one of relaxation. According to the manager, a lot of the patrons are government employees who come to take a load off after work.

MenuPictures of freedom fighters such at Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi decorate the cover of the menu. Inside guests can find a brief history of the company and what it stands. Before the election, the menu included a message urging people to vote. Throughout the menu are quotes and small poems for guests to read as they decide on what to eat.

The menu ranges from home-style meatloaf to vegan pizza with a variety of dishes in between. Salads, soups, sandwiches and burgers are also offered alongside coffee and alcoholic beverages. The menu is a little sparse and without all the poetry it would probably only be about a page and a half. Though lacking in quantity, the menu is definitely not lacking in quality and tries to cater to vegetarian and vegan patrons. No matter what the palate, there is surely something to please everyone.

ServiceOn two separate occasions, the service was pretty slow once seated. It took almost six minutes for the waitress to even come over and take the drink order and almost 20 minutes for the food to be served. Checkups were few between the deliveries, and on more than one occasion the waitress couldn’t even be found. The service is something Mr. Shallal says he’s working to improve. “We could always be faster,” he admitted.

When acknowledged, the staff was very friendly and seemed to genuinely enjoy being there. Smiles were on almost every face and one waiter, who wasn’t assigned my table, even went out of his way to substitute something from my plate that I didn’t like. The hostess was extremely friendly and smiled whenever she walked by.

Shallal hopes to see Busboys and Poets reach out to community more in the near future.

Even with the poetry night, organic beer on Wednesdays and the movies on Sunday nights, Shallal would love to see more community involvement among other improvements.

“I would love to see more advertising,” Shallal admitted. Currently, Busboys and Poets does not advertise commercially.

The restaurants gain their following through what Shallal calls the most effective form of advertising: word of mouth.

“I think it means more when a friend recommends a place than if you just see it on TV,” he explained.

According to Shallal, Busboys and Poets is so unique because it acts as a gathering place for the community.

Though they’ve come a long way from where they’ve started, Shallal still calls the restaurant “up and coming.”

With five new locations slated in the near future, the Busboys and Poets momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon.