FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Whatever you think about the new Busboys and Poets (2021 14th St. NW; 202-387-7638), don't lump the project together with the fancy shops opening left and right on 14th Street NW.
Owner Andy Shallal insists that his combination "progressive political" bookstore, restaurant and performance space "not become another gentrification marker" but rather "a part of the neighborhood that honors its past."
And another thing: While Busboys and Poets features a menu, Shallal says "it's not for foodies." After spending a year in the area, talking to residents about their preferences, the Washington restaurateur and social activist (he also owns Mimi's American Bistro in Dupont Circle) came up with a plan for simple food at gentle rices.
His listening tour seems to have paid off. Pizzas go for $5.95-$8.95 a crackling round, and they're perfectly respectable. There's also a nice, juicy hamburger -- so big it needs to be cut in half to eat -- for $6.95, and a plate of crisp-moist catfish ($10.95) that challenges the soul food competition with its tangy collard greens and spoonfuls of lemony caper sauce. A few Mediterranean accents crop up on the largely American script, including a great, garlicky puree of roasted eggplant ($4.95) served with warm folds of pita bread for scooping. At nearly $18, crab cakes are the most expensive dish on the menu, and also the most disappointing; the crab is shredded and oddly seasoned, the accompanying grits woefully bland despite a few snips of basil.
Introduced just after Labor Day, Busboys and Poets already has attracted the attention of Ralph Nader and Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.), among other bold-face names.
The open and airy destination looks like a coffee house gone glam. Picture chic couches and walls painted a soothing mint color, jazz on the soundtrack and an inviting group table. Adjacent to the central dining area -- the space has room for 275 customers -- is the Langston Room, replete with a professional sound system, lighting and stage for poetry readings and other events. Jam on!
Appetizers $4.95-$7.95, entrees $7.95-$17.95.