Hidden Hangouts: Busboys and Poets

 Get acquainted with Washington’s cultural hotspot for poetry and activism


Fourth Estate/Maggie Roth

Busboys and Poets is all at once a bookshop, bar, coffee shop, restaurant and space for creative performance. Each aspect of the shop flows into one another to create a unique, vibrant atmosphere conducive to creativity, activism and sustainability. It’s the kind of place where you could spend a whole afternoon without ever feeling unwelcome. 

Established by artist and activist Andy Shallal in 2005, the very first Busboys and Poets was located at 14th and V streets in the neighborhood of Cordoza in Washington, D.C. According to their website, the space quickly gathered a crowd of community members and activists. There are now seven different locations spread across the area, including one in Arlington in case you can’t make the trip into the city.

The standout feature of this establishment is their poetry events. Every week, each location makes space onstage for poets and artists of any level of expertise to perform in front of their community. 

The open mic night, open to all ages, is an event with a shocking level of energy and sense of community, costing only $5 for a thrilling night of live entertainment. It certainly attracts quite a crowd, but the space never feels too overcrowded or overwhelming.

Depending on the location and the date, you might find yourself at a themed event like the American Sign Language Open Mic held monthly at the 450 K St. location, or the competitive 11th Hour Poetry Slam at 14th and V, where experienced poets go head-to-head and let the audience declare a winner.

Along with the poetry you can enjoy food and drink from their restaurant and bar, including ample vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, featuring sustainably sourced ingredients. The food is well-priced and wholesome, and although I can’t personally try anything from the bar just yet, I wholeheartedly swear by their lattes. 

Part of me hesitates to call this a “hidden” hangout because the shop has been an integral part of Washington, D.C. culture for years, gathering media attention and praise since its beginnings. I cannot claim to have discovered anything. But as an out-of-state student trying to explore the culture and spirit of Washington, D.C. beyond the monuments and museums, I wish that someone had told me about this place the day I moved here. 

You can grab brunch and feel good about the food you’re eating, you can buy a book where you see yourself represented in the pages and be moved by the local community of artists and poets. The spirit of it all is captured best in their own words in the mantra they have displayed on their website, walls and menus:

“Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted … a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body, and soul … a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide … we believe that by creating such a space, we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.”