"White people are comfortable anywhere," says restaurateur Andy Shallal. "In order for a black person to walk into a space, there need to be signals that say, 'You're welcome.'"
In this week's show we decode those signals, which include the decor and music, the staff and other customers, and more. These codes tell you what kind of place a restaurant is, and whether it's for you. So what happens when a restaurant uses these signals to bring some people in and keep others out?
"We like to think that restaurants are places where we bring everyone together – and they can be," says Todd Kliman, who's written about racial coding in restaurants. "But very often, restaurants are exclusionary spaces."
This week we visit three very different restaurants in Washington, D.C., to talk with the owners and customers about the different signals these places send, and what those signals can tell us about larger questions of race and culture.
Sankofa is a cafe, video store, and bookstore near Howard University. "We wanted to have a black space," says Tensae Berhanu, who runs the cafe. "We feel it is important to have a space where we can explore our past meaningfully." Slim's Diner closed back in January, but around the time it first opened in 2016, we talked to the owner, Paul Ruppert, who said that he purposely designed his restaurant to avoid sending any overt signals to customers. That means not putting duck bacon on the menu, and not hiring the prospective chef who suggested it.
When Andy Shallal opened the restaurant Busboys and Poets in 2005, he purposely designed his restaurant to be welcoming to many different groups of people – from a huge mural celebrating multicultural leaders to the menu and even his staff. "In order for a black person to walk into a [restaurant], there have to be signals that say, 'you're welcome,'" Andy says. But is Andy's strategy at Busboys akin to pandering? Can you make a restaurant for everybody? And if you could, is that even what people want?
Note: This episode first aired four years ago. We know that many of us can’t go to restaurants right now, but we think the questions it raises are bigger than restaurants, and remain very relevant today.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Feel Real Good" by William Van De Crommert
- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Hot Night" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Busboys and Poets PHOTOS.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
CLIP (ANDY SHALLAL): White people will go and discover the coolest place in the back of a trailer park. They're comfortable anywhere. It could be very uncomfortable for a black person to walk into an all white place. It could even be dangerous. In order for a black person to walk into a space, there has to be signals that says, "You're welcome."
Dan Pashman: Every time you walk into a restaurant, you're bombarded with signals, codes that tell you what kind of place it is and whether it's for you. Some signals are obvious: the food, the decor, prices. But others are more subtle.
CLIP (TODD KLIMAN): It's the uniform or lack thereof that somebody is wearing. It's a tablecloth that's there or not there.
Dan Pashman: Then there's the people working there. And the other customers. Those are codes too.
CLIP (SHIRIKIANA GERIMA): Why don't white people feel comfortable around black people? What is on your mind when you can't go into a restaurant, when there are people that don't look like you?
Dan Pashman: Today on The Sporkful. We’re asking the question: Can a restaurant be for everybody? And if it could, is that even what people want?
CLIP (ANDY SHALLAL): People want to be in a space that's integrated, but it's hard to do it.
CLIP (W. KAMAU BELL): Some people want integration. I traveled the country enough to know a lot of people absolutely don't want that. They're looking for a place where they feel comfortable and for a large section of this country, comfortable means people who look like me, act like me, and smell like me.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today we’re sharing an episode with you that first aired four years ago. It’s focused on restaurants, and I know many of us can’t go to restaurants right now. But I think the questions it raises are bigger than restaurants, and remain very relevant today. So I’m excited to hear your thoughts on it. Alright, here it is...
Dan Pashman: This week, I'm really excited to have a co-host for this episode. My friend and colleague Kat Chow. She used to cover race and culture for the excellent NPR podcast and blog Code Switch. Hey, Kat.
Kat Chow: Hey Dan.
Dan Pashman: So we're gonna spend a lot of this episode going to different restaurants in Washington, D.C., where you live. You're gonna be my tour guide, right?
Kat Chow: Totally.
Dan Pashman: Okay. I'm ready for that.
Kat Chow: All right. But first, let's go to Todd Kliman. Dan, you kind of know a little bit more about his work.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. So Todd Kliman is a writer and a reporter based in D.C. He was a restaurant critic in D.C. for years. And he actually taught literature at Howard University, which is a historically black college in D.C. Todd, however, is white and his experience teaching at Howard had a big impact on him.
Todd Kliman: Within that time that I was on campus, I was always the other. And so that was fascinating. It's not to say that I you know, I shed my skin and I became this other person. But it is to say that I was I was made to see with other eyes and to feel what that's like and how hard that can be, how amazing it can be, how just different it can be.
Kat Chow: Todd says that in his work as a restaurant critic, he became very aware of the racial mix he saw at different restaurants. Most of the time, there wasn't much of a mix. And Todd, he wanted to try to understand why not.
Dan Pashman: That led him to write an article about the signals restaurants send. It was called "Coding and Decoding Dinner". It was published in Oxford American. A code in a restaurant is any detail that sends a message. A tablecloth says you're expected to talk quietly to know how to peruse a wine list. If you haven't had that experience, you might not fit in here. Loud music says, Hey, if you'd like to party, come on in. If you're a little older, maybe you don't hear so well, you should probably look elsewhere. And there are the prices. You're in a neighborhood where rents are going up. A new restaurant with high prices tells you we're just counting the days till you’re gone.
Kat Chow: Racial codes in restaurants are especially important in D.C., which has been called Chocolate City. But since 1970, the black population has dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent. Here's Todd Kliman again.
Todd Kliman: D.C. is this mix of, you know, now you've got 25 to 35-year- olds representing close to 40 percent of the population. And at the same time, you have a lot of older black folks, who have been here a long time and make up what you could think of as sort of the indigenous population. You see these kind of grinding edges and in the gentrification debate. It's troubling because you have so many places now that are opening in these these kind of transitional neighborhoods. And you have white restaurateurs who don't seem to understand where they are. They may say, "Well, we want everybody to come," But people are not going to come just because you want them to come. And particularly, if you're trying to bring folks together, you have to make conscious decisions to do that.
Kat Chow: One person who has made those kinds of conscious decisions to try to attract a diverse crowd is Andy Shallal. He is an Iraqi-American, who owns a restaurant in D.C. called Busboys and Poets. The first one opened in 2005. And now there are six around the city. Later in the show, we'll go there and talk with Andy. Todd Kliman says Busboys is full of codes from their murals of civil rights leaders to the menu.
Todd Kliman: I remember having conversation with Andy Shallal before Busboys and Poets open and he said, "Look, we're going to have chorizo, but we're not going to call it chorizo. We're going to call pepperoni." Some people think that the decisions he made were actually not just self-conscious, but even pandering.
Dan Pashman: But Busboys is one of the most integrated spaces in D.C. and the mix of people in any restaurant. That's another code. You walk in. See who's working there. Who else is eating there. Tells you what kind of place it is.
Kat Chow: Yeah. Whenever I go to a Chinese restaurant with my friends who are also Asian-American, if we see other people who look like us, other Asians. It kind of sends the signal to us that maybe this is a place for us.
Dan Pashman: And restaurateurs know that a lot of us feel that way. That's why they put thought into the mix of their customers and the signal that it sends.
Todd Kliman: Well, I heard one restaurateur tell me about something called the 60/40 rule. I mean, he said it off the record. The rule is that that if you have a restaurant and your population—that the mix goes from more than 60 percent white and 40 percent black. If it starts becoming 42 percent black, 45 percent black very quickly, it'll be a very slippery slope and will become a majority black restaurant in no time. And I think there is a sense from him that to become a majority black restaurant or an all black restaurant would have been bad for business.
Dan Pashman: Todd says he heard about the 60/40 rule from a couple of other white restaurateurs. We reached out to Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of the Food Studies Department at NYU and author of the Ethnic Restaurateur. We asked him about this idea that says that if more than 40 percent of a restaurant's customers are black, white people won't go there.
Dan Pashman: Have you ever heard of this rule?
Krishnendu Ray: I have not heard of this specific rule.
Dan Pashman: But does the idea underlying it ring true to you?
Krishnendu Ray: It does ring true to me. It rings very true. And I would do the analogy through residential segregation. So there's rich literature on housing. And there's a lot of interesting work which says when a number of African-Americans in a neighborhood reaches a threshold, it can flip. You will have white flight.
Dan Pashman: To be clear, evidence of the 60/40 rule is anecdotal. Back with Todd Kliman, Kat asked a question that she’ll be asking each of our guests today.
Kat Chow: Can you make a restaurant for everybody?
Todd Kliman: I think maybe you could try. But restaurants have always been about creating us versus them. You know, we like to think that that food is about inclusion. We like to think that restaurants are places where we bring everybody together and they can be. But very often, very, very often they are places where we mark restaurants are exclusionary spaces.
Dan Pashman: I suspect, Todd, that some people who are listening to our conversation are thinking they're hearing a white guy and me sitting here having this conversation and probably thinking like, "Who the hell are these guys?"
Todd Kliman: Mm-hmm. Right. No skin in the game, I think is the phrase.
Dan Pashman: Like, what do you say when you get that reaction?
Todd Kliman: Well, I haven't had that reaction, but I can anticipate that reaction. My reaction would be, "Yeah, I can see why anybody would be maybe bothered," but most people don't know how I've grown up. They don't know the experiences I've had. I'm not coming at this, I think, in a surface way. And I think that the best conversations, if we're talking simply about black and white here, the best conversations will make both black and white feel uncomfortable.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Kat and I visit three restaurants in D.C. that are coded in really different ways, including Busboys and Poets, which we just discussed. We'll talk to the owners and customers to see what happens when the signals a place sends bring certain people in, and keep others out. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I'm Dan Pashman. Our last episode was a deep dive into seltzer. You got to check this one out. We talk with the hosts of the podcast Seltzer Death Match to ask, if most seltzers taste pretty similar, how do you judge one against another?
CLIP (RACHEL WARD): How do the bubbles look in the glass. Are they big? Are they small? Do they climb? Do they cluster? And then when you drink it, does it carpet your tongue with fine bubbles?
Dan Pashman: Plus we nerd out on the science of carbonation with Dan Souza from Cooks Illustrated. He shares the secrets for getting the best results from a home carbonation device, which includes a very elaborate recipe for ice water. That seltzer episode is up now, check it out. And hey, while you're doing that, please make sure that you subscribe to The Sporkful at Apple Podcasts or if you listen in Stitcher, favorite us in Stitcher. Go ahead, you can subscribe or favorite right now while you're listening. It helps us out and makes sure you don't miss an episode. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Ok, back to the show, and I want to welcome back my co-host for this episode, reporter Kat Chow, formerly of the NPR podcast and blog Code Switch. Hey again, Kat.
Kat Chow: Hey, Dan.
Dan Pashman: Kat and I hopped in a cab and headed out to visit three restaurants around D.C. to see how different places send different codes to customers. Now, if you're gonna open a restaurant, one of the biggest decisions you make is where to open it. Typically, you're going to want to send signals to attract the people who live nearby, right? But when a neighborhood starts changing and new people start moving in, that can get complicated.
Dan Pashman: Thanks, have a good one.
Kat Chow: Have a good one. Alright.
Kat Chow: We went to a cafe video and bookstore called Sankofa. It's right near Howard University in the Georgia Ave. area. It's a predominantly black neighborhood with a lot of history. But gentrification, it's closing in from all sides. Here's Shirikiana Gerima. She's black. She and her husband, Haile, are co-founders of Sankofa.
Shirikiana Gerima: My husband, I make movies. And the movie that this establishment is named after is called Sankofa and that was made 25 years ago. So it takes place during slavery and it's very much immersed in the idea of resistance, that resistance had was the determining factor for slavery not continuing. And because there was such a gap in that kind of way of looking at our past. The film did really well in the context of independent filmmaking.
Dan Pashman: Sankofa means going back to our past in order to go forward. Shirikiana and her husband use the money they made from the film to buy this building right by Howard, where they've also taught. Their main goal was to have a place to produce more films.
Shirikiana Gerima: When we moved in here, we start looking at the space, thinking of the kind of creative things to do, and my crazy husband looks at the space downstairs and says, "You know, why don't we have a bookstore here?" So, like trying to figure out ways to fund these movies wasn't enough and distribute them wasn't enough, we opened a bookstore.
Kat Chow: The cafe was added more recently. As you enter the sign above the door says "By people of African descent, about people of African descent."
Dan Pashman: Inside there's a small counter where you can get coffee, cookies, sandwiches. Then there's a larger space that fits about a dozen tables. Each sandwich on the menu is named after an independent black filmmaker. They tell me the most popular is the Kathleen Collins. She was the first black American woman to produce a feature length film. And that sandwich is smoked salmon, pesto, dill, capers, red onion, organic spinach, and pepperJack cheese. Sounds really good. There's a screen in the back for showing films and the walls are lined with videos and books by people like Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, and many more. When we were there, there were about 20 black people and one white person, not counting me.
Tensai Berhanu: We wanted to have a black space. It is an intentional endeavor.
Kat Chow: This is Tensai Berhanu. He's black. He runs the cafe at Sankofa.
Tensai Berhanu: We feel it is important to have a space where we can explore our past meaningfully and to be able to discuss our current situation, so that we have a better understanding of how to move towards our new future. That is an idea based business.
Kat Chow: Sankofa's mission. It hasn't changed much over the years, but the neighborhood around it has. More white people are moving in and some of them say that Sankofa doesn't feel like it's for them. On a local blog, a commenter referred to it as an exclusive business.
Tensai Berhanu: People wanted to be somewhat politically correct, so they didn't say that it is a black space, but they put it under, "exclusive". You know, some did say they don't feel comfortable being here. Some said, unless you have issues with yourself, I haven't had any problems coming in here. I come in here. The people are pleasant. I get my cup of coffee and I go.
Shirikiana Gerima: D.C. is losing its black culture.
Dan Pashman: Here again, is Shirikiana Gerima.
Shirikiana Gerima: When you plow into a community that is primarily black, has been black, and in the middle of gentrification, and then build that so-called safe space for everybody. Is it safe for those people that have been displaced? It's ushering in a gentrified era. So Anacostia will not be or South East will not be what it was before that restaurant came, to make it a safe place for—let's be real—for white people coming across the bridge to feel comfortable. So we can fool ourselves in a certain way or we can be honest.
Dan Pashman: We asked Shirikiana and Tensai about the 60/40 rule.
Dan Pashman: If your customers in a restaurant are more than 40 percent black, white people won't go there.
Kat Chow: You're making a face.
Shirikiana Gerima: Oh. I didn't know about that.
Kat Chow: And not that...
Shirikiana Gerima: It's sort of something that you sort of know without articulating it. I mean, you...
Dan Pashman: Because how often do you ever go in a restaurant, that's where the customers are, 80 percent black?
Shirikiana Gerima: You know, constantly.
Dan Pashman: Really?
Kat Chow: Really?
Dan Pashman: Tell me, well go on.
Shirikiana Gerima: Okay. So...Okay. Keep in mind, how long have you guys been here?
Kat Chow: I've been here for four years.
Dan Pashman: I'm actually based in New York.
Shirikiana Gerima: One of the things that I'm noticing about this current area of gentrification, is that it's been so complete that I feel like I'm speaking to aliens. The questioning should be in the reverse. Just flip it a bit. Why don't white people feel comfortable around black people? And if you answer that question, maybe you can figure out why it is so necessary to displace them in order to live with them. So nobody has ever said, 'Don't come to D.C. because you're white." I've never heard anybody say that. Come. Be my neighbor. Buy the house up street next door to me. I don't care. But do I have to be displaced for you to live here? Is your coming here contingent on my leaving? And when you come, can you look at me and say, "Oh, that's interesting. Let me come look at your restaurant," as opposed to starting to ask me what's wrong with me for being here? What is on your mind when you can't go into a restaurant, when there are people that don't look like you? Sit the hell down, order something, and be quiet.
Kat Chow: One of the questions that I've been wondering about is, can a restaurant be for everybody?
Shirikiana Gerima: Why wouldn't it be for everybody?
Tensai Berhanu: Having to address this kind of question becomes absurd.
Shirikiana Gerima: It's absurd. It's really absurd. I don't and I really don't want to answer a question like that. What restaurant's not for anybody? I feel like I'm upside-down. Racism is affecting me, so I shouldn't have to justify being who I am because racism has turned things upside down.
Dan Pashman: And I don't want...I hope you don't take Kat's questions or my questions to suggest that you need to justify anything. But I guess to sort of piggyback on what Kat was asking. You know, in the process of working on this show, I've spoken—you may not feel this way, but I know I've spoken to other African-Americans, who say when they go to a restaurant, if they're the only black person and every other customer there is white, they don't feel so welcome in that space. And I suspect that many white people would say the same if they were the only white person in a space that everyone else was black. I'm sorry, I just want to understand. Is it that you don't think people do feel that way? You feel like they shouldn't feel that way? I just am trying to understand your perspective.
Shirikiana Gerima: OK. So I'm so used to going to white restaurants and to white airplanes, and to white everything, that how would I feel uncomfortable? I mean, unless I've adjusted to a level of discomfort, maybe that has happened, but I live in a white world. Do you know what that means? No.
Kat Chow: I do.
Shirikiana Gerima: I live in a world as white. So I know that it's not only white, but it's defined by whiteness. I'm supposed to, you know, my hair is supposed to be straight and flowy. I'm supposed to have, you know, a svelte, whatever white frame, even though that's narrow and stereotypic. I'm supposed to be able to speak in a white framework. I'm supposed to be able to do a number of things that are defined by somebody else's way of being. So when do I walk down the street and not feel uncomfortable?
Kat Chow: After speaking with Shirikiana and Tensai, we talked with some Sankofa customers. We asked one group of four why they chose the spot. Here's Aaron.
Aaron: It's also one of the few places that has consistently good vegetarian and vegan food. So as a black vegetarian, sometimes vegan when I can make myself do it, it's one of the few places that I can come to eat and have radical conversations and then pop up over and buy a book of poetry by Amiri Baraka.
Dan Pashman: You remember earlier we talked about Busboys and Poets, which is one of the most integrated restaurants in D.C., although it's also been accused of pandering? Kat and I started telling this group at Sankofa about the story we're working on and before we mentioned Busboys...
Kat Chow: We don't necessarily need to name names.
Aaron: I feel like if you're gonna have a real conversation. You should talk about the whole—that Busboys and Poets plays and tries to pretend like they're super radical. And then just like commoditizes people of color and radical experience and they put up MLK and—what is it?—the Dali Lama, MLK, and Gandhi? And it's like: “Dream! Faith! Love!”
Dan Pashman: One member of this group, Rebecca, is white. She also has issues with Busboys.
Rebecca: I think a lot of my beef with Busboys and Poets, right, is it's selling of a version of diversity. That is the like..
Aaron: Right, right.
Rebecca: White people love that version of diversity. It's like a cleaned up... like we can all be on the same team. And like, diversity can be beautiful and social justice can be beautiful. And yet underneath an actual diversity is a lot of pain and a lot of discord. And I think in the same way that white people we feel like, you know, everything should be comfortable for us. Diversity in a restaurant should also be comfortable for us. And so Busboys is selling this form of diversity, that's comfortable, that's packaged, that's cleaned up that's not actually real.
Kat Chow: At this point, Dan turned to another member of the group, Brittany. She's black.
Dan Pashman: Why is it so hard to just create a restaurant, where you see a really integrated mix of people and where they can all feel welcome and respected and treated the way they deserve to be treated?
Brittany: When you think about any small place, like this restaurant, restaurants in general is like a microcosm of the real world. And that's not real in the real world. So why would we expect in this place? You know? And maybe we're being presumptive in that we assume people want that, but we want to be integrated, want to sit beside each other. I think maybe what we see—you know, white people when they see what they like. They don't sit beside it. They want to have it. They want to wear it like a costume. You know, we're not interested in sitting beside each other. We’re interested in having what we want to have. Period.
Dan Pashman: From Sankofa, Kat and I got into a cab and headed to Slim's diner.
Kat Chow: Slim's Diner, which is about a mile north on the same street, Georgia Ave, as Sankofa. A completely different neighborhood, Petworth, which is a neighborhood that's basically being gentrified and becoming less black.
Dan Pashman: As we drove, we passed new luxury buildings with big “For Lease” signs, an African hair braiding place and Starbucks. The owner of Slim’s is a guy named Paul Ruppert. He's white. Kat listed the places he owns or used to own.
Kat Chow: He owns Petworth Citizen, which is actually right around the corner from where we're driving now. He used to own a place called Crane and Turtle, which was more of a sit-downy restaurant. And then he also owned Slim's Diner, in addition to a bunch of other places.
Dan Pashman: Like a high-end cocktail bar, called The Passenger.
Kat Chow: Yeah. Yeah. High end cocktail bar called The Passenger.
Dan Pashman: So he's like a pretty is a pretty big deal on the D.C. restaurant scene.
Kat Chow: Yeah, exactly. And we want to get out here. So...Okay. Do you mind pulling over to the right here?
Dan Pashman: Paul Ruppert says he knew this area was changing. He saw that new people were moving in and he saw a business opportunity. But his goal with Slim's is to appeal to both the newcomers and the folks who've been there a long time.
Kat Chow: From the looks of it, it's working. When we were there, we were struck not only by how racially diverse the crowd was, but also the range of ages. We saw twenty-somethings, parents with young kids, and middle-aged couples. Basically the kind of crowd you'd expect at a classic diner and the staff is just as diverse.
Dan Pashman: Then there's the decor. Big cushy red booths, Formica tables, a counter with stools. The place is such a quintessential diner. It almost looks like a movie set. Todd Kliman, who we talked with at the start of the show, he says that's by design. From a coding perspective, Slim's is sort of a blank slate, but that lack of overt signals still a choice. It's still self-conscious. And owner Paul Ruppert says the name of the place is no exception.
Paul Ruppert: By choosing the name Slim's, that's kind of a traditional nickname that to me doesn't have connotations of race, for instance. It's an older nickname. So it harkens back to an older time.
Kat Chow: Paul's other restaurants have dishes like day boat scallops and beet mousse. At Slim's, it’s things like omelets, pancakes, burgers, pie.
Paul Ruppert: The food, itself, is inexpensive. It's traditional diner, although there are some modern components to it. There's lots of vegetarian offerings. There's lots of gluten-free offerings, and they're no esoteric ingredients. You know, when we were first working on the project, I interviewed lots of chefs and one promising candidate in our third meeting, he said, "I want to do duck bacon." Now, I love duck bacon, but it doesn't belong, in my mind, on the menu at Slim's Diner. Now, it could belong on a menu at another diner, a fancier diner. But that's not something that I wanted. And so we ended up not hiring that candidate because of that.
Dan Pashman: Walk me through the chain reaction. Like duck bacon sends what message to what people and makes who less likely to come?
Paul Ruppert: Well, it's not that it makes people less likely to come. It's really it sends the same message to everyone, which is that regular bacon is not good enough, and that we're serving fancy bacon. And it and it's the same message, whether you're black, white, purple or green, you know. Even people who are looking for status or elevation in their dining experience, they also—those same people, at other times in their life, want a diner. On a Saturday morning, they're going to want bacon and eggs.
Dan Pashman: Kat, I think this is a great moment for you to ask a recurring question.
Kat Chow: Okay, so my recurring question—I feel like we have a drum roll, Dan. But basically, Can a restaurant be for everybody?
Paul Ruppert: No. You know, at Slim’s we try to be for as many people as possible, but there are lots of people who don't want to come here.
Dan Pashman: When you get that reaction like how does that make you feel?
Paul Ruppert: Well it's impossible to be all things to all people. And so I I tried my best to be welcoming to people. But I certainly understand, there are lots of places I don't like to go. And I don't take that personally.
Kat Chow: Who would you imagine would feel not welcome here?
Paul Ruppert: Well, again, I hope everyone feels welcome here. That's the whole point. Who wouldn't feel welcome here? I mean, there's certain—right. There certain folks who have been in the neighborhood for a long time who, I'm sure, have objections to someone from outside the neighborhood opening restaurants. And they have a different response and some of them choose not to come here.
Dan Pashman: After talking with Paul, Kat and I spoke with some of the customers at Slim's. We met a white family that had just moved into Petworth the day before. They told us why they picked this neighborhood.
Person 1: We wanted to have the traditional D.C. experience.
Person 2: Yes.
Dan Pashman: What are the elements of that experience?
Person 1: Walking distance to great restaurants, like Slim’s.
Person 2: Yup.
Person 1: Being in a multicultural community.
Person 2: Yeah.
Person 1: Great opportunities for our kids.
Person 2: Open. Accepting.
Dan Pashman: One of the things that can be fraught, when you move into a neighborhood, in part because it's a diverse neighborhood, is that the people who have been there for a long time may feel like you're not coming to live side by side, but you're coming to displace them. Even if that's not your intention, that's sometimes how it's perceived. How do you navigate that?
Person 2: That's a really great question. And we've actually talked about that. And in some ways I feel weird about it. Like, I don't want anybody to think, "Oh, god, I have some snooty new neighbor." I go out of my way to say hello to the people on the street. We don't want to be that guy. We don't want to be perceived as in a negative way. We hope we’re not.
Kat Chow: We also spoke with a middle-aged black woman named Barbara.
Dan Pashman: Barbara, do you live nearby?
Barbara: I live about less than a mile away.
Dan Pashman: How long have you lived in this area? In this neighborhood?
Barbara: My whole life. I grew up here, live in a house I grew up in.
Kat Chow: How did you hear about this place?
Barbara: I drive by all the time, going to the library, and was very, very happy to see a restaurant in our area. Extremely happy.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Barbara: Because there's not a lot to choose from except fast food. And they have vegetarian items on their menu. And I'm vegetarian. So I was very happy to see that.
Dan Pashman: I know that there's been a lot of changes in this neighborhood in the last few years. How are you feeling about those changes?
Barbara: I think it's great. I think that a more diverse neighborhood, lots of different kinds of folks moving into the area, lots of different restaurants, a lot of folks walking and moving around. I think it's wonderful. Everyone speaks. Everyone's friendly. I think people make more of it who are from outside, who think that you should be having problems. There aren't any.
Dan Pashman: Alright Kat, give me the D.C. resident’s rundown. What is Busboys and Poets?
Kat Chow: Okay, so Busboys and Poets. It's this sort of coffee shop, bookstore, restaurant bar at night. The vibe of Busboys and Poets is that it's a place that seems to really care about social justice. And among people I know, it's seen as a place where you go to listen to spoken word poetry, which is—I'll let you decide whatever that means.
Dan Pashman: Insert your opinion of spoken-word poetry here.
Kat Chow: Insert your opinion here, yeah. And there are like six Busboys and Poets locations. One's on 14th Street, where we're going, the first one. And there are bunch all around D.C.
Dan Pashman: Busboys is owned by Andy Shallal who's Iraqi-American. We went to the original location. It's in a neighborhood called U Street, which is kind of sacred ground in the D.C. black community.
Kat Chow: Yeah. During the Jim Crow era, it was called Black Broadway. It's where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway performed. It's where Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes lived. In fact, the name Busboys and Poets is a reference to Hughes, who was a busboy before becoming a poet.
Dan Pashman: In the late 60s, this area saw some of the country's worst race riots. After that, a lot of factors came together to decimate the neighborhood. Government neglect, corruption, and more. The causes are complicated and not really the topic we're covering today.
Kat Chow: But over the past 10 years or so, U Street has changed again. Now, it's the most gentrified neighborhood of the three were visiting.
Dan Pashman: When we first went into Busboys, I was struck by how huge the space is. I mean, it's not a hybrid space. There's a whole restaurant and a whole bookstore and a bar and a lounge and a performance space, which is where you see that mural we heard so much about with MLK and Gandhi and so many others on it. The customers were a real mix. The first woman you'll hear is white, the next two are black.
Person 3: I look for restaurants that are vegetarian friendly and this one is fabulous in that regard. And it also has the, for me, the added bonus of being an art filled, artful space, that's very community-minded. Lots of good social justice causes. So I appreciate that.
Person 4: Because it's Busboys and Poets, I just expect it to be so diverse because that's what they intend. They do that so intentionally and they do it well.
Dan Pashman: Can you tell me just in general when you walk into a restaurant? What are some of the things that you look for that maybe tell you that you are more or less welcome?
Person 4: So if I walk in and there's a host stand, that someone greets me. Yeah, then I'm treated like my money is green.
Kat Chow: That specific issue of how people are greeted when they walk in the door. It was something that we heard from a lot of people of color we talked with.
Andy Shallal: In order for a black person to cross the threshold to walk into a space, there has to be signals that says you're welcome.
Dan Pashman: This is Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets. He says at Busboys those signals include the music, the staff, the prices, the decor. Then there's the menu, which is as diverse as the customers he's trying to attract. There’s soul food, like catfish and shrimp and grits. Middle Eastern options like falafel and baba ganoush. Lots of vegetarian and vegan choices. And then old standbys like burgers and pizza.
Kat Chow: Andy was inspired to create a space like busboys from his own experience. So he and his family, they came to the U.S. from Iraq when he was 10 in 1966. That was the height of the Civil Rights Era.
Andy Shallal: It's very weird to come from a country that doesn't have race as a defining distinction between folks. To come in here as suddenly, race is so hard in this country. It's such a straight line. You're black or you're white. And that's changing a little bit. You know, people are choosing bi-racial and choosing other and choosing all this. When I came here, that was not a choice. If you did not pick on the box, whether you're black or white, somebody picked it for you by eyeballing. I never fit in. I did not fit in in spaces that were like uniquely one or uniquely the other. I thought, I need a space of my own. I need a space that I can feel comfortable in. People want to be in a space that’s integrated. They want to be in spaces where different people come in all feel good about being here. But it's hard to do it.
Dan Pashman: In order to do it. Andy goes way beyond offering a diverse menu and hiring a diverse staff. He runs a special orientation with every group of new employees.
Andy Shallal: And I say, "I want to know about you and I want to know about your experience with race," and sometimes jaws drop. Sometimes people get very uncomfortable. Other people leave.
Kat Chow: So in that way, you're trying to create a culture. How do you...
Andy Shallal: How do you translate that?
Kat Chow: How do you translate that into, "Okay, you want to make sure...."
Andy Shallal: So then we start talking about how it relates to what we do here and why is race important when it comes to service and restaurants. And I'll tell him like an example, I say, "You have a Saturday morning and you're serving brunch and it's first thing in the morning, and you just open the door, and you're the host at the front. Doesn’t matter if you're black or white, you're the host. A black couple walks in. The entire restaurant is open. You walk the black couple all the way to the back and seat them in that booth over there. The best booth in the house, in my opinion. I said, "What is the black couple thinking?", right? You're putting them in the back of the room. Why are you hiding me? They get upset. Now, sometimes people will say, "I don't want to sit here," and you'll move them. Sometimes they'll just be upset. And then the waiter, the young, perky white waiter walks up to them and they’re a black couple. And they're not even looking at them. They're looking at the menu and they’re thinking, "What a racist fucking place." And all of a sudden, the white waiter is thinking, "Angry black people." Right? And things start to deteriorate. So we say, let's take a white couple. They walk in through the door and they're the first customers. And you bring the white couple all the way in that corner. What's the white couple thinking?
Dan Pashman: All the way to the same table.
Andy Shallal: Same table. What are they thinking?
Dan Pashman: Oh, look, we've got the best table.
Kat Chow: Windows.
Andy Shallal: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. What a quaint little space. We got the whole place to ourselves. It's even empty. Like, how cute is that? So the idea of I'm blind to race, gets you in trouble. We don't want—I said, "I don't want you ever to be blind to race." When you see a table, walk in, racialize them, immediately. And understand how you represent. If you’re a white, blond man, and you're waiting on two elderly black women, the experience is gonna be very different than if you're a young black man waiting on two elderly black women. And you have to accommodate for that. I'm not saying that you have to give better service or worse service. I'm just saying, just be aware. Be aware of your presence and modulate. Modulate your energy, modulate your behavior. That's very key, I think, to being able to create a place that is welcoming.
Kat Chow: Can a restaurant be for everybody?
Andy Shallal: I think we can certainly try. I don't think any restaurant can be for everybody. I mean, we have people that can't afford to eat here, or drink here. That's not going to be for everybody. But it certainly can be for the majority of people, and be representative of the community that it’s in.
Kat Chow: We asked Andy about some of the criticisms that Busboys receives, the idea that the mural or the whole approach in general are somehow pandering.
Andy Shallal: I grew up here when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was alive. I was here and I experienced it. To me, he's my leader as well. He's not a black leader. He's not a different... He's also a leader that I looked up to. So I don't want to say, well, I can't touch him because he's black. That doesn't make sense. I think there's also a difference between exploitation and uplifting of a culture. We don't just put up like pictures of iconic figures on the wall and everything else is like different. We actually integrate what we do into all the things that we do. What we do here is really allow for everybody's identity to come through to feel like they see themselves in this space. They see themselves with the people sitting next to them eating. They see themselves in the person serving them or the person that's managing the place. So I think that helps people to feel more comfortable in their own skin. And once they do that, they're able to move on.
Dan Pashman: A few updates on the restaurants featured in this episode. At Sankofa, where we went first, the cafe is closed temporarily because of coronavirus, but the bookstore is open for curbside pickup. Slim’s Diner, our second stop, closed permanently back in January. So it had nothing to do with COVID-19. Owner Paul Ruppert told the Petworth News, “Slim’s has been open for 2 ½ years as a money-losing business. Although things have improved recently, we are not close to breaking even and it's time to pull the plug and try with a new concept.” As for Busboys and Poets, our last stop, all their locations are currently open for takeout and delivery only. Since Kat and I visited, they’ve opened a seventh location in D.C., and reportedly have plans to open in Columbia, Maryland, and in Baltimore. Thank you to my friend and colleague Kat Chow, reporter and writer, for co-hosting this episode. Kat is hard at work right now on her memoir, Seeing Ghosts. It’ll be out next year from Grand Central Publishing. Remember to check out last week’s episode, a super nerdy deep dive on seltzer. And while you're doing that, please make sure you subscribe to our podcast in Apple Podcasts, or favorite us in Stitcher. And while you're doing stuff on apps, please follow me on Instagram. I post pictures of what I'm eating. I do the stories. I have videos of my kids. A lot of fun stuff. Come hang out on Instagram where I am, @TheSporkful.