Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Benny's

In the late 1990s, during my three years of law school in Washington, DC, my hang-out was Café Riche. We just called it Benny’s, for its proprietor. To this day, Benny’s remains the most soulful, interesting, and bizarre café I have ever visited. Benny was an exceedingly temperamental polymath of unlimited generosity and energy and occasionally shoddy business dealings. He was an engaging if not always intelligible conversationalist (though he spoke several dialects of Arabic as well as French, Russian, Spanish, English, and reputedly Greek), a proficient drummer, and above all, a brilliant chef with pure Gallic instincts and a love of his native Algerian cuisine.

Benny’s entire “clientele” was a collection of misfits, distinguished only in the degrees of our respective capacities and interests in masquerading ourselves on the stage of mainstream life: some of us got deported, and some of us work for multinationals. Many of his customers were Moroccan and Algerian immigrants, a few Benny knew from his fishing village while others were new to Washington and looking for a taste of home. They engaged in heated but quaint arguments which seemed to pit Benny’s older generation of French loyalists against the somewhat younger generation of Algerian and Moroccan nationalists. Their arguments were always in Arabic and their subject matter none-too-clear, perhaps even to themselves. But their friendliness and passion sealed my interest in all things Maghrebi. (It is also because of them that I do not recoil from having a Ricard in the U.S., publicly.)

My associates and I regularly went to Benny’s at different times and for different reasons, usually for dinner, a drink or a late coffee. With the exception of one month in the summer of 1998, there was no menu, and there were no regular hours of operation. There was also no staff. If we ate dinner at Benny’s on a weekend, more often than not we would end up tending bar to the Adams Morgan revelers who more often than not were expelled at some point of the evening for some inexpiable sin. Generally, those expelled failed to understand and ultimately offended Benny’s vague, but powerful romantic notion of eating a long drawn out meal or drinking among friends while having an engaging conversation. Practically, this could mean looking for a moment of calm after leaving Cities on a busy Friday night and making the mistake of ordering a cappuccino. “Please leave, my friend” was Benny’s admonition. If unheeded, throwing a liquor bottle would be his diktat.

The interior of his small restaurant had a bar and a few tables. His hundreds of books in many languages filled the walls, and he wanted his customers to treat the café as a library. The décor consisted of the oddest of bric-a-brac, and a large “Fuck you!” was drawn in chalk toward the top of the dining room’s brick wall.

What ultimately drew us to Benny’s was his food. (It certainly was not the service, reliability, or even consistency). His mussels, paella, salad that tingles, suckling pig, duck, loubia (or Algerian bean stew), and couscous with lamb and vegetables remain unmatched for their richness and soulfulness. It was the quality of his food and the personality of his restaurant that allowed me to enjoy a most memorable dinner with my grandfather who had a glass of wine, eight times, as well as, strangely, my very conservative former legal history professor and her even more conservative husband. (They were also misfits.)

Ultimately, it was Benny’s disdain for paying taxes and his enjoyment of cocaine that led to his restaurant’s replacement by a Cluck U Chicken.

11 comments:

addiction said...

i love your blog and so do all my friends!

Geri said...

i love your blog and so do all my friends!

Anonymous said...

so...this is a long shot, but... aside from hanging at couscous to go-go, would you be the steve from new york that hung with carlos at one step?...apologies for the post...had no email...catestuart@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

so...i'm an idiot...that would be stuartcate@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

God I loved that place. Sublime vortex in dc, with dusty books on the floor. And a meal I can still remember @15 years later.

pamit said...

Reading a New Yorker article lasta night on the Arab spring, I saw a mention to the namesake of Cafe Riche (a pub/salon in Prague). Put me in mind of my 40th birthday bash at Cafe Riche, held with a dozen friends. My first pate, I do believe...ruined a white suit with spatters of duck gravy, but oh my god a fabulous time. 1995. Ah, Bene and my misspent youth. What happened to Tom the degenerate barkeep?

pamit said...

Reading a New Yorker article lasta night on the Arab spring, I saw a mention to the namesake of Cafe Riche (a pub/salon in Prague). Put me in mind of my 40th birthday bash at Cafe Riche, held with a dozen friends. My first pate, I do believe...ruined a white suit with spatters of duck gravy, but oh my god a fabulous time. 1995. Ah, Bene and my misspent youth. What happened to Tom the degenerate barkeep?

Steve said...

Pamit -

I showed up late in '96, and Tom the Degenerate barkeep was long gone by then. I do regret this. Half the time, my crew and I would end up tending bar, especially when Benny went off the deep end.

Best,
Steve

Mark Shadows said...

I had a Cafe Riche experience in 1986. My band drank there one night and Benny and some other guy that seemed to be a partner/owner found out we were musicians, brought out an acoustic guitar and the fun began. They closed the bar and we drank heavily and for free into the wee hours singing songs about evil Reagan etc. He invited us back, we brought our girls and ate a huge feast in the back room, treated us like royalty and I don't think he even charged us. A few weeks later I was back at the bar with some bandmates, pretty loaded and laid my head down on the bar. Benny kicked me out angrily and told me not to come back.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for this write up. I tended bar at Cafe Riche as well. Benny's friendship was genuine and I hold the memory of closing shop at the end of the night and sitting with him out front in the wee hours of the morning with a bottle of red wine to watch the street drain off the riffraff, cabs and fanatics and the Jamaican steel drum player's lonely tune from some far off Island keeping us company. I remember the dinners too and the crazy way he kept receipts... All and all... it was a great and crazy place in the Universe where everything seemed to make sense at that time. Thanks Benny!

Steve said...

I hope Benny is ok. Does anyone know what happened to him?