In the late 1990s, during my three years of law school in
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
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.