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Arabic Art and Politically Inspired Portraits Adorn Activist Andy Shallal’s New Restaurant

Ancient Rivers opens September 26

The main dining room at Ancient Rivers.
Photo by Warren Rojas / Eater DC

The chandeliers that helped light up Southern-themed Mulebone remain, but almost everything else about the new restaurant hospitality vet and political pot-stirrer Andy Shallal has quickly erected in its place is different.

The Iraqi-American restaurateur has for years stimulated debate at politically plugged-in Busboys and Poets by bringing in visiting authors, welcoming guest speakers, and hosting exhibitions that tap into the cultural zeitgeist. From the looks of things, he’s hoping to do the same at newcomer Ancient Rivers — his ode to Middle Eastern dining.

The new restaurant, which is scheduled to open for dinner Tuesday, September 26, features many design accents intended to put visitors in touch with that part of the world. World music plays on the house PA. The long curved wall that hugs the front door is painted with what appears to be a desert landscape, the varying shades of brown depicting sand dunes stretching out into infinity as multiple suns burn brightly above.

A custom mural at Ancient Rivers.
Photo by Warren Rojas / Eater DC

Canvases showcasing Arabic letters and words — “The Arabic alphabet is just so beautiful,” Shallal tells Eater — are sprinkled throughout. The phrase “Thank you,” is actually posted right above the front door. Meanwhile, a series of prints bearing the word “honor” line the hallway leading to the restrooms.

Art hangs on the walls in Ancient Rivers.
Photo by Warren Rojas / Eater DC

As for the various portraits prominently displayed above the immigrant-run kitchen: Shallal says the pictures — some of jocular-looking men sporting big toothy grins, while women in hijabs smile with their eyes — are part of a prior exhibition that really resonated with him. “Just Muslim faces,” he says.

Although not yet technically open, Ancient Rivers attracted Shallal’s core audience during a preview event September 25.

“We’ll see if this guy loses in Alabama next month,” one guest commented to Shallal, steering the conversation to the events of the day on Capitol Hill (and the potential future of incumbent Republican Sen. Luther Strange).

Another couldn’t help but inquire about the smells emanating from the kitchen.

Jerusalem couscous at Ancient Rivers.
Photo by Warren Rojas / Eater DC

“Would you mind if we looked at the menu? We lived in Morocco, so…” a curious passerby informed the hostess upon getting wind of the anticipated opening.

Those who stop by September 26 will be able to choose from a menu featuring over two dozen mezze items, four salads, 10 entrees, seven kabob platters (chicken, kofta, vegetable, beef, lamb, shrimp, falafel), and six sandwiches (pitas filled with chicken, beef, kofta, lamb, vegetable, or falafel).

“It’s timeless food,” Shallal says, dubbing it neighborhood friendly and “stuff that most Americans have become familiar with.”

There’s also draft beers (both local and imported), wines from around the globe, and cocktails fashioned with assorted mixers provided by the companion juice bar (think: beet, pomegranate, and cucumber, among others).

All meals will be half-off tonight only.

Status: Opening at 5 p.m. 2121 14th Street NW; website.