Co-review by John Leith of j.nelsonleith.com and John Austin of Fresh Pulp magazine.
The habit of writing and talking politics in a coffee shop is beyond cliché. And writing or debating deep issues while drinking—even if not actually in a bar—is also a well-established tradition.
There’s a reason why there’s a drink named after Hemingway.
But, there’s a new trend in America that also has great potential to create a salon atmosphere, not only for writing but also for discussing literature, politics, religion, culture, science, and personal life. It’s an old Middle Eastern tradition, dating at least from the 1500s, that has recently begun to take off in the West. We’re talking about the narghile, the qalyán, the shisha, i.e., that waterpipe most commonly called the hookah.
And we have found a fantastic place to partake: Andalusia Hookah Bar and Lounge in Crystal City, Virginia.
LEITH: Let’s start with the music.
AUSTIN: (laughs) Alright.
LEITH: Tell you what I like about the music, compared to other hookah places I’ve been where it’s usually just a single style of music and blaring like it’s a club. At Andalusia the music is eclectic and interesting, without drowning out the conversation or distracting you from writing if that’s what you’re there for. I like that they play Pacific reggae like J. Boog, Pati, and Fiji because I lived out there for years and that stuff is really in my soul, you know? And, reggae standards, too. But, they also put on some decent dance mixes sometimes. I’ve heard more hipstery stuff, cool stuff leaning almost toward Passion Pit. And some really cool Ethiopian music like Aregahegn Worash and Jano.
AUSTIN: I think it is important to note that the general mood and ambiance of the place shifts after about 7pm. Which in keeping with what you said earlier about Andalusia not having a nightclub feel, the place really fills up at that hour which creates a very busy and festive mood without making it feel like a club. The people that frequent this place are eclectic and friendly. The diversity is a writers’ dream.
LEITH: Good point, and that’s why you and I have been going there since it was the Andalusia Tea Room, back before they had food or alcohol and it was just hookah and tea. I love the tea, especially the serving trays and traditional glasses and the choice, the variety of flavors. It adds an air of authenticity, and it’s quite good, really. Although my favorite flavors are often not available due to demand. I really miss the Russian Caravan, but the Persian is good, too.
AUSTIN: Despite the fact that they now serve alcohol, the tea is still the main attraction for me, when you consider I am not much of a drinker. I agree that the silver tray service is an attraction, in addition to the comparatively wide variety of teas available. I like this aspect because it is a value added service and the manner in which it is served is not pretentious. I recently tried the Turkish coffee which was also a nice touch. The Turkish coffee, like the Hookahs and the teas was expertly prepared.
LEITH: Yeah, the addition of Turkish coffee was a major score in my book. So now they have food and drinks, other than tea. The food is really good and reasonably priced, particularly the appetizers. It’s what you’d expect in a hookah bar, which is a good thing. I mean, hookah and hummus. That’s a thing, right?
AUSTIN: Don’t forget about the falafel. I’m not sure how it’s prepared but the falafel platter is one of my faves. I particularly like the fact that it saves me a trip into Adams Morgan when I want some.
LEITH: No kidding. It’s way more convenient than navigating the District, and I live there. Also, like you, I can’t really speak to the alcoholics drinks, except for Scotch. I mean, this is a literary tradition, writing and whiskey. Or maybe it’s just because I’m Scottish. However, the beer selection isn’t bad. It’s there, an option for when you want it.
AUSTIN: It was good they added it.
LEITH: We’ve been going there a while, so we’ve been rooting for them as they’ve gotten their new licenses, the owners and staff. They do a good job setting up a very non-corporate, relaxed vibe. They’re friendly and they take care of you without that sort of frantic hovering you get at a lot of restaurants and bars. It’s all very laid-back.
AUSTIN: The staff is also friendly in a way that goes beyond expectation. When you’re waited on or served in a corporate establishment there’s a level of congeniality that’s clearly false, or forced. The management at Andalusia always says hello to us and occasionally stops to have a brief conversation. This is definitely something that other business could learn from this place. It definitely contributed to me feeling right at home even on our first visit there.
LEITH: And, the hookah service is great. One of the first things I noticed when we started hanging out there is how they drew on the hookah to get the smoke flowing. And, they hand the mouthpiece to you the right way, folded back, which is something a lot of Western imitators don’t get. I mean, there’s an etiquette to it. And, they’re really good about bringing new coals and checking on the pipes. I guess we should talk about the tobacco, since we’re reviewing a hookah bar, huh?
AUSTIN: I wouldn’t call myself an expert in hookah tobaccos, so I’ve found the selection more than meets my expectations. Occasionally I might experiment with one of the fusion flavors and so far I haven’t been disappointed. I have to give the staff props because they are very diligent when it comes to changing out the coals or adjusting them on the head to make sure you are getting the proper smoking experience.
LEITH: I have my favorites, but it’s fun to try a new one now and then. Still, I prefer the basic stuff. They have a decent selection from which to choose depending on your mood. They also have the option of a pineapple head. I tried that once, I think we both did. It was pretty cool. Finally, and most importantly for a writer, they have free wifi. It’s hard to overstate how important that is. I do most of my writing online, and without the wifi it just wouldn’t work.
AUSTIN: I’m definitely in agreement on the wifi. Granted you wouldn’t want to have your laptop open after seven, else you risk looking a bit misanthropic, but it’s a good way to cater to the off hours crowd as well as the modern writer.
LEITH: So, five out of five stars?
AUSTIN: I agree. Five out of five.