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Adams Morgan's Cafe Toulouse--
spring, madness, music and mussels

(Published May 20, 2002)


A warm spring evening in Washington and the streets in Adams Morgan are lush with people, complementing the city's overall burst of azaleas, magnolias, tulips and roses. No one is worried about the crowd of sidewalk cafes, teeming with smiling couples, singles reading or simply enjoying the scenery. Last month, the government found most of the cafes in violation of the District's public space laws. But on days like these, there is an unspoken consensus that "government should be ignored."

The community's main entertainment district, centered at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, feels and smells like an international utopia. Tapas, paella, risotto, joloff rice, buffalo wings African-style waft through the air. French, Ethiopian, Spanish and - yes - Portuguese fall from the tongues of people casually strolling along. Young mix with old, rich with not-so-rich; there are no boundaries to separate them. Adams Morgan offers a large warm embrace. It is an invitation few could refuse.

Some people stop in Rumba Cafe for a mojito, a fine Cuban rum drink that, if you're not careful, quietly sneaks up on you. Across the street, the Bukom pulsates with reggae music. A bit further down is the tiny bit phenomenal Bardia's New Orleans Cafe and the very French La Fourchette. Further still is San Marco, which takes you back to Venice - and Italy, in general. And then, there is the Cafe Toulouse.

If Adams Morgan is the city's cultural haven , then Cafe Toulouse is its capital. The mid-size restaurant/bar represents all that is good in the neighborhood of medium-size businesses, which can run the gamut of funky, retro '70s like Madam's Organ and Tryst, to low-key and very Spanish El Ricon, to upscale chic like the very French La Fourchette and Cashion's Eat Place, and noveau something (don't ask what) like Felix.

Tewolde "Ted" Mussie, 42, and his brother Simon, 34, used to visit the place in its former incarnation and when it went up for sale, the two couldn't resist. After all, they had been planning for years to open an Ethiopian or general ethnic restaurant with fine cuisine and great music.

"We wanted to have a place that had good service, good food, great ambience and great music," says Ted, remembering his college days in Tennessee.

"We started acting as deejays, promoting music in the area," Ted continues, noting he also would cook. "But when I hired chefs, I found I don't know how to cook."

No one comes to Cafe Toulouse for a history lesson or a primer on the culinary arts. They come to celebrate. It's hard to know what is lauded most at the restaurant, which flaunts elegant, yet funky, all dark-wood interior furniture and walls (adorned by posters and mediocre mural knock-offs of paintings by famed impressionist Toulouse Lautrec), a sleek bar and an upstairs balcony that overlooks the main dining/dancing area.

The food certainly is the rave: an eclectic blend of American and European meals are served nightly. From Spaghetti con la Pomarolla to New Orleans Seafood Fettuccini, to the blackened salmon, everything excites and never disappoints. The mussels cooked in white wine sauce are the absolute favorite of anyone who tries them and returns. Everyone returns.

If they don't come to satisfy their palates, then they most assuredly come to have their music tastes stimulated. Wednesday through Sunday there is live fantastic music escaping from the doors of Cafe Toulouse. On Wednesdays, the J. Walker Band - Jason Walker on vocals, Thad Wilson on horn, Anaen Saleem on bass, Chris Grozzo on piano and Dominique Smith on drums - serves some of the best jazz classics in the city, with old tunes like "My Shining Hour," "Duke's Place" and "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing."

"We want people to come in and enjoy the music, come back and bring a friend," says Walker. "And we want to expose people to classic jazz. We are always refining what we're doing so that people will appreciate jazz as an art form, instead of something that helps you to digest your food better."

But on this spring evening in the city, people can't resist coming in, initially for a peek that soon extends to the entire evening when the band is packing up its equipment. The Just Us Band, which appears every Thursday, Friday and Sunday night, has everyone shouting, applauding, pushing back chairs to make room for swaying hips and fancy footwork.

"We're a bunch of ex-professional road musicians who got together for grins and just to play," says Wayne Smith, lead guitarist, who has been known to pluck the strings of his instrument behind his back.

Members of the all-male, African-American group have in the past worked with some of the business' biggest. They have performed with Ray Goodman and Brown, Ziggy Marley, Wilson Pickett and the Midnight Movers; there aren't many rhythm and blues artists you can name with whom the band's members - Smith, bassist Larry Joines, drummer Emmett Kittrell and saxophonist Robert Eldridge - haven't shared the stage.

"[Together} we have a millions years of experience," says Smith.

For music historians and aficionados like Russell, a regular, and others seated near the band, Smith's tales of previous incarnations help rank the group at the top of the list of must-hear musicians. But for most - those of us without a running knowledge of American and world music cannons - what brings us to our feet is what we are hearing, now at this moment.

As the evening winds down, Cafe Toulouse owners Simon and Ted can be seen in the corner smiling at it all. Smith and members of the Just Us Band mill 'round, chatting with the audience and others. Several people walk out singing the last tune. Most leave with full enjoyment painted across their faces.

Spring in the nation's capital and a night in Adams Morgan just does that to you.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator