This is the second post in the Eating the Big Apple series. Other posts include Soba Koh.
Update: Rest in Peace Sylvia Wood, the founder of this restaurant, who passed away Thursday, July 19, 2012.
For some reason, New Yorkers are obsessed about brunch.
Perhaps it’s the opportunity to slow down from the busyness of the crazy work week; or maybe it’s the availability of so many fantastic places at which to enjoy this beloved meal.
Whatever the reason, the city is abuzz with brunch seekers every Sunday morning. Try to get into some of the popular brunch spots around town, and you’ll easily find yourself waiting in line, sometimes for well over an hour, for a coveted seat.
In the middle of all these different brunch options, there’s a unique sub-genre that hails from another region and another time. It’s the Sunday gospel brunch in New York – Harlem specifically. Chow down on delicious Southern dishes in rooms that feel like an old Southern house while listening to (and even participating in) a fun afternoon of live gospel music.
Welcome to Sylvia’s in Harlem, one of the most famous gospel brunch institutions in New York. Sylvia’s has been around since 1962, serving up classic hearty Southern fare such as chicken & waffles, collard greens, and fried catfish.
One wall is covered with pictures of famous people who have dined at the restaurant. Dare show up after 12pm and you’re guaranteed to wait at least an hour before you’ll be seated.
We show up around 11:15 AM as a party of eight and (thankfully) we are seated immediately.
We’ve heard incredible things about the famous cornbread at Sylvia’s. One guy who we’d talked to the day before told us we absolutely had to try the cornbread. In his mind, it was the best cornbread he’d ever eaten.
Within moments, we see freshly baked biscuits appear at our table.
Where’s the cornbread? Can we please have some cornbread?
“I’m really sorry, but the cornbread is not ready yet. It will be at least another hour before it is ready.”
Though the biscuits are delicious, we can’t help but wonder about the cornbread.
The menu is simple and reasonably priced. Most breakfast-like entrees are under $20, with just a few grilled meat dishes costing between $20 and $25. Most people opt for the $20 entree, which includes a generous piece of meat plus two sides.
Fried chicken is definitely popular. Guests enjoy both the “Southern Style Fried Chicken” and the “Smothered Chicken” (chicken “smothered” in gravy). They’re both great and you can’t go wrong with either.
You have your choice of two sides, and various guests order different things, such as pickled beets, candied yams, baked mac & cheese, and collard greens.
The gospel breakfast includes a drink (anything from coffee to a Bloody Mary or a mimosa!). If you want the Bloody Mary or mimosa, make sure to order that first and indicate that you want it as part of the brunch. Otherwise, if you order, say, a coffee or something right when you sit down, then you’ll have to pay full price for the mimosa if you want it later. [Trust me, it makes much more sense to get the mimosa or Bloody Mary for “free” and then pay for the cheaper coffee or iced tea later].
If you’re not in the mood for fried chicken, you can always get the fried catfish (like me!), which is also simple but quite tasty.
Halfway through our meal, we inquire again about the cornbread. Oddly, the projected time has moved forward, and now they are telling us that cornbread won’t be ready until at least 1:30PM.
We look at our watches and realize that’s still more than an hour away. Perhaps we won’t be able to try the cornbread this time.
Thankfully, there are other things to distract us. After all, coming to Sylvia’s isn’t just about the food. In fact, the most fun and unique part of this gospel brunch is the live gospel music that they have every week. Brunch is from 11AM – 2PM while live gospel music goes on from 12:30 PM – 4 PM.
Near the end of our meal, husband-and-wife duo Ruth and Clay Simpson begin to perform. Clay plays keyboard in the back while Ruth walks around, room by room, singing and greeting all the visitors. She sings many familiar gospel tunes.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. . . “
The energy is infectious, and at times an entire side of a room starts clapping along (and even singing!) with one of her lively, gospel songs.
There are many non-local visitors in the room, and she greets them all, table by table.
“Boston is in the house! Blessed be the Lord. Let’s hear it for Boston! Boston is in the house!”
“I’m gonna let it shine . . .”
“Spain is in the house! Let’s hear it for my friends who flew all the way from Spain! Spain is in the HOUSE!”
The server feels sorry for us at this point. “I’ll see what I can do, OK?”
Before you know it, a basket of warm, incredibly moist cornbread blocks arrives at our table.
It pays to be persistent, I guess. The cornbread turns out to be awesome. Moist, slightly sweet, and melt-in-your-mouth buttery. It was totally worth the wait.
On our way out we gasp at the crazy crowd that has formed in the foyer. The wait is definitely over an hour by this point, and we are just relieved that we arrived just before the rush.
It was a fun morning, and the gospel songs really put me in a good mood.
Is it the best Southern food I’ve ever had? Tough to say – but maybe not necessarily. I will say it’s one of the most authentic experiences I’ve had (outside of the actual South), and the whole meal is really fun. The food’s still good, and overall I still highly recommend it. If nothing else, come for the spirited gospel music and the awesome cornbread.
Just make sure to come before noon if you can.
“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
328 Lenox Ave
New York, NY 10027
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