The Gospel Brunch takes place every Sunday at Lola, a restaurant which is situated in the Flatiron district. We imagined that it would be an antidote to all the glossy venues we'd investigated so far: food for the soul, a rollicking, roof-raising revivalist meeting with Little Richard thumping the piano keys, and Aretha Franklin dishing out the fried chicken and passing round the collection plate.
But bless me if Lola isn't just as smart, slick, and efficiently run as any of the city's fashionable restaurants. Humble pie is most definitely not on the menu. It operates on military timing with two sittings: the first at 11.30, the other at 1.45 - Sunday brunch is an all-day affair here. We opted for the later one, and arrived at 1.30 to find the long bar area mobbed by groups of friends who were ordering rounds of bloody Marys and mimosas, and checking in their coats.
At 1.45 on the dot we were neatly shepherded in to the large, conservatory- like restaurant. Our waitress immediately took further drinks orders and explained that we would be required to give a complete brunch order when she returned, as we would not be able to make any additional orders once the gospel performance had begun.
The menu included regional American, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Pacific Rim and Asian dishes. We paid the set price of $29.75 (pounds 18.50) and were given a choice of five first courses - including French toast with bananas and strawberries - and a dozen entrees, including the Lola fried chicken with black beans and yellow rice. One of our party had lived in the deep South, and pronounced this house speciality both authentic and as good as any she had tasted there.
We plumped for smoked salmon with potato pancakes and horseradish; smoked trout with scrambled eggs; and a spinach, feta and caper omelette with shiitake mushrooms. For pudding there was a small selection of truly indulgent cakes and, fortunately by this time, a less challenging fruit sorbet.
Once brunch was served, we looked forward to the gospel part of the proceedings. I may have been way off the mark with my earlier expectations of a Bible-thumping, ad hoc prayer meeting, but the 12-strong ensemble that gathered on the small restaurant stage could have given Aretha and Little Richard a run for their money on any day in terms of sheer lung-power and enthusiasm.
The set combined traditional and modern spiritual numbers and was by no means intended as background music - any attempt at conversation would have been impossible. Some audience participation was required but there was no ritual humiliation, and those who were plucked out of the crowd to sing a few verses seemed perfectly happy to do so (but then, none of them were British...).
The great majority of diners on the day we went along were well-heeled, white, thirty- and fortysomethings who paid equal attention to their food and the performance. The party at the table next to ours boasted more blonde hair, bland features and beige cashmere than a Ralph Lauren catalogue. Straight out of Harlem it wasn't, but if you're visiting Manhattan and you fancy some live gospel music, you could do a lot worse than combine the experience with brunch at Lola.
Lola is at 30 West 22nd Street (001 212-675 6700). Advance booking is necessary for the Gospel Brunch. London-New York is the busiest and most competitive international air route in the world. Between now and the end of June, a typical economy fare is pounds 250 return. If you prefer business class, see the Bargain of the Week on page 23. The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau in London is at 22-23 Carnaby Street (0171-437 8300)Reuse content