Queues used to wrap around this corner in the name of Harry Potter. Now, the Sunday morning scrum includes churchgoers, church skippers, extended families and hung-over tourists, all eager to hear a choir deliver the good news while the assembled deliver waffles to their bellies.
Denise Norman of Fort Washington is forgoing a morning in the pews to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday over eggs and coffee. “I think if you do miss church, you feel like you went,” Norman says. “The choir is singing. There’s fellowship. And the brunch is good.”
So is business. Thanks to the Hamilton and the Howard Theatre, the U Street corridor landmark that reopened its doors in April, Washington’s gospel brunch scene is booming. Every Sunday, both venues offer soul food buffets and live performances, capitalizing on gospel music’s growing reach into the secular world and drawing a new clientele to their relatively new nightspots.
“The people attending the brunch come from all walks of life,” says Doretha Allen, who sings with the Harlem Gospel Choir at the Howard on Sundays. “Some of them are into the church thing. Some are just coming to eat and be entertained.”
The smell of smoked bacon and maple syrup billows through the Howard, but backstage it smells like Sephora. Allen and three other women in the choir are dabbing on lip gloss, smoothing out eye shadow, preparing to lift their voices in praise.
“Gospel music speaks to the soul, it speaks to the heart,” says Lillye Berry, an alto in the choir. “It’s the heart that allows you to make changes in your life. So you never know who you’re talking to. They might come here down in the dumps, and the music that we sing lifts them up.”
Soon, Berry and the others are onstage wailing, fiery and airtight. Across rows of tables, certain brunchers appear spellbound. They set down their forks. They nod their heads. They clap their hands to the rhythm. They rise up from their seats.
They march off to the buffet for seconds.
The collision of music and mimosas isn’t entirely new to Washington. Jazz brunches have dotted the city for years. The Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted gospel brunches in its atrium for nearly a decade. (They were nixed in 2007 after non-brunching gallery visitors complained that the music was too loud.)
Before that, the gospel brunch concept was popularized by the House of Blues nightclub chain, which began hosting them in 1994. Back then, Kevin Morrow was the chain’s senior vice president of entertainment. Today, he’s the senior vice president of touring for Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter.
Morrow says he’s not surprised by the D.C. brunch boom: Washington “could very well be the number one market in the country for gospel music.”