A young woman contemplates a second piece of golden brown chicken as Clara Warren waits behind steaming steel trays for her decision: "Looks like I'm going to loosen up my diet," she says finally, and Warren heaps the food onto her plate.
Light streams from stained-glass windows onto home-cooked delights fresh from the church kitchen a few feet beyond. Surveying buttered greens, sizzling ribs, spicy rice, the woman tries to decide what to resist. Her friend points to a dish of peach cobbler: "Is that yours, too?" But Warren hastens to her defense: "She said she was backing up a little bit, she didn't say she was stopping!"
Warren's church is running a restaurant.
Trustee Samuel J. Warren, Clara's husband, came up with the idea, aimed at helping finance extensive restoration projects planned by the Metropolitan AME Church at 1518 M St. NW, a historic landmark, the oldest black church in the city, and also one of the largest with about 3,000 members.
"We knew there was all this work to be done," said Samuel Warren, who noticed the church kitchen was underutilized and thought area workers might respond well to reasonably priced home-style food.
The idea is a proven success, working, in fact, better than Warren ever anticipated last October when the restaurant first opened for business. Around 100 customers each day, Wednesday through Friday, line up to buy lunch at what the Rev. Robert L. Pruitt, church pastor, likes to call the "soul food refectory." The breakfast crowd is smaller, hovering around 10 to 20.
Samuel Warren, a retired government employe, does a large part of the cooking, arriving at 7 a.m. to start breakfast and remaining until the last lunch plates are washed at 4 p.m. He and his helpers dish up ample portions and wide variety--four or five kinds of meat and as many vegetables daily for lunch. Lunch prices range from $3.25 to $3.75, and breakfast, which includes eggs, bacon, pancakes and grits, costs $2 to $2.50 a serving. Customers can carry out their food, but there's a bonus for those who stay to eat, family-style, at two long tables in the church hall--free coffee and tea.
The hall was named after Frederick Douglass, whose funeral was held at the church in 1895, and diners who look up can see where part of their money is going--to redo the ceiling, now a patchwork of bare-board rafters. Six months ago, part of the plaster fell down, so the rest was removed until repairs can be made. Other restoration plans for the 130-year-old Victorian Gothic building include making classrooms in the sub-basement and installing cushions in the main sanctuary.
The restaurant, certified by the city last month, has raised several thousand dollars for the restoration effort, according to church officials who estimate that $400,000 worth of work is yet to be done.
The congregation is pleased with the restaurant's success and many members try to do their part to help it along. "Eat, drink and be merry," urged Samuel Whaley as two women contemplated the posted menu, and, with that, he escorted them to their places in line.
The atmosphere is informal, with customers and church members alike trooping into the kitchen to visit with the cooks, and according to the pastor friendships have flowered among the customers.
Wanda Green, a church member, and Sharon Payne, who sometimes attends services there, knew each other slightly. One day a few weeks ago, they ran into each other at the church. "She didn't know I was a member of the congregation," said Green. Eating lunch there has given them a chance to spend more time together, they said.
The Warrens and other helpers--Bertie Hatton, Annie James, Nicie Reece and Robert Abner--agree that the social aspect is one of the most important ingredients for them.
"It's fun," said Clara Warren. "We know each other so well and we get so familiar with the people who come in."
"I like doing it because I like people," her husband agreed. But he won't give out the secret recipe for his specialty, barbecue sauce. "People always ask me, 'Will you give me the recipe?' " he said. But "I say no . . . I don't want anybody opening a barbecue joint, using my recipe and running me out of business."
Warren is not the only cook with a special formula. Another helper makes sweet potato pie and "he hasn't even told me how to do it so you know it's a secret," he said. "There's no other pie like it."
The customers apparently agree. They empty the laden serving plates almost as fast as the cooks can fill them.
Student Pamela Jenkins eats lunch at the church three days each week. She likes the prices and the taste, which is "like my mother's cooking."
David White, a clerk, comes because "I'm not a good cook and the food here is homemade."
"The food is delicious," echoed Jehru Valentine, who said he is a narcotics investigator for the D.C. police and local courts. He eats at the church once or twice a week. As he put it, "It's like eating at home away from home."