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James Beard Awards Surprises Include a Low-Key Harlem Fried Chicken Destination

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Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken is not like past JBF award nominees

Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken
Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken
Photo via Yelp

The James Beard Foundation announced the semifinalists for its restaurant and chef awards on Thursday, and per usual, New York had a fairly strong showing of candidates. Most of the nominees — like Alex Stupak of Empellon and Jody Williams at Buvette — are repeat contenders on the long list, but the 2018 nominees for New York had a few wild cards, too.

For one, Harlem destination Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken and its chef Charles Gabriel landed on the Best Chef: New York City semifinalist list.

Historically, the Beards tend to favor pricier, full-service restaurants, and Charles’ does not meet that criteria. It has been around for more than 20 years, and though the new location of the restaurant, at 2461 Frederick Douglass Blvd. near West 132nd Street, has boosted the number of seats, it maintains a humble cafeteria-style ordering, under $15 dishes, and take-out plating that it has in the past.

Gabriel is well known — he has been profiled in the New Yorker, included in books about fried chicken, and on Eater NY’s own 38 essential restaurants map — but his presence on this semifinalist list marks a change for the awards. Typically, the Foundation relegates restaurants like this to a separate award called America’s Classics, “regional establishments, often family-owned, that are treasured for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.”

Helen You of Flushing restaurant Dumpling Galaxy is also new to the roster. Like Gabriel, You’s inclusion feels like a slight outlier. Chinese restaurants are virtually absent from the New York list; in fact, You is the only person on the list who specializes in it. Her restaurant, best known for its sheer variety of dumpling fillings, is also inside a mall and well outside of Manhattan, two other factors that aren’t typical for nominees.

Erik Ramirez of Williamsburg Peruvian hit Llama Inn also hasn’t previously appeared in the semifinalist lists. But his inclusion is more in line with expectations — Ramirez is an Eleven Madison Park alum who’s received two stars from Times and a spot on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list. And fellow list newcomer Emma Bengtsson of Aquavit, the fine dining Nordic restaurant in Midtown, has also been on the awards circuit. Under her watch, Aquavit earned a second Michelin star.

Who’s been left out is worth noting, as well. Major Food Group’s The Grillwidely hailed as one of the top new restaurants of 2017 — did not make the long list for the Best New Restaurants, though pastry chef Stephanie Prida, who runs the program at sister restaurants The Pool and Lobster Club, nabbed a semifinalist nomination for Outstanding Pastry Chef. (The Grill was also snubbed by the Michelin Guide last year.)

Perennial favorites April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman don’t appear on the list. As Eater.com notes, the Foundation asked its voters to consider behavior this year, and the absence of Bloomfield and Friedman suggests that the Times expose on Friedman’s alleged sexual misconduct, the existence of a reported “rape room” in The Spotted Pig, and the restaurant group’s culture played a role. The Spotted Pig has been a finalist for Outstanding Restaurant for the last three years.

For newcomers, it’s promising that the Foundation seems to broadening its scope at least a little with the semifinalist list. But the true indicator will come later this year, when it slims down the list to finalists and then again to winners. Chef Rawai Bishara at Tanoreen — a beloved Bay Ridge Middle Eastern restaurant that’s also usually left out of other awards circuits — has made the semifinalist list again this year, but it did not make the shortened finals list in 2017.

Expect to see 2018 finalist list on March 14th and the winners on May 7th.

Note: Eater New York’s critic Ryan Sutton is on the James Beard restaurant and chef awards committee but is recused from covering the Beards.

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