After almost a year of waiting, Charles Pan-Fried Chicken is officially open in Harlem. Just don’t call it a grand return. “If you ask Charles, he’ll tell you that he never left,” says Quie Slobert, chief operating officer of the decades-old fried chicken business with dreams of a national expansion. Chef Charles Gabriel, who’s famed for his chicken fried in massive cast iron skillets, closed his Harlem restaurant without announcement last spring. Weeks later, New Yorkers learned why.
Gabriel had been quietly working with Slobert to open a small chain of restaurants geared toward takeout and delivery, including in Harlem, where the chef worked at neighborhood soul food spot Copeland’s for over two decades. They opened their first location on the Upper West Side earlier this year, and on March 26, they landed in Harlem with a second restaurant at 340 West 145th Street. It celebrated its grand opening by giving out fried chicken, corn bread, and red velvet cake for free during its entire first day.
The team would have been happy if “even one person came out,” Slobert said a few hours before opening. By 1:30 p.m., there was a line halfway down Edgecombe Avenue.
More than 700 people turned out for the opening, and although the restaurant had only prepared for 500, it kept handing out bags of Gabriel’s Southern sides until 5 p.m. The following day, the business sold out by 6:15 p.m. and had to close on March 28 after dipping into that day’s inventory to keep up with demand. “Harlem fed Charles,” Slobert says, nodding to the chef’s history in the neighborhood. “Now it’s Charles’ turn to feed Harlem.”
Here, like on the Upper West Side, the menu is anchored by Gabriel’s chicken, fried in a series of cast iron skillets large enough to spot through the restaurant’s front windows. Gabriel is usually hovering over one or more of them, pulling drumsticks or thighs from the cauldrons of oil, inspecting one for a few seconds, then turning it over in the pan. Unlike a deep fryer, each piece of chicken has to be rotated constantly: If a piece sits still for too long, it gets oily, Gabriel explains. If it doesn’t turn often enough, it cooks unevenly.
A whole chicken can take up to 25 minutes to properly fry, and it’s not unusual for Gabriel to stand over the stoves for 12 hours straight. The fruits of those efforts — chicken with a perfectly browned crust and moist, flavorful inside — are one reason almost a thousand people turned out for the restaurant’s opening on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Gabriel’s history in the neighborhood is another.
Gabriel has been cooking in Harlem for decades, beginning with Copeland’s. He worked at the neighborhood soul food spot for 22 years — first as a dish washer, then as a cook — before setting off on his own. He sold hot dogs and barbecue from a folding table along Amsterdam Avenue, then opened a food truck and a series of storefronts of varying names: Charles’ Mobile Soul Food Truck, Charles’ Country Pan-Fried Chicken, and Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen.
Now Charles Pan-Fried Chicken gets its turn, a small takeout and delivery restaurant with enough standing room for a dozen or so people to yell for trays of barbecued ribs or smothered turkey wings.
Slobert is partially to credit for the change in direction. The hospitality veteran, who grew up going to Copeland’s while Gabriel was a chef there, is the restaurant’s chief operating officer, an odd title for a two-location, family-run business, but one that reflects his dreams of national expansion. “Originally we were supposed to do one restaurant,” Slobert says, but plans changed after takeout started to take off at Charles Pan-Fried Chicken during the pandemic. “I thought, ‘Why not take over the world?’”
The younger restaurateur is now running day-to-day operations, freeing up Gabriel to recipe test other dishes for the first time in years. (It’s part of the reason the menu now includes barbecued ribs and pulled pork.) “Charles is a great chef,” says Michael Eberstadt, an investor in the business who’s known Gabriel for close to three decades. “The issue always was, he was pulled into too many directions. He was up at 5 a.m. shopping, cooking, on the register. It was too much.”
The Harlem restaurant is stop two on what may very well become a national tour. Charles Pan-Fried Chicken is backed by Eberstadt and Lili Lynton, a co-founder and operating partner of Dinex Group, the hospitality company behind chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. They’re kicking things off with a handful of locations in the five boroughs.
Obviously, Gabriel can only be in one place, and at least until the next opening, that’s going to be the stovetops at 145th Street. The expansion marks the first time he won’t be in the kitchen of a restaurant with his name on it, and the team is in the process of training a new generation of chefs to oversee its new locations — with mixed success. “They see this 74-year-old man lifting these pans, turning these chickens,” Slobert says. “We’ve gotten some cocky chefs who come in and think they can do it. A lot of them can’t.” Gabriel sometimes makes as many as 1,200 pieces of chicken in a single a day. Every one has to be perfect, he says.
A few days before the Harlem opening, Slobert is already talking about what’s next. He mentions plans to eventually open in downtown Brooklyn, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. Where does it all end? “When the world knows Charles Gabriel’s name,” he says. For now, Charles Pan-Fried Chicken is open in Harlem from Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.