Charles Gabriel said he's been feeding the people of Harlem for almost 50 years, first at the legendary soul food spot Copeland's, where he spent two decades before going out on his own – setting up a table on the sidewalk, then rolling up in a food truck, then opening what would be several iterations of his namesake restaurants, all specializing in the dish that's made him famous, pan fried chicken.
"It's been beautiful," Gabriel told Gothamist outside of his newest Charles Pan Fried Chicken, on West 145th in his beloved Harlem. "It's amazing. It's unbelievable all the people that have inspired me, who have come by to eat over the course of so many years."
And not only is Gabriel back after the pandemic forced him to close his place on Frederick Douglass Boulevard about a year ago, he's on an expansion tear, with this new Harlem shop, a place on the Upper West Side that opened in February, and two additional restaurants coming later this year, in East Harlem and on 125th and Amsterdam.
And at 74 years old, he's still back there in the kitchen every day, tongs in hand, flipping those birds as they burble away in his huge cast iron pans.
"I don't give up," said Gabriel. "And I'm not taking a rest anytime soon. Going to keep on working. I wouldn't know what to do with myself otherwise."
Of course, with multiple locations, Gabriel does have to cede some of the cooking duties to others.
"Charles has a school right now," explained Gabriel's Chief Operating Officer Quie Slobert. "He's training employees, he's training chefs. Not all of them make it, but they train, and they have to pass the Charles Gabriel test."
And he's reached out to the young people of Harlem to join his ever-expanding team.
"We're hiring from his community," Slobert said. "He wanted to come back to Harlem because Harlem fed him and now he's going to hire the grandkids of people that he's fed all his life. Think about that! Talk about giving back."
If this is your first, or fiftieth, time here, you obviously have to get the Pan Fried Chicken at Charles Pan Fried Chicken; it's heavily seasoned, crackling on the outside, remarkably juicy within, and probably the best fried bird in town. But Garbiel and his crew also make racks of terrific, surprisingly spicy barbecue smoked ribs, as well some formidable smothered turkey wings and piles of sweet and sticky pulled pork.
The way to go here is to order one of Gabriel's "Plates," which include one of the above main dishes, plus a slab of his first-rate cornbread and your choice of two sides. All of the latter are good, from the collard greens and mac & cheese to the black eyed peas and okra, so follow your cravings.
Gabriel's desserts really hit the spot too. Get the red velvet cake if you want something super sweet, or the peach cobbler for a treat that's slightly more refined (though still pretty sweet).
No matter what you order, you won't go hungry.
Bronx native Sydney Godbold, whom we spoke with on line at the Harlem shop last Saturday afternoon (it was his fourth visit during opening week) put it this way: "I've been coming to Charles for a long time. Since I was a teenager. We would walk across the 145th Street bridge, walk over here and get a plate. You could eat for two with one plate, and he's still doing that. I really appreciate that. My family does too. My mom's out in the car right now and she's 80 years old, that gotta tell you something."
Both of the new Charles Pan Fried Chicken shops are counter service places, everything packed up for takeout, with no seating inside or out. Picnic options are plentiful near both locations, however, with Jackie Robinson Park across the street in Harlem, and Central Park a block or so away on the Upper West Side.
The design and décor are the same in both spots – basically, there are lots of photos of Gabriel – and both were busy as hell last Saturday afternoon. Note that on 72nd Street, you can order in advance and just grab your bag from a table up front, but if geographic convenience isn't a factor for you, go to the 145th Street one. The music there is loud, the large staff is having a blast, and the place feels like a party.
And don't expect Gabriel to step aside anytime soon. As Slobert said, "The man grew up on a plantation picking cotton for $25 a week for his whole family with 19 siblings, and he had one pan to cook out of. And he's going to stop now? Nah. Charles is doing what he loves to do. We're feeding people. That's the joy we get. Charles is a chef. A real chef. So he feeds you and you're happy and that's all he wants to do. And so we go on and go on."
The Harlem Charles Pan Fried Chicken is located at 340 West 145th St., at the corner of Edgecombe Avenue; the UWS location is at 146 West 72nd St., between Amsterdam and Columbus. Both are open on Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.