- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Let the church say amen. Then pass the peas and get your praise on. Welcome to Gospel Live,

the Hyattsville restaurant that offers solace for the stomach and the soul with Southern cuisine and Christian-based entertainment.

Along with its presentation of rip-roaring music and down-home cooking, this popular eating establishment routinely inspires spirited testimonials from those proclaiming their faith in God, or confessions of divine deliverance from assorted sins. . For revelers seeking spiritual clarity or, at the very least, a higher calling in their night life, it just might be the ticket.

“People are turning away from the clubs because there’s just too much violence. They’re seeking Jesus now,” said Deacon Leon J. Daniels, host of the “J.P.D. Gospel Explosion,” heard each Saturday on WYCB-AM, one of several Christian radio stations in the Washington area. “Without Jesus in your life, you don’t have nothing.”

Located in the site of the former Bob’s Big Boy in the Capital Plaza shopping center, Gospel Live is among the growing number of local family friendly entertainment venues — including My Brother’s Place in Waldorf and the Everlasting Life Complex in Capital Heights (which offers live gospel music and dinner each Sunday) — with an emphasis on religion.

Nationally, there’s the Harmony Cafe Club in south Florida, where Bibles are placed on every table. Even Sin City is jumping on the bandwagon. Each Sunday, Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel Resort & Casino hosts a roof-raising House of Blues Gospel Brunch. And plans also are in the works for new gospel music clubs in Ohio, Texas and Minnesota, Charisma & Christian Life magazine reports.

On Valentine’s Day, Gospel Live was the perfect place for Antonio Tarpley to pop the question to his longtime love, Crystal Petty, as a capacity crowd of 200 — mostly couples, many with children in tow — awaited her answer with bated breath.

Luckily for him, she said yes.

“I wanted to avoid going to the same [old] places on Valentine’s Day. This is my first time here,” said Mr. Tarpley, 39, a Landover resident and manager of two Maaco Collision Repair & Auto Painting centers in Prince George’s County. “I changed my life and gave it to God. The way the world is going, you have to.”

Since opening nearly four years ago, Gospel Live has expanded its performance showcase to include not only music, but specific nights where Christian comedy and poetry take center stage. Not surprisingly, there’s also a singles night, a youth night and an open-mike night for budding talent.

“This is wonderful. This is clean,” said Lois Vanzego-Tillery, who teaches music to special needs students in Prince George’s County. “I’d like to see more young people come out.”

Van Rowls is a local gospel singer who has occasionally performed at Gospel Live (with his group, Vandoren & New Praise).

“Gospel music restaurants and clubs have come about to give people an alternative place to go where there’s a better atmosphere and no alcohol,” he said.

Mr. Rowls is also launching his own label, Prayzework Records, which will showcase local artists, with a free performance March 14 at Sipps Coffeehouse in Fort Washington. So far four local acts — Jenelle Herrera, Marc Staggers, Posse 4 Christ, and Eric Dolford aka “Water” — plus Mr. Rowls’ group have been signed.

“Gospel is pretty strong here in Washington, but it’s been stronger for national artists than it has for local artists,” Mr. Rowls, 40, says. “Regardless of talent, it’s been hard for them unless they have a completed CD, a Web site and a fan base. Everybody watches ‘American Idol.’ It’s entertaining, yes, but look at the humiliation and everything they go through. A lot of them leave discouraged. The same thing often happens in gospel music.”

Venues such as Gospel Live have helped, he says. “They give budding artists exposure, and [they gain] practice performing before a live audience.”

A mostly nondescript structure, Gospel Live’s bright neon sign beckons both regular clientele and curious passersby from a bank of large picture windows facing Annapolis Road. Once inside, you’ll find multiple TV monitors blaring the latest music videos, like many a nightspot.

That, however, is where the similarities end.

These videos aren’t from Fifty Cent or Kelis; they’re from such contemporary soul gospel stars as Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Smokie Norful, Marvin Sapp and Byron Cage, “The Prince of Praise” — who also serves as minister of music at Ebeneezer AME Church in Fort Washington.

Hoping to scope out the bar? Fuhgeddaboutit. Longing for dimmed red lights or booty-shaking contests? No way. Smoking and alcohol, it goes without saying, are strictly forbidden. You’re now on upright, if not holy, ground.

Jesus is in the house, and Gospel Live’s audience, as its logo denotes, is seeking “food, fellowship and fun.”

The venue more than delivers. Aside from the music, there’s a menu laden with down-home favorites guaranteed to gratify the most persnickety soul food aficionado. Crowd-pleasing dishes also underscore the overall reverent tone with such names as Right Righteous Crab Cakes, Salvation Barbecue Chicken, the Christian Croaker and the Sea of Galilee Fish Platter. Most entrees are moderately priced, ranging from $8.95 to $15.95 … and there’s no cover charge.

“People come here from all walks of life — black, white, young, old, senators, government workers and prostitutes … Christians and non-Christians, and they all say they’re blessed somehow to have found this place,” says owner and founder Donte Gardner, who, on Valentine’s night, also doubled as Gospel Live’s emcee and head chef.

A blur of motion, Mr. Gardner simultaneously juggled an interview with the media, replenished empty platters of Alaskan king crab legs and kept the crowd’s enthusiasm at fever pitch.

“How many of ya’ll just love the Lord?” he bellowed as customers affirmed their belief by a unanimous show of hands, with some diners leaping to their feet and shouting “amen.”

“Our clientele has nothing in common except an appreciation of gospel music and good Southern food,” adds Mr. Gardner’s wife, Pamela, a former D.C. public school teacher and marketing and publication specialist with the College Board, a nonprofit educational organization best known for administering the SAT exams.

“This is a very special place.”

The rich and famous have made their way to Gospel Live, too. Autographed photos of R&B; diva Patti LaBelle, gospel music greats Yolanda Adams, Dorothy Norwood and Fred Hammond grace the wall, alongside those of former boxing champions Larry Holmes and Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.

Gospel Live’s success, like its creation, are “inspired by God,” Mr. Gardner says.

He and his wife, both District natives and members of the New Home Baptist Church in Landover, are planning to open two more Gospel Live restaurants — one in Lanham and another in Atlanta.

Gospel and Christian music record sales declined slightly last year, but that doesn’t faze Gospel Live’s faithful clientele or its roster of performers for whom music is a ministry.

“I love the ambience at Gospel Live because it allows for a more intimate, one-on-one and in-your-face ministry,” says newly signed Prayzework artist Jenelle Herrera. “There’s definitely a need for more places like this.”

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