Listen to congregants sing the praises of The Congregation: "It's our de facto community center. It's a good representation of the neighborhood. It's nice inside without being precious."
The neighborhood in question is just south of Boston-Edison, across the street from a historical marker noting the touch-off of the 1967 Rebellion.
I don't usually write about the race or class of a restaurant's clientele but it's something worth mentioning at The Congregation. You'll see white-collar remote workers alongside blue-collar outdoor workers in their boots and vests. Young and old. Black and white. I ran into favorite candidate Denzel McCampbell picking up lunch like any other mortal. At a time when reading the newspaper sends you into a tailspin of anguish, it's good to be reminded that yes, we can all get along.
Co-owner and manager Betsy Murdoch bought the former New St. James AME Church four years ago with the aim of creating a community space. The owners all live within a couple of blocks. They've kept the stained glass and the remains of an organ and the original maple floors, and added a large deck and a ton of picnic tables in the king-sized yard.
"Talking with neighbors, everyone was looking for the same thing," Murdoch says. "[The neighborhood] originally was a robust shopping district with mom and pop shops and all the amenities within reach. We started reaching out to the associations, flyering neighbors' houses. And we got unanimous feedback, everyone wanted this."
Murdoch adds, "We're not trying to be the hippest or the coolest; we want to be the most comfortable, with something for every type of person."
The friendly vibe is encouraged by the largish tables, though there are smaller ones too, for introverts. You don't assume someone sitting alone wants to be. The restaurant keeps up a running list of activities and opportunities for folks to do more than eat and drink: a farmer's market, bonfires, board game night, trivia night, a children's play area, art openings, yoga, live music, a holiday artisan market. Local artists who've never had an independent show are selling their pieces off the walls. It seems natural that patrons would bus their own dishes and fetch their own water.
All fine and good, but the coffee, food, and alcohol are great too; all those people wouldn't keep coming back if they weren't.
The menu is tea and coffee, bagels, pancakes, toast, salads, soups, sandwiches, and random snacks like mezze and baked Brie. There's a short wine list and beers in bottles and on tap, plus cocktails and coffee cocktails. "Substantial food," for sure.
Take the chai tea latte, which approaches a meal in itself in a bowl-sized cup: spicy, creamy, a little sweet. Or a "spicy mocha" coffee: espresso, steamed milk and chocolate with cayenne and cinnamon. Super-popular is the lavender latte — "an upper and a downer," explained my new-friend tablemate.
I liked the three sandwiches I tried at The Congregation in particular because of their bread, which comes from Crispelli's. This was despite some lacks: my big Brie LTT had the merest smear of Brie and no turkey, but the abundant bacon and the lightly toasted brioche made up for it. All sandwiches are toasted with everything on them but the greens. A turkey on sourdough is enhanced by melted mozzarella. Prosciutto-and-apple on a crisp baguette has lots going on with cheddar and arugula; the honey mustard stands out. My companion's veggie sandwich sported avocado, and a good herb cheese on oat-flecked bread.
Soups are always changing; chicken pot pie was thick with vegetables and, unusually, ground chicken, with just enough spicy heat to make it interesting. The charcuterie board also changes its cheeses, meats, and crackers often enough to keep the regulars happy.
Regularity is encouraged by the coffee club: Pay $25 a month for unlimited drip coffee or discounts on the fancier brews. A similar beer club is due to restart early in the new year.
Cocktails, less expensive than most, roll off the tongue. Their names nod to the building's ecclesiastical beginnings: the (Cinn)er: vodka infused with rose and cardamom, housemade ginger syrup, fresh lemon juice and a cinnamon stick. It's gingery and a little bitter. There's also the Collection Thyme, the Pastor's Swizzle, and the Forbidden Fruit.
Coffee cocktails, cold or a hot toddy, are even more over the top, with ingredients ranging from lavender to chocolate to housemade chai to maple syrup.
Cakes, pies, and cookies come from Detroit bakeries: Good Cakes and Bakes, Terry's Cakes, Good Cookies, and Halcyon Patisserie. I liked a Pop-Tart knock-off from Hip Hop Bake in which the pastry itself actually had a lot of flavor, unlike the brand name, and a chai sweet potato and toasted coconut pie from Halcyon.
The Congregation owns the house next door and plans to turn it into a pizza restaurant, at which point the renaissance of one Detroit neighborhood will be complete, and we can all just move there and be happy.