Take me to Church
Gospel Bird: more Than ‘Just a chicken Place’
By Mandy Wold Detwiler | Photos by Josh Keown
Restaurateur Eric Morris didn’t set out to open a chicken joint when Gospel Bird landed in New Albany in February 2016. The fledgling restaurant’s owner has a storied history amongst Kentuckiana restaurants, having begun his career as a dishwasher at Mark’s Feed Store, putting in time at Café Emily, serving as sous chef at Seviche, and spearheading the now-closed Loop 22 and the wildly popular Game and Hammerheads.
“Loop was a menu that I created that was Southern influenced,” Morris says. “There’s a lot of chicken and just Southern food in general. There are dishes (at Gospel Bird) that are pretty much the same as they were at Loop. That’s where I honed in on my own and what I enjoyed to cook.”
After Loop 22 closed, Morris sought a spot for his own restaurant, and “Louisville’s just become so saturated with restaurants,” he says. “It seems like there’s one opening every week. I’m from Louisville and as much as I’d love to have a restaurant there, I kind of saw what was happening in New Albany. It was kind of starting to explode. I saw places like the Dragon King’s Daughter and Quills, and Toast and Wick’s –– all these people that had Louisville restaurants were opening up over here. With The Exchange (Pub + Kitchen) and Feast kind of being the two heavy hitters here that were (helmed) by local boys, you really got to see something different that was going on here … and I wanted to get in early before the boom happened.”
Founded in a large rustic space most famously occupied by The Irish Exit, Morris wanted Gospel Bird to have strong Southern influences right from the start. “My dad’s a big-time hunter,” he says. “And growing up … he’d always take me hunting and fishing from the time I was real little.”
Gospel Bird started with a larger menu and a greater focus on higher-end dining before Morris quickly recognized his clientele as less formal and looking for quality food at a good price. With a farmer’s market just steps behind the restaurant, Morris paired down his menu to a set of staples and chose to add seasonal offerings. “You have a lot more fun, fresh food to play with,” he says. “It naturally builds, because you’re like ‘Oh, man! They’ve got this great eggplant!’ Or ‘These beets or collard greens are coming in.’ Your menu just naturally gets bigger and bigger.”
With the restaurant’s given name paying homage to the perennial post-church service fried chicken, the dish does take center stage on Gospel Bird’s menu. “The plan was never to be a fried chicken place,” Morris says. “That wasn’t the goal at all. The goal was to be a Southern restaurant. … People around town as we starting building it started calling us ‘the chicken place.’ When we first opened, we only had one fryer. We hadn’t planned on doing too much of that stuff. The more buzz (we got) around town … we realized we don’t want to sell them what we want. We want them to buy what they want. So we kind of became a fried chicken place. That’s been our staple, obviously.”
Did Morris know Gospel Bird was a concept that would work well in downtown New Albany? “Definitely,” he says with confidence. “I’m about to open a seafood restaurant down the street ––Hull and High Water. Kind of the reason I’m moving to seafood is the same reason I did this. It’s filling something that’s not here. Obviously, I wouldn’t come over here and do pizza and burgers, or anything like that.
“As far as some good, high-end Southern cooking, there wasn’t any in Southern Indiana and it’s almost like taking country food to country folk. … People mistake this place as being fancy. You look at the menu (and) a half chicken is massive and it’s $12. When we came out of the gate with the first menu, it was fancy. I had an executive chef in here who was extremely talented –– his resume included places like The Oakroom. We learned our demographic very quickly. We changed our menu nine times the first year. We’ve really learned to hone in on what people expect of us. The first four months we were open, we had two-hour waits and were slammed all the time. Part of that was being a new restaurant in the honeymoon phase.”
It was during last summer that Morris saw his business taper off as customers sought lighter fare as the weather turned warmer. “In the winter months, we do more hearty food, soul food,” Morris says, “a lot of smoked items (like) brisket, roasted chicken, shrimp and grits –– big, hearty comfort foods. And now with spring coming, it’ll be 60 percent different from what it is now.”
The spring menu will feature less fried items, vegetables pickled in-house (including a pickled vegetable shrimp jar) and a beet salad. “There will be a lot of new items on there that are light,” Morris says.
Morris expects the new squash and zucchini fries to sell well at under $7 –– they’ll be lightly fried and tossed with garlic and Parmesan. There will be more seafood options as the weather turns warmer, including Bluefin tuna, oysters, stuffed trout and salmon.
Chicken salad also will be available at $8 with a side dish. “People at lunch seem to really, really love that,” Morris says.
A full bar is available at Gospel Bird. “With Southern food, we’ve got to have our bourbon,” Morris says. “It makes sense all around to have (a full bar) because we can have signature cocktails, and we can cook with it.”
Historic downtown New Albany is restaurant-friendly when it comes to applying for a liquor license, and getting a full liquor one over simply serving beer and wine was easier in Indiana than it was in Louisville. Although Gospel Bird does accept reservations, the restaurant fills up quickly at night. The bar seating –– and signature drinks –– is just an extra component that makes the restaurant attractive to potential diners.
Morris added a patio last summer to the backside of Gospel Bird; the focal point is a 1968 Airstream that has been converted to a bar. This summer, he’ll add an outdoor turf with lawn chairs, giving the restaurant a casual atmosphere for friends to gather outside and have a drink.
“The idea of this place is that it’s meant to be loud, honky-tonk Southern fun,” Morris says. “Come in with your friends. We have really good food, but we still want to stay true to the southern tradition of people getting together. You get together with some friends, you have some beers, you have some ribs. We’re not a fancy restaurant, and we don’t want to be. We just want to be a place that serves really, really good food that’s inventive but in no way pretentious.”
What’s to eat? Gospel Bird’s appetizers range from $6 to $10, while entrées are priced from $20 to $23. The most popular appetizer is the Idgie and Ruth ($7), fried green tomatoes named after the main characters in the feature film of the same name.
Amongst the restaurant’s signature chicken offerings are Thunder Thighs (two boneless, skinless chicken thighs at $10) and a half chicken (a breast, wing, thigh and leg at $12). For $2 more, guests can enjoy all white meat. The Yardbird ($13) is a fried chicken sandwich with bacon, cheddar, slaw and signature “gospel” sauce.
The cauliflower grits ($5) is one of the restaurant’s biggest sellers, so Morris is adding sweet potato grits using a little ginger and allspice to the menu. “We smoke and cure our own house-made bacon,” so we finish (the grits) with a little bit of chopped bacon on top of it.”
207 E. Main St.
Lunch 11 am to 2 p.m.
Dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.