By Jason Bell
Barbecue tastes best when it's served from behind bulletproof glass. At Sherman's Bar B.Q., "orders to take out only"-there are no tables or chairs, no counter and certainly no decor. The walls are painted white, and other than a cheap analog clock above a "No Smoking" sign, the restaurant looks abandoned. Like in a liquor store, a revolving opening in the glass lets the kitchen put out plates and take in cash, no 50 or 100 dollar bills, please. Sherman's takes pride in its minimalism, offering only three meats, ribs, chicken, and pig's feet, and three sides, spaghetti, cole slaw, and potato salad. Even the sign lacks a few letters: "Man's Bar B.Q." spelled out in red letters, laconic as the service and food.
According to the cook, Sherman's opened in 1946. In its heyday, Sherman's boasted four locations. During the 1950s, Sherman's dominated the Harlem barbecue scene; but as upper Harlem and Hamilton Heights lost their post-Renaissance luster, Sherman's struggled to stay afloat. Today, one location remains, a lone outpost between 145th and 146th streets on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. The romance of a rough-and-tumble interior masks this neighborhood's troubled times. Sherman's needs its bulletproof glass for reasons other than "authentic" barbecue aesthetics.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ronnie Spector tells how she brought the Beatles to Sherman's. Lead singer of the Ronettes, Spector rasps along on hits like "Be My Baby" and "Walking in the Rain." When the Beatles came to New York in 1964, Spector met John Lennon in the Beatle's Warwick Hotel suite, where Lennon expressed a more than platonic interest. The next day, Lennon called Spector and asked her how they could stay friends. Spector told him to meet her in Spanish Harlem. Spector and the Beatles were "at a place called Sherman's Barbecue, having chicken and ribs. Ten minutes away, there were girls screaming and doors being knocked down and policemen holding people back," Spector said. "People at Sherman's didn't notice. They just thought they were square-looking Spanish guys." Between '73 and '75, John Lennon separated from Yoko Ono and started drinking heavily. Phil Spector, then Ronnie's husband, produced a Lennon cover of "Be My Baby" in '73.
Sherman's has come to represent a golden age of Harlem glitz. Conrad Kent Rivers memorializes Sherman's in his poem "The Train Runs Late To Harlem." Imagining a better life, Kent fantasizes about a:
New house: boarding school for my Kids, free rides at Riverside, buy Out Sherman's barbecue, Lift my people from poverty, Until my train pops 133rd square In her tiger's mouth Returning me, returning me.
Ironically, Sherman's now symbolizes the very poverty Kent so desperately wanted to escape.
"I've been here for fourty years," the cook says, dressing spaghetti with barbecue sauce and packing up our plates in foil. We walk to Jackie Robinson Park, where the swimming pool stands blue and empty in the unseasonably cool June afternoon. Sitting on the steps and eating ribs and dark meat chicken and really great coleslaw, all creamy and peppery, is a summer pleasure worth remembering. I feel a little let down nonetheless. Sherman's sauce tastes more like sweet ketchup than the smoky Missouri-style barbecue I prefer; its Sixties glitz has rubbed off along with the sign's S-H-E-R. Still, Sherman's struggles forward against the stream of Popeyes and Starbucks invading the neighborhood from the West. In the steady march of "progress," a little history is lost along the way. Here, however, a Harlem story lives on, if only trapped behind glass.