A string of flags from the different World Cup countries runs outside of La Savane restaurant on 116th between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell. Soccer balls are stacked in a triangle near the window, each branded with the name of an African team. The Confederation of African Football sends five teams to the World Cup, and this year Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Nigeria have earned that opportunity. For matches involving those teams, La Savane will play music and turn on lights to attract customers walking through the West African hub of West 116th Street.
Inside the restaurant, everyone’s watching the game on a flat screen TV in the corner of the room. The restaurant will show every match. The restaurant’s owner, David Dembele, did root against an African team in one game, USA versus Ghana. “My kids are in the US,” said Dembele.
Dembele, from Ivory Coast, started La Savane six-years ago to provide an alternative to the Chinese restaurants all over the area. It is also a place for the West African community, people from Senegal, Guinea and Mali, to meet for conversation, business, community affairs or simply to watch a game.
Dembele grew up in a village called Kouta, and he named his restaurant after the savannah in the inland part of his country. Food from the region comes as surprise to people that immigrated here expecting only hot dogs and hamburgers. “When people come [to La Savane] for the first time,” said Dembele, “they say ‘I never thought that I would find food that is just like from home.’”
The dish on everybody’s table this lunchtime is Sauce Gumbo Fraie, Okra Gumbo ($9.00), a thick okra stew, flavored with cow foot and turkey neck, and poured over a heaping plate of rice or fufu. If okra isn’t your thing, fish, dried, fresh, and shrimp, and root vegetables, cassava and potato, are prominent on the menu too. The evening offers two house specialties: lamb shank and a grilled tilapia rubbed a mix of African peppercorns.
But patrons long done with their meals are under no pressure to leave their tables and stop watching the game. Besides, after one match is over there is always another.
La Savane, 239 W 116th St (between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard), (646) 484-5293.