Sandra’s Place soul food restaurant in the Arts District on Whitney Avenue offers Yalies a decidedly different Saturday night activity: midnight poetry sessions.

Since this February, Sandra’s has opened its doors to a group of fledgling poets who go to express themselves and entertain others on the open microphone. Yale students and even some faculty are among the 20 or so newcomers each week, and they join a supporting cast of regular raconteurs.

Miguel Pittman, head chef and co-owner of the Whitney Avenue eatery, said the restaurant begins to seat for the poetry sessions at 10 p.m. and opens up the microphone around 11 p.m. Readings and performances, Pittman said, last until 1 or 1:30 a.m. and carry a $5 cover charge.

The restaurant itself combines sleek styling, refined cuisine and down-home comfort. Sherena Harris, Sandra’s younger sister and the founder of the midnight poetry sessions, said she and best friend Jacqui Chambers-Foreman were inspired by the movie “Love Jones” to create a “nice and smooth ambience in a blues cafe-type of setting with a decor that was out of sight.”

During the poetry sessions, the lights are dimmed and candles are lit to set the stage for the bards-to-be. Light jazz and R&B help generate a reflective, creative atmosphere that encourages novice poets to take the stage and experiment. In fact, the restaurant has a special “Soul Food Poet’s Menu” with each dish named for a famous poet, like Langston Hughes’ Pie.

Rashayla Brown ’04 has been involved with poetry at Sandra’s Place since the beginning.

“The first night was a very intimate setting, though it was set up like a poetry slam,” Brown said. “My friend Croilot, a poet who goes to Southern Connecticut State University, won first place and I placed second. Since then, the event has turned more into an open mic with a couple of featured poets.”

Pittman said that along with Harris and Chambers-Foreman, he decided to hold the poetry sessions as a way to give something back to the New Haven arts community. He said hosting the performances was not driven by profit; Sandra’s actually takes a loss each week by keeping the restaurant open and staffed during the late-night engagements.

While interest in the sessions was slim at first, word of mouth in the local arts community has helped bolster participation recently, he said. And Harris said people other than lifelong New Haven residents are stepping up to the mic.

“The group is well diversified,” Harris said. “We have people from the arts community, students, professors, people from all parts of New Haven — Dixwell Avenue, the Hill neighborhood — everyone feels comfortable here.”

She added that the event draws a faithful group every weekend from Springfield, Mass.

When not hosting up-and-coming poets and performers, Sandra’s brings in other forms of entertainment for its patrons. On Thursday night, the Whitney Avenue cafe presents Latino music and reggae on Friday. Saturday night, before the poetry session, Sandra’s hosts live jazz.

Sunday night, Harris said, is “dine with the host night,” where customers and restaurant owners eat and socialize together.

“I want people to be able to come in, lounge around, and relax.” Pittman said.

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