The Rooster Crows

Last week I had the opportunity to try The Red Rooster in Harlem.  My former City College theatre director David Willinger was putting on a production of Twelfth Night, adding incentive.  In my last blog I posed some questions which have always interested me in terms of dining out.  That’s why Sam Sifton’s review tantalized me so.  Where is this magic utopian restaurant where all shades, ages, and sexes attend?

I have to admit it is true.  I arrived shortly after 11 am, and by noon the seats filled.  They came, from all walks of life, although the majority of the patrons were white.  The staff seemed ethnically diverse, but alas the manager was not.

Red Rooster is a beautiful restaurant.  It is the kind of place every neighborhood should have, well designed, with an ample bar room, a dining area, an open kitchen and aesthetically pleasing design.  Add a top celebrity chef and you have a home run, a grand slam even.  It just so happens that this is the first of its kind in Harlem, a neighborhood long suffering since its glory days of yesteryear.  The food ranges from good to quite good.  The cocktails a bit on the sweet side.  There is something for every one on the menu, but no single menu item that must be ordered every visit.

Perhaps the phenomena that is Red Rooster is the location, the cardinal rule of real estate.  With Harlem becoming such an ethnically diverse hodgepodge over the last twenty years, Red Rooster makes perfect sense, appealing to the sensibility of most every demographic, delivering on what matters most: comfort food and drink, and comfortable environs.  While there is no Danny Meyer level of hospitality, my server was smiling, knowledgeable and pleasant.  I was impressed.

Red Rooster is a pioneer to this end, and a necessary one, not just a model for Harlem, but one for the restaurant landscape of an entire city.  Personally I can’t wait to have one in my nabe (UWS).

Red Rooster Race

Ethnic diversity in an Obama age is a subject that has not been a hot topic partly because the Obama phenomen is still ongoing.  What I mean to say is that because of a President, the first of its kind, who is Black or African American, racial tensions and divides are supposed to magically disappear in the United States.  If a Black man can be President, the scale of racial inequality has been tipped.

In the realm of food and wine this is a touchy subject.  What studies have been done as to chefs of color?  How about owners?  Does the data mirror that of the NFL?  A league full of players of color, but not so in ownership and head coaching jobs.  I still remember being awed by Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins way back when.  Times are changing, I thought.

Yesterday when I read Sam Sifton’s review in the New York Times, I had immediate reactions and feelings.  I wanted to go to see what he was observing.  An ethnically diverse restaurant in Manhattan?  Oh, it’s in Harlem.  I forgot about the gentrification of Harlem.

At this point, the word gentrification has either turned you off, or stirred some curiosity.  I will elaborate my position by first qualifying my credentials in terms of experience.  I graduated from the City College of New York in the early nineties.  I also earned my M.S. in Special Education there.  I also taught for many years in East Harlem.  I know the neighborhoods. Tons of empty brown and townhouse shells were going for cheap, and many white families bought into the renovations because the prices were much cheaper than downtown.  Add to that the amount of subsidized housing that many white New York families had the cultural capital to apply and land, and there is a veritable shift or movement in the demographic.

Except that I lived in West Harlem for three years since 2005.  Restaurants did not open up.  I felt the least safe compared to any neighborhood in the city minus Bushwick and Hunt’s Point.  The noise levels were ear splitting, and gun shot discharges could be heard in the distance during the summer as if it were the fourth of July.  Gangs of unsupervised teenagers roamed the streets, and even I knew where to buy drugs.  And the trash, boy did I get into melees just asking anyone to pick up their own trash.  If you don’t believe me (I have since moved downtown), walk into a precinct and check the police blotter.  I tried all the staples, Sylvia’s, Lenox Lounge, etc., as well as the African restos, but was largely unimpressed.

By contrast, East Harlem diversified differently, slowly and more effectively.  However, the food scene there is not thriving either.  The mentality of close knit working class families is to stay and cook at home.  The proliferation of fast food  joints caters to the poor underclass.  Nothing new here.  If you are looking for a good restaurant in East Harlem, hop on the six train and head way downtown.

Then, slowly during the past decade some places popped up in West Harlem.  Cocktail bars too.  The crowd at Café Society is diverse.  Same goes for the wine bar Nectar next to the wine shop.  Is it better than other wine bars? Probably not, but it’s in Harlem and it’ll do for progress.  Cocktails are a tad too sweet at 67 Orange.

Here comes what many have been waiting for.  A pioneer chef of color to open a real restaurant where people have to travel uptown for!  Mr. Sifton writes with pleasant surprise,

“The scene was unusual, notable, a view of a city many believe in and few ever see, at least in the presence of Caesar salads and steak frites. New Yorkers are accustomed to diversity on sidewalks and subways, in jury pools and in line at the bank. But in our restaurants, as in our churches and nightclubs, life is often more monochromatic.”

Monochromatic, indeed.  It is a running sarcastic joke among my friends that when I enter a restaurant I always notice how many patrons of color are in the establishment.  When I don’t see any, I say to myself or out loud, “ A lot of brothers and sisters here.”

“Not so at Red Rooster Harlem, which the chef Marcus Samuelsson opened in December. The racial and ethnic variety in the vast bar and loft-like dining room are virtually unrivaled. The restaurant may not be the best to open in New York City this year (though the food is good). But it will surely be counted as among the most important. It is that rarest of cultural enterprises, one that supports not just the idea or promise of diversity, but diversity itself.”

It is indeed rare.  As a restaurant owner myself, I can easily state as fact the number of African Americans who come to my place number less than 1% of my total clientele.  What does this mean?

I am of very mixed descent, as I suspect most New Yorkers are.  My mother is Haitian and my father is Dominican.  My grandfathers hail from Cuba and France, and one of my grandmothers is Lebanese/Palestinian.  Why can’t I have a place of ethnic and racial diversity?  Latinos come in, and so do peoples from Asia and India, Americans all.

One of the questions is why?  Why don’t more African Americans go out to places “foodies” frequent?  Do they love food and wine any less?  Is there no tradition of going out to eat? Are they made to feel unwelcome even in an Obama age?  I always contend they have to be eating somewhere.  But where?

I can count on one finger the amount of Black or Latino sommeliers I know.  Mexicans and Ecuadorians in the kitchen, you bet.  Owners, executive or celebrity chefs?  Please.

Maybe situating the place in Harlem is the trick.  Draw everyone to a location that demands ethnic diversity, as Harlem has done throughout its long illustrious history and the height of gentrification.

“The glory of the Red Rooster is that everyone really is there, actually making the scene: black and white, Asian and Latino, straight and gay, young and old.

This fact marks a real stride forward for Harlem, and for New York beyond it. Here at last are the faces of the city we live in, sitting together in a large restaurant serving top-quality food and wine. Have we really never seen this before? It is Mr. Samuelsson’s triumph that we need to ask. “

Triumph indeed, but let’s not forget that Merkato 55 failed.  It is the same chef, but by putting fried chicken (my fav), and oxtails on the menu, will that be enough to survive?  I often thought about opening a place in Harlem, especially when I lived there, but I was uneasy about who would come.  By that I mean, would I have been able to fill the seats?  Now that I am in the East Village, competition competes for seats.  “If you build it, they will come,” one of my favorite lines from Field of Dreams.  I just hope the Red Rooster brings many other places like it, and becomes the model for downtown too.