Of course, not everything is as it was. I heard recently that Charles Gabriel lost the lease on Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken, his storefront restaurant on Frederick Douglass Boulevard that for decades served some of the most succulent chicken in the city. But on the fourth day of my expedition around town, my friend Curtis Archer, sometimes referred to as the mayor of Harlem, calls. Far from going out of business, he tells me, the restaurant’s owner, Charles Gabriel, is on the verge of becoming a fried chicken magnate. During the lockdown, Gabriel shifted his focus to home delivery, something he hadn’t done much of before. Business boomed and investors appeared. As a result, Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken will soon open a new location on Edgecombe Avenue and 145th Street, and after that an outpost on the Upper West Side and another in Brooklyn. At 73, Gabriel, who grew up one of 21 kids in a North Carolina sharecropping family and learned to cook from his mother, will finally get the profile he deserves.
Deprived of Gabriel’s food for the moment, however, Curtis and I stop at Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant serving elevated takes on American home cooking, for the hot honey chicken and the cornbread with roasted tomatoes and corn butter. After that, we grab a muffuletta — rich and spicy with mortadella, coppa, mozzarella and Sicilian olive salad — at Settepani, the former Brooklyn bakery that serves classic Italian food on Lennox Avenue.
Tenacity, invention, excruciatingly hard work and, in some cases, not a little luck, have kept all these establishments going. I called my latest book “Marvelous Manhattan” not just for the city’s skyline and glamour but because of its people, who routinely, one generation after the next, stick it out, suck it up and keep it going. When restaurant dining rooms were forced to close at the start of the pandemic, Linden Pride and Nathalie Hudson, the owners of the bars Dante and Dante West in the Village, started bottling their much-awarded cocktails for takeout. There was no shortage of demand. “It was all Negronis and anything with tequila or mezcal in it. Often it was Negronis with tequila and mezcal in them,” says Pride. In NoHo, Il Buco Alimentari sold its pizzas for takeout. And farther west, Raoul’s offered to-go kits so customers could make the restaurant’s celebrated burger at home. Happily, the place is now doing such good business again that friends, knowing I live close by, call me to ask if I can get them a table.
Toward the end of the week, before I swear off carbs again, I squeeze in a visit to Il Posto Accanto, the wine bar on East Second Street, for a plate of spaghetti alle vongole, spicy and piled with fresh clams. To stay afloat during the past year, Il Posto offered gift certificates. The same was true at Di Palo’s, the Italian fine foods shop on Grand Street, where I stop by to pick up a ball of mozzarella, just out of the vat, still warm and dripping with milk. “People bought the gift certificates, sometimes a thousand dollars’ worth each,” says Lou Di Palo, who owns the store with his siblings, Sal and Marie. “I kept saying to use them, but somehow people ‘forgot.’”
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