The Downtown Crowd Finds an Uptown Perch

On any Friday night at Red Rooster, the crowd is likely to encompass not only elements of New York’s “gorgeous mosaic” but also David Dinkins, the former mayor who coined the phrase. There, either at the 76-seat restaurant, the 24 seats at communal tables near the bar, the 20-seat bar itself or the 40-seat sidewalk cafe, neighborhood bankers rub elbows with Bill Clinton; Nora Ephron might be seated alongside Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum; Alicia Keys is likely to be found in a corner with Ralph and Ricky Lauren at a table bracketing her left side and a group of local church ladies on her right.

That, in a sense, is a typical experience at Red Rooster, the door onto Harlem opened by the celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at the end of last year.

Smack on Lenox Avenue just north of 125th Street, and with glamorous neighbors like Marshalls, Staples and CVS, the place almost instantly became a destination not just for those seeking soul food cooked with a Swedish accent, but for people with an appetite for a dining experience reflective of the New York Grace Paley once lauded for its “chromatic dispersion.” Very likely it was the latter that moved Barack Obama to choose Red Rooster as the spot for a $30,800-a-plate fund-raising dinner for the Democratic National Committee in March.

And, after all, there had to be someplace besides certain sections of hipster Brooklyn where — as Sam Sifton, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, pointed out in a review awarding Red Rooster two stars — the servers, the crowd and the atmosphere all come together to represent the “polyglot, diverse” city that has historically been “a shining beacon for people of all races.”

There had to be a place that put the lie to a circumstance noted in an earlier Times article whose headline, “The Tablecloths Are White, and So Are Most Faces,” neatly captured restaurant reality in this town. And there had to be a Manhattan neighborhood capable of giving the meatpacking district a run for its money, at the very least in terms of style.

And what better place than Harlem? Make that the “new Harlem,” a historic neighborhood so long trumpeted by boosters as the next big thing that the creaky phrase seemed in need of an oiling.

This Mr. Samuelsson provided.

“We’re really now seeing the renaissance that had been imagined,” Myiesha Phelps, a J. P. Morgan banker and Harlem resident, said this week, as she waited outside Red Rooster for a reservation she said it took months to procure.

She may be correct, and not just on account of a spate of recently opened bars and galleries and retail establishments, places like the neo-Jazz Age boite 67 Orange Street, or the upscale Levain Bakery or the concept shop Swing.

“It’s much more interesting here than the meatpacking district,” said Ms. Phelps, a Northern California native who considers herself “a true Harlemite.”

Harlem is far more stylish, she added, and anyone who has spent time on West 14th Street lately would surely agree that the endless parade of “It” girl aspirants teetering around in Christian Louboutins has imbued the area with the look of a luxury-goods ghetto, where runway trends and logos go to die.

Harlem, by contrast, seems freshly vitalized, particularly when seen from Red Rooster’s sidewalk cafe. Perched there on a breezy summer evening, a viewer beholds the pageant of Harlem street life unfolding in a manner that would have made James Van Der Zee, the great African American photographer and chronicler of Harlem, proud.

True, the dandies of Van Der Zee’s day, in their felt fedoras and raccoon coats, are long gone. In their stead are young men wearing cotton Breton fishermen’s sweaters, rolled jeans and Topsiders; African immigrants in brilliantly patterned head wraps and flowing robes; young boys with their hair styled in neo-retro Kid ’n Play flattops; waitresses with plaited dreadlocks swept up into cantilevered coiffures; men in seersucker suits and straw trilbys with stingy brims; matrons dressed in flowing celestial-white ensembles; teenage boys with saggers slung so low on their hips that they’re forced to pluck at them, delicate as antebellum maidens, to keep them from dropping to the ground.

Banshee-wailing throttles open, bareheaded daredevils do wheelies up Lenox Avenue on candy-colored Yamahas 250’s.

“You don’t really get run-of-the-mill-type people” at Red Rooster, said Adrian Surgeon, the restaurant’s natty greeter, as he waited by the curb to greet a man in a pastel track suit as he exited a chauffeur-driven S.U.V. “What you do get is a mirror of what Harlem offers as a whole.”

Harlem offers this human panorama not only to patrons of Red Rooster, of course. The same spectacle may be enjoyed by diners at Red Rooster’s neighbors Chez Lucienne and Sylvia’s, at the Lenox Lounge and, come September, at the Pink Tea Cup, the legendary West Village soul-food spot that is establishing an outpost on Lenox Avenue.

“You can’t not dress up if you’re going out for the evening in Harlem,” said Martin Johnson, an account executive for Kim Kardashian Fragrance. Despite the dreary weather on a recent Friday evening, Mr. Johnson and his date, Latifah Abdur, arrived at Red Rooster dressed, respectively, in a tie from Hermès, a suit from Ralph Lauren Black Label, shoes from Ferragamo, a Gucci bag and a flowing flowered dress from H & M.

“Why not preen,” Mr. Johnson added, “when there are so many fabulous fashions to embark upon?”

For Gerald Tucker, uptown’s revived lure is so strong that every weekend since Red Rooster opened he has polished his brogues, brushed his mustache, slipped into a Ralph Lauren suit, selected a bow tie from his collection of 14 and then headed uptown from his home on the Lower East Side.

Nowadays he takes the D train, the retired high school teacher said, having lost heart for the hassle of keeping a car in New York.

A glass of red wine cupped in his hand, Mr. Tucker surveyed the bar last weekend and pronounced the experiment that is Red Rooster a success. “Of course, everything looks good when it’s new, and believe me, at 80 I’ve seen a lot of things develop and happen in Harlem.”

He has known the neighborhood in its shiny salad days, when the original Red Rooster, a speakeasy on the outskirts of Strivers’ Row sometimes called the Stork Club of Harlem, was still a watering hole for homegrown sports stars and local pols.

He has known it when Nicky Barnes, the heroin kingpin, ordered murders and ran the drug trade from a stool at the Monarch Bar. He has known it when, even after Harlem was declared a federally funded empowerment zone, the bedrock economics of the place remained bleak, when the median income for a family of four was $18,000, when scrub grew in lots where handsome old brownstones had tumbled down and when on blocks where housing projects stood the population density was the greatest in New York.

That other, earlier Harlem now seems a long way off.

“I think this time Harlem is really back for good,” said the sprightly Mr. Tucker, who attributed his youthful vigor to an unusual regimen. (“A little red wine, very little marijuana, no cocaine and no heroin.”)

Whether Harlem is “back” (if it ever went away) remains to be seen, of course. For Mr. Samuelsson, the celebrity chef born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden, the decision to engage with the “mystique, the beauty, the history of Harlem was not to be undertaken lightly,” he explained by phone this week from Sweden.

“I lived in Harlem for six years, and for the first four years I wasn’t ready to open a restaurant,” he said. “I didn’t have license to do that until I felt I was in and of Harlem. I don’t take the commitment lightly. It’s important that people can smell that sincerity when they come into the restaurant, regardless of whether they like the chicken or not.”

The point, he added, is that Harlem is the largest and most vital character in the story of Red Rooster, and not the other way around. It is with this in mind that a visitor there senses a crucial balance being held. Red Rooster may help put Harlem on display but not exclusively for the consumption of tourists. Like Paris, to which the chef often compares it, Harlem as a neighborhood, and one blessed with abundant light, wide avenues and a diverse population, functions like a proscenium on which the rich theater of pedestrian life is ceaselessly enacted.

“It’s always a total hodgepodge,” Raymond Bailey, a retired chauffeur, said Tuesday night, as he sipped a Bailey’s Irish Cream on ice at the Red Rooster bar, referring to the street scene in Harlem.

Dressed in a suit, a crisp straw hat and sunglasses, Mr. Bailey surveyed the incoming crowd, a parade that included lovely young women in flowing dresses carrying Prada handbags, muscular gay couples in tank tops and Toms shoes, parties of elderly women in their evening finery, French tourists in the clam diggers that only French tourists still favor, and ... isn’t that Cindy Crawford getting out of a black Suburban?

It is.

 

And what brings you up to Harlem, a reporter asked the model/mogul and her companion, the celebrity hairstylist Stephen Knoll.

“Dinner!” the two said in unison.