Redefining the neighborhood restaurant
Credit: Bobby Fisher

After a few minutes in Harlem's Red Rooster, you realize how happy you're getting. The curvy bar in the front room and the warm dining space both glow. Plenty of smiles for the customers, and the customers smile back. A waiter offers up a quiet "to your health" when he puts your bourbon cocktail down. At the next table, a fabulously dressed woman in her 70s tucks into a plate of "fried yard bird." Nearby, a table of foodies has come uptown to see what the fuss is about. This is Harlem, and even if you're a tourist from Akron, you fall into the celebratory groove. You realize, suddenly, how few ambitious, "destination" restaurants in America attract such a diverse mix of folks. Marcus Samuelsson's new restaurant, embraced by the locals and flashing bright on the radar of the city's restaurant cognoscenti, is a product of one cook's American dream: It took an Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef to create one of the most important new restaurants in the country.

Samuelsson was already a star in his own right in America, having made his bones at the elegant, cool Aquavit in the 1990s while in his mid-20s, and ended up living near swank Central Park South. He moved to Harlem seven years ago, which he says changed his life. He rode the celebrity-chef train (and won Top Chef Masters last year) but decided Harlem was where the new action needed to be. Red Rooster opened in December 2010. It's a neighborhood joint, but not small—a big, finely calibrated restaurant with a loose and local feel that manages to be, as Samuelsson says, in Harlem and of Harlem at the same time.

"Harlem is a community where people know each other; they say hi to each other," Samuelsson says. "People are not too busy to be good citizens in their community. Whether you go to a church in Harlem or whether you walk down the street, community is everything. So I thought, let's celebrate that in a restaurant."

Lenox Avenue and 125th Street is a canny location (Harlem is home to plenty of well-heeled potential customers by now) but also a political one. Rich as it is in heritage, Harlem is starved not only for great restaurants but also for its fair share of supermarkets, fresh food choices, and good jobs, and that grieves this chef.

"If you look at urban America, many cities have a Harlem: I've always said that America is a first-world country with third-world babies. And there are more fast-food spots here than in any other area. I really responded to the fact that, until very recently, it was hard to find an apple in Harlem, hard to find a farmers' market."

Part of the deal, for Samuelsson, was hiring local—for 55% to 60% of the restaurant's jobs. Another part was keeping the reservation booking loose enough that you could walk in and "be able to trust that within 40 minutes you will be given a seat. "Demand for the 80 walk-ins has been so high that wait times turned out to be much longer, but still, in a top-tier New York restaurant, a last-minute table is usually strictly an insider's hustle.

The result, says New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton, is a new understanding of what a neighborhood restaurant can be. "For a chef to open a restaurant like Red Rooster that actually reflects what the city looks like, that reflects the subway car that you rode up there on, is truly notable."

As for the food, at its best it works the same warm, happy vibe, a mix of Southern and soul selections (the iconic fried chicken, blackened catfish), with hits of global fusion (curry leaves with basmati dirty rice), and a few winks to Samuelsson's Swedish and Ethiopian roots (Helga's Meatballs with lingonberries; a brunch snack of nuts with sour cherries and Ethiopian injera). And, of course, lots of good cocktails.

This rooster crows.