Christel Albritton MacLean didn't think she'd ordered fried chicken and biscuits on her first visit to Hattie's Chicken Shack in Saratoga Springs, New York, but that's what the waiter brought. He was virtually deaf, as Christel later learned, and simply assumed she wanted what everyone else who came to Hattie's wanted.
Not that in those days Southern food was the only reason people went to Hattie's. They went for atmosphere--the checked cloths on the tables, the chipping lime-green paint on the wooden chairs, the framed photographs of Cab Calloway and Jackie Robinson. They went because Hattie's was a survivor of the old Congress Street neighborhood, Saratoga's erstwhile Harlem, famous in its day for speakeasies, jazz clubs and casinos, all leveled by urban renewal in the 1960s. They went for Hattie Austin Moseley herself, who started her restaurant in 1938, ran it, in its heyday, around the clock and relocated to Phila Street before Congress Street was bulldozed (she managed this, it seems, by reminding the mayor that he owed her; after all, she used to give him cookies when he was a boy). They went, finally, because Hattie was in her nineties, and who knew how much longer the place would last?
But in 1991 Christel didn't know all that. She went because she'd fallen from a horse. A Wharton M.B.A. and a Manhattan investment banker, Christel was recuperating for seven weeks at her summer home nearby and needed to get out of the house, so she drove to Saratoga Springs for lunch.
Toward the end of her meal, Christel's waiter--Bill, Hattie's husband, a former prizefighter--told Christel that Hattie wanted her to come back to the kitchen. As Christel approached, Hattie said, "Oh, you're not the girl from channel 10 news. Well, come talk to me anyway." And they did talk, for the next four hours. Hattie, a Louisiana native who first came to Saratoga Springs as a seamstress in the employ of a Chicago family that summered in the area, told Christel about how she had become so well-known for her cooking that she started selling fried chicken from a small shack. She talked about the early days, when Saratoga was "fast, man, it was real fast. It was up all night long." She recalled the night when a spontaneous parade broke out on Congress Street and a policeman, seeing her arrive for work at 3 a.m., asked her what was going on. "Honey," she answered, "I don't know. All I know is I better go cook, because they're going to be awful hungry after this."
"We adored each other," Christel remembers. At the end of the conversation, Hattie told Christel, "You're going to buy my restaurant."
Christel laughed. "No way," she said. "I work on Wall Street."
It was a year before Christel seriously considered Hattie's words. As she started to tire of Wall Street, however, she began to think of the restaurant as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a place that was, as she puts it today, "part museum and part culinary endeavor."
Christel's first concern was to preserve the restaurant's ambience, its look and its traditional dishes. (The recipe for fried chicken--popular even with people who don't generally go for such diet-defying food--has not changed in 62 years.) That said, Christel also wanted to give Hattie's a culinary overhaul. "When I bought the restaurant," Christel says, "people knew it had a great history, but they hadn't been here for years."
The current menu reflects a more modern sensibility. It has been expanded to include lighter choices (grilled chicken and vegetables) and a broader base of Southern classics. To keep Hattie's food authentic, Christel, her husband, Colin, and the chef, Bobby Holt, take regular eating tours of New Orleans. Christel has installed two bars and procured a liquor license, so in addition to lemonade and iced tea, Hattie's now serves mint juleps and Sazeracs (bourbon, Pernod, simple syrup and bitters, straight up).
There are other changes. Colin designed a colorful new patio, and he's most often seen around the restaurant in jeans, not the tuxedo and bow tie that Bill always wore. In the old days, Hattie used to make a renowned apple-ginger chutney. It wasn't on the menu, but if she was favorably disposed to you, she would bring it out. Today Christel sells it through her small mail-order business, along with rum balls, hot sauce and shot glasses.
Until her death, in 1998, Hattie visited the restaurant regularly. Indeed, on the day she sold the business, she interrupted the proceedings for a private consultation with her lawyer and longtime friend, Peter Tulin. Would it be okay if she continued to make her famous fruit cobblers for the restaurant? It was. Selling Hattie's "was more than a business transaction," Tulin says. "It was about passing on this feeling," something Hattie felt Christel was uniquely qualified to do.
"What's so surprising is that it is very much the same," says Charles Wait, president of the Adirondack Trust Company, who first visited the restaurant, at its old Congress Street site, when he was 17 and now eats at Hattie's once a week. Not that he doesn't notice what's different--the salads, the red snapper provençal.
And Christel. A woman who is not likely to throw a bucket of cold water over a drunken customer who won't quiet down, though she'd be the first to pull up a chair and tell you about the time Hattie did.
Debra Spark is the author of the forthcoming novel The Ghost of Bridgetown (Graywolf Press). She first visited Hattie's during a residency at Yaddo, an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs.