When Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster in 2010, he convinced the fashion world to travel uptown — way uptown — to Harlem, hosting parties for Balmain and Edun, as well as attracting even the most obstinate of downtown regulars for date nights. Now, with his second New York City restaurant, Streetbird, opening Friday, he’s primed to woo the masses — and the neighbors. “It’s the little cousin, the little brother, the little sister,” says Samuelsson of his rotisserie-chicken concept on the corner of 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “[Red] Rooster is a commitment. You have to make a reservation. Here, you don’t. You get off the subway, jump in, get your bird and go. We’re completely embedded in the neighborhood,” he continues. “Post-Rooster, I thought, What are we not doing? What’s not in Harlem now? How would it look? I wanted it to look more raw than Rooster, but yet have style.”
Style has become synonymous with both Samuelsson (he’s been on Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed List two years running) and his restaurants. Walking through the Streetbird space, his eye for design detail distracts him more than once. “What we need to do now is these smaller moments within the bigger moments,” he tells a colleague. “Like in that corner, for example, needs to be a wooden box that maybe has some records [stacked on it].”
This story first appeared in the March 30, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Whereas Red Rooster takes inspiration from jazz for its decor, Streetbird looks to hip-hop and graffiti artists from the Seventies through the Nineties. Artist Cey Adams (who’s designed album covers for the Beastie Boys and De La Soul) tagged the ceiling with “Uptown Cookout” in giant bubble letters, paying homage to the family barbecues that dot the northernmost parts of Central Park. Pop artist Anthony Vasquez, known as AVone, pieced together a floor collage that will lead diners past a dominoes installation and a ceiling-high pile of old boom boxes that serve as listening stations while they wait for their takeout or a table. Each station will play interviews from New York personalities such as Masaharu Morimoto, Iris Apfel and Paper Magazine’s Kim Hastreiter. Elsewhere, vintage materials like cassette tapes and antique bicycle wheels make up the light fixtures, which hang above Harlem church pews repurposed as benches and covered in designer textiles from labels such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Adidas (they’re likely knockoffs and sourced from nearby street markets). Exterior walls will have a rotating display of modern graffiti art — à la Five Points — to lure passengers as they step off the M116 bus.
The food will be different from that at Red Rooster, too, with a menu that’s “95 percent chicken” and largely based around takeout and delivery — food you can pick up on your way home from work. Samuelsson developed the recipes in the Red Rooster kitchen for “a very long time. I would say [we spent] about a year-and-a-half tasting” — and that was just on the rub for the chicken. The other dishes — which include Bird Broth (roasted vegetables, kimchi, crumbled nori), The Fly Girl salad (black kale, romaine, green beans, toasted rice and lime-coconut dressing) and the General Ye’s Chicken (crispy chicken with green beans, mango and peanuts) — took even longer. “There’s a hint of a Chinese restaurant thrown in, there’s a Latin vibe, sort of El Barrio, mixed with Americana,” he says. “The way to think about it is almost like Chinese takeout, where you’re like, ‘I’ll have some noodles, I’ll have some rice, I’ll have some greens.’ But the protein will definitely be rotisserie chicken.”
Asked about what ingredients he finally settled on for that chicken rub, Samuelsson demurs. “Goodies,” he says with a sly smile.
2149 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, New York
Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.