Editor's note: With "In the Midnight Hour," Zachary Feldman will take you to a different late-night eatery every week. How can you say no to 24-hour soul food?
For some, the aroma of fried chicken is preferable to even the finest perfume. Nearly a week after visiting Amy Ruth's in Harlem, and my outfit (yes, I wear outfits) still smells like sizzled bird. I wear it like a badge, proudly flaunting my avian bouquet—and along with the judiciously prepared soul food classics, it is one of the restaurant's most defining features. Think of it as a rite of nasal passage.
It was almost a full house when we walked in at three in the morning, and there were costumed revelers waiting for tables in the vestibule outside (it was, after all, Halloween weekend). Two men patrolled the entrance: the bulkier "muscle" and the host. Neither said much, but the host's Pepé Le Pew sweatshirt—featuring the striped lothario floating on what can only be described as a cloud of love—belied our own hypnotized journey to this piece of the South in northern Manhattan.
The room is charming in its simplicty. Save for a few photos of jazz royalty—Satchmo and Miles Davis among them—and the requisite seasonal gourds, Amy Ruth's decor is rather threadbare, with blocks of solid color and a long counter which holds the register and several cake stands. Patrons to the restaurant include neighborhood residents, Columbia students, and any number of out-of-towners looking to roll up their sleeves and dive into the hearty fare. Given the time, it was no surprise that our waitress seemed to be running on autopilot—efficient, but not very warm.
On Saturday nights, the kitchen stays open 24 hours, and guests who dine after midnight must choose from the over-night menu, a pared-down version (no kitschy dish names here) of the dinner menu that omits items like daily specials and frozen drinks.
It's hard not to love a place with a Kool-Aid of the Day ($2.50). This particular night, it was grape. While it might not be the most pedigreed of beverages, it fits with the menu and no-frills atmosphere. If you're familiar with the various grape flavored drinks on the market, you get the idea. Meanwhile, the complimentary cornbread was dry with a generic blandness that dashed any hope of actual corn taste.
As mentioned above, the thing to get here is the fried chicken, which is best showcased in the fried chicken with waffles ($9.75). You get your choice of dark or white meat and the option to smother it in an oregano-rich brown gravy. We opted for the gravy on the side, and it proved to be an ideal accompaniment to both chicken and waffle, adding savory depth. It even balanced nicely with the pieces that were drizzled with maple syrup. The skin of the bird has a substantial crunch, though it did separate from the breast meat, which itself was wonderfully moist throughout. The waffle deserves mention as well for its crisp texture and almost malty sweetness.
From the comprehensive sides ($4.50), cheesy grits were technically sound but lacked seasoning, while a pliant slab of baked macaroni & cheese was thick with cheddar and shined where the grits had failed. But perhaps the best of the bunch were the collard greens, which packed a perfect vinegar tang without being mucked down by overly aggressive porcine additives.
Dessert portions are substantial enough to defeat even Kathy YL Chan's sweet tooth. A generous slice of red velvet cake ($5) was crumbly while remaining decadent, but the frosting lacked enough cream cheese tang to deliver something extraordinary. The banana pudding ($3), on the other hand, is an exemplary rendition, thick as spackle and chock full of tropical fruit and nilla wafers both crunchy and soft.
More austere than nearby Sylvia's, there's an 18% gratuity added onto every check, which I thought was solely a facet of the late night menu as a way of ensuring tips from intoxicated customers—but it turns out that the policy stands throughout. No one seems to care, however, as the late night crowds can attest.