A Harlem mainstay, this jazz supper club was founded by saxophonist Henry Minton in the 1930s. It quickly gained popularity among local jazz artists as a place where they could not only perform their music and experiment freely, but also indulge in a heaping plate of soul food — on the house.
Minton’s house band was impressive enough on its own, led by the renowned Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. Yet its regular performers were just as acclaimed, including musical greats from Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker. The creative improvisations of the band and the star-studded string of visiting artists gave way to a new style known as bebop in the 1940s and helped develop the sounds and methods of modern jazz.
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during a walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events. The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I'd had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures — including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams — to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone. The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother. This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles — and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
After I had been sitting for a while by the window in the front room drowned in red floral prints and warm smells, Amanda, the young lady serving customers behind the counter, led me through the red door into the kitchen. Lee, his son, and another employee stood together, working to finish another tray of Rugelach. There was an unglazed chocolate cake beckoning like a temptress from a table nearby, the scent of apricot and dough about to be baked filled the air, while the whirring of the freezers echoed in the background. "This is where the magic happens, " Amanda declared. Well, after tasting several of Lee Lee's famous Rugelach – a Jewish flaky pastry dough rolled and filled with a variety of fillings including nuts, chocolate and jams - I can confidently state that there is magic involved. Alvin Lee Smalls came to New York from South Carolina when he was twenty years old in 1962 and found himself working in the kitchen, of New York Presbyterian Hospital, peeling onions. He remained there for many years, learning the ins and outs of the kitchen and cultivating a love for cooking that would carry him through much of his life. While speaking with Lee, I learned that it was on Christmas day in 1987 that he decided to bake Rugelach for the people at the hospital from a recipe he had found in the newspaper. Lee's take on Rugelach was met with wild approval from his co-workers, and his destiny has been tied to the pastry ever since. In 2016, Lee proudly told me that he makes about 700 Rugelach a day and even more for the Jewish holidays, when he works around the clock to supply his customers with his delicious desserts, all made by hand, all made with love. In addition to the Rugelach, the bakery offers incredible cakes, danish, and cookies. I sat with Lee for quite some time listening to his stories, while also observing the steady flow of customers that continued to march in and out of the screen door. Some were regulars who Lee greeted warmly, while another astounded me by saying that despite living in the neighborhood for years, she had never bothered to drop in. After sampling some of Lee's Rugelach, however, she announced, emphatically, that she would definitely be back. "People are just so surprised that this black man makes Jewish pastries! " Amanda told me. "I love sweet, " Lee said and added a piece of advice to live by, "but if you're going to eat something sweet, eat the good stuff. "