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DOFL: Hattie’s Restaurant & Chicken Shack

April 24, 2013

Well, Dining Out For Life is already tomorrow. Man, where did the time go? I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks visiting a small handful of participating restaurants around the region and talking with some of the people behind the scenes. Hopefully it’s been interesting for you. It’s been absolutely fascinating for me.

My plan for tomorrow is to have lunch at Mingle with Little Miss Fussy (mental note: call ahead to make sure there’s actually room for two) and then dinner at City Beer Hall with All Over Albany. It will be a lot of food, but it’s for a good cause.

Today I should really probably be reminding you all to check out the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 4.0 and vote in the TU’s online poll that closes at noon tomorrow. TOMORROW! But instead I’m going to share the juicy bits of my conversation with the owner of a Saratoga institution that is also participating in the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York’s event tomorrow.

First, I’ll offer a confession. In the six years I’ve lived in the region, I have never been to Hattie’s.

Beth Alexander didn’t seem to hold it against me. She’s been meaning to get down to Albany and try New World Bistro Bar for years with no avail. Plus she really wants to take her chef-husband Jasper to The Bears steakhouse, but hasn’t been able to find the time.

While chef Jasper is from the south, Winston-Salem to be precise, Beth grew up in Niskayuna and coming to Saratoga Springs was a big deal. “When I was younger I did meet Miss Hattie,” she told me, “We came here occasionally for dinner, but I never worked for her. I didn’t know her. I wish I did. I wish I did.”

Beth would later come to work at the restaurant under its second owner Christel MacLean as a manager. And fantasized about owning a place like Hattie’s, but it seemed an impossibility at the time.

Jasper attended the CIA and worked in some amazing kitchens, including Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Aureole. Then in Seattle he found himself at Restaurant Zoe, Ponti Seafood Grill and Axis Restaurants.

Flash forward to 2001. As Beth explains, “When Christel wanted to sell it, she sought us out, because she wanted somebody who worked at Hattie’s, understood the nuances of owning history not just a restaurant, and the fact that it needed a chef owner. That’s how we purchased Hattie’s. And we moved back from Seattle. And everything just fell into place.”

Today, Jasper and Beth are the third owners of this storied local institution. So what does a CIA-trained fine dining chef do with a southern fried chicken joint?

“The thing we did with the menu was, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ There are certain things that have to stay. There’s the fried chicken obviously. What we did is we added some things. We added the Mac & Cheese, we added Chicken & Dumplings, we added jerk chicken. We kept true to the menu that Miss Hattie had, and just elaborated on it. And it’s worked. You know, it’s a treasure. People are very serious about Hattie’s. And you don’t want to really mess with what’s here.”

What’s remarkable is that this small old restaurant really does have an impressive national reputation.

“It is not officially a landmark, however, it is a landmark in the minds of many. And the woman at the visitors center says the two questions she gets asked the most are, ‘Where’s the track?’ and ‘Where’s Hattie’s?’ And with us being on the Throwdown with Bobby Flay, that also brought us to the forefront. And people were like, ‘Well, we’ve got to go to this restaurant.’”

Actually, this is one of the reasons I’ve never been. I don’t like crowds. And hearing Beth talk about the crush of people they get during the season totally reinforces that concern. “It’s a high volume restaurant in the summer. I’m on a two and half hour wait. I’ve got a line out the door at 4:30. I’ve got to get them in and turn them. People want to eat here.”

If the sheer force of getting bodies through the door wasn’t a big enough challenge on it’s own, Beth reveals the challenge of cooking in an old restaurant, “Our kitchen is really small. We have two fryers. What they do with those two fryers when we’re doing 500 dinners in the summer out of that teeny tiny kitchen is nothing short of miraculous.”

The good news is that you can get Hattie’s fried chicken now at a variety of places. The first expansion came at the track, and was more popular than the Alexanders had ever dreamed. Jasper’s fried chicken sandwich, which is simply a roll, two fried boneless chicken thighs, and cole slaw, took on a life of its own.

While its small kitchen prevents the restaurant both from serving lunch and from adding this sandwich to the menu, these limits, coupled with the success of the sandwich, inspired the opening of Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Wilton. With more space they were able to add more fryers, including one which is entirely gluten free for a gluten free version of their fried chicken.

Both the Chicken Shack in Wilton and the Restaurant in Saratoga Springs are participating in the Dining Out For Life event.

Beth was really impressed with the fact that the money collected goes to support programming and not overhead. She remarks, “That’s why we do Dining Out For Life. We’ve done it since they started. And this is one of the ones I really believe in.” That’s in stark juxtaposition with other groups. Beth said adamantly that she, “Won’t do American Cancer Society, and you can quote me on that.” She did go on to qualify the statement, “I’m not saying that the American Cancer Society isn’t important, but I want to know how much of my money is going where.”

And I think that’s totally fair.

On Thursday, the doors of Hattie’s restaurant open at 5pm. There are no reservations, just come on in. And Beth says that if you have to wait, she has entertaining bartenders. Or if you are impatient, you can hop over to Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Wilton, which is open from 11am until 10pm.

And naturally, you should get the fried chicken. Hattie’s secret recipe beat Bobby Flay, after all. However, the only thing I was told about the recipe is that there is neither buttermilk nor brine. Well, and that Jasper’s cookbook will be out soon with the recipe.

That’s all for now. But Hattie’s does have some exciting things planned for later this summer. Have a great Dining Out For Life. And don’t forget to vote.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2013 11:02 am

    I too have never been to Hattie’s. it has been on my list for a very long time. Maybe this is the perfect opportunity to do two great things in one evening.

  2. April 24, 2013 12:57 pm

    I visited their casual, strip mall location in Wilton a couple weeks back and thought it was quite good and reasonably priced. It’s certainly nothing like the main Hattie’s in terms of ambiance and menu variety, but definitely worth checking out.

  3. Jabroni permalink
    April 27, 2013 2:04 am

    Never been to hatties downtown but the place in wilton seems like your run of the mill franchise “fast food” joint. Not impressed with the $8 6oz chicken sandwich either. I still wanna try the place on phila though. Im sure it will live up to its reputation.

  4. Kat permalink
    April 28, 2013 1:03 am

    Another great article! It must have been so fun to sit down with the amazing Beth Alexander! Jealous!!!

  5. April 28, 2013 9:09 am

    Disagree with those who say the Wilton branch is nothing special. These folks are serious about frying your chicken to order. In non-busy times you will have to wait because they don’t have a bunch of pieces sitting under a warmer. They even have a separate fryer for gluten-free.

    The sides on the other hand are totally ordinary. My consistent strategy is to get a sack of half-chickens, then serve at home with my own slaw and potato salad.

  6. christine permalink
    April 30, 2013 6:40 pm

    I am a Saratogian and I have been to both locations but will never go back to the downtown location because I had a bad experience. One August a few years ago, my husband’s work buddys decided to do a happy hour gathering. We decided on the patio at Hattie’s to start. There were about 8 of us and we ordered several appetizers and round after round of drinks. After being there about an hour, our waitress asked us when we would be ordering dinner. When we said we weren’t eating dinner she and another waitress or bus girl began to clear our table… even taking full drinks away while we sat there speechless.

    They never said a word, just dropped a check on the table. I get that August is busy and they want to fill a table (a large one at that) with people buying dinner but the way it was done was so unprofessional. And, our bill was fairly substantial… well over $100 as I remember and we paid for drinks we never got to finish or in some cases- even start. We all just got up and left after paying the bill and I have not set foot in there since.

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