OLD FLAMES — it all started with a matchbook! Our nostalgic look at Hell’s Kitchen’s history. Welcome to Jezebel…
It’s been called “a haven of beauty, almost like a little mini Oz,” but also “a corner on junkie ass 9th Avenue.” Described as “kinda like your grandmother’s house in that it made you cozy, but also kinda felt like a whorehouse at the same time,” and “as musical and memorable as Carnival in Rio,” but also “very elegant and gracious.” Few places can demand such lively and whimsical descriptions as this, and even fewer can do it for almost 25 years.
We’re talking about Jezebel, the legendary soul food restaurant that opened in 1983 at 630 9th Avenue, on the corner of W45th Street. The food was so widely acclaimed that, in a 1992 New York Times review, Bryan Miller said Jezebel had “the best soul food south of 110th Street (maybe above, too).”
Owned and operated by Alberta Wright, the restaurant was a staple of the New York dining scene for decades and lauded by virtually all who went there. As the face of the restaurant, Alberta would walk around and hang out with her guests, just as much a spectacle herself as the restaurant she had created.
“She was just fabulous, she had style, she was everything you’d expect a fairy godmother would be. I remember she would just walk around wearing and pulling off Issey Miyake like it was easy,” said Hell’s Kitchen local and Jezebel lover Rick Rodriguez. “You were in her house, and she was hosting you.”
The restaurant wasn’t solely known for its food. Having previously owned a vintage boutique on W72nd street and Columbus Avenue, also named Jezebel, Alberta was a master of design with an eye for presentation. “My mother was the consummate artist,” her son, actor Michael Wright, said, “she had a remarkable ability to weave every kind of variety of aesthetic beauty together. ”
Michael and Rick told stories of how she’d travel Europe in search of wonderful vintage, or go to Africa and buy beads to make a necklace. Rick remembers Alberta’s fondness for silk piano shawls, in particular the extra large ones with beaded fringes. She would hang them from the ceiling all around Jezebel or drape them over the tables and cover with glass like an art display to be admired. It was the kind of place, he said, where a woman would make a discreet inquiry about one of the shawls, and then $1,500 later she’d walk out with a smile, wearing it.
“What you really bought into was the magic of it,” said Rick, “there was an amazing fringed piano shawl on the Steinway piano, a fabulous crystal chandelier over it and an amazing candelabra on top of that. It had an international spin, a little from here a little from there, a little bric a little brac. That was really her gift, at her core she was an art director.”
Alberta hailed from the deep south outside of Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of sharecroppers, and Michael says she took inspiration from the large plantation homes that peppered her environment as a child.
“My grandmother would clean the plantation owners’ houses and my mother would visit their homes and she took that sensibility and filled up her space with all these marvelous gorgeous white linens all over the place. She got the idea of how rich, well-appointed Anglo Saxons lived. It was like a gracious southern plantation home, but it was run by one of the slaves, if you will,” Michael said.
One of the visual inspirations that she took from her childhood surroundings were courting swings. In the south, swings are often a major part of porch life, partially due to the climate and the cool relaxing breeze. They were also used as safe places for a watchful family to allow their daughter to meet a prospective suitor. And Alberta Wright loved them, so much so that she filled Jezebel with them. Hanging from the ceilings on embellished chains, courting swings were placed beside some of the tables to act as seating, and they were a hit.
W42ST reader, Greg, recalls his visits very fondly. “First time I went I took Stella Parton, Dolly’s sister, and she loved the swing!! I was hooked on the place.” Another reader has a less fond memory: “I fell off and twisted my ankle! But it was such an amazing spot…the BEST okra and fried chicken.” Food photographer Robin Riley remembers being “happily drunk on a porch swing” after a day at the museum. Local pharmacy owner Steve Kaufman knew Alberta well and said “We celebrated my wife’s 40th birthday there. Alberta made it such a special night. My wife loved sitting on the swings at the table. We also met Chris Rock that same day.”
As far as celebrities go, Jezebel was no stranger to them. “Every person that you could believe came through those doors; sports figures, politicians,” Michael said, “Stevie Wonder was there often, I also met Mohammed Ali and we talked about his sexcapades. Hillary Clinton had a couple of receptions there. She loved the place, she loved my mother, and consequently, we were invited to the White House. So my mother and I drove in a limousine to Washington DC to eat dinner with the Clintons. She [Alberta] was just that kind of woman. It was the entire presentation, it was what you smelled, what you saw, and what you heard that made it a great dining experience. That’s what dining is and what it should be, and she would turn it into that.”
Rita Ewing, the former wife of Knicks player Patrick Ewing and owner of Massage Envy Midtown West, recalls Alberta’s “warm creole soulfulness” and how she and a slew of other women would swoon over Michael, who was the Jezebel host at the time. “It became a Knicks post-home game ritual for the players to show up at the restaurant with players from the opposing team — like Scottie Pippen from the Bulls used to come there with us. Most often, the celebrities who sat courtside would also end up at Jezebel post-game too, so it was definitely a Who’s Who. The food was so good that I recall once (shamefully) asking for the complimentary cornbread basket to go.”
Alberta knew that to have a legendary restaurant in New York you needed to create two things, a feeling of comfort and a feeling of exclusivity. She fell in love with the location because of the grunginess and humility of Hell’s Kitchen, and wanted to pair that with the adventure of finding a secret spot. With plants and scarves covering the windows, you were cocooned inside her world.
“It was such a magical place from the moment one walked through the door — if one could actually FIND the front door,” recalled Anne Davis, a former waitress at the restaurant. “We would get calls all the time asking where the restaurant was, since there was only one very small plaque on the front. People would call from right outside not knowing they were standing right in front.“ Mark Fable, who grew up across the street at Poseidon Bakery and is the son of owner Lili Fable, had a similar experience. “I think I was asked at least 500 times ‘do you know where Jezebel is?’ Sometimes standing right in front of the restaurant.”
“If you were at the corner you would never know what was inside at all, it could have been a grocery store,” said William Castiglione, who remembered going there with his boss and filling his pockets with Mary Janes, the peanut butter taffy candy that Alberta had scattered throughout the restaurant in immaculate glass trays. “It was so massive but it somehow managed to feel so small, you always had your privacy.”
The restaurant was so successful that it spawned a second Jezebel location in the early 1990’s — in Paris, where Alberta had spent a lot of time. Closer to home, however, she opened up Piece of Chicken in the side kitchen of Jezebel to offer cheap and easy, but still delicious, chicken to go.
Even though it was just a tiny little window and an awning, it was just as popular. Rick Rodriguez remembers one hot summer day seeing Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin in a long line waiting to get chicken.
Zachary Schmahl, owner of Schmackary’s, recalls the line forming around the block at Piece of Chicken. They closed just as he started selling cookies out of his apartment on W49th Street. Zachary said: “I saw the vacant storefront and thought to myself, ‘That would be a perfect location for Schmackary’s!’ Who knew about 8 months later I would be opening in that very spot and soon have my own line forming outside the store?”
Zachary discovered one of the “secrets” of Piece of Chicken was a vent “which pushed the fresh smell of fried chicken out for the masses to enjoy,” he recalls. “I remember smelling that chicken for blocks.”
When Schmackary’s took over the shop, Zachary added, “We spent a few weeks scraping years worth of grease stalactites from the ceiling. The one thing we were able to salvage and repurpose was the giant hood in the kitchen. I actually loved the idea of venting the smell out to the street, so we upgraded their vent — and instead of fried chicken filling the corner of W45th & 9th, it was replaced by the sweet smell of cookies.”
Sadly, Jezebel closed in 2007 and Piece of Chicken in 2010, but Alberta’s workers think back on that time fondly. Former waitress Anne Davis recalls: “Every night after closing we were allowed a drink. We’d sit there counting out our take for the night while enjoying free drinks. Then I’d head home and stop off every night at Westway Diner to pick up an order of fries (I guess to soak up the alcohol).” Shareef Jenkins, who worked at Jezebel in its final year said “Ms. Alberta was beyond loving and caring and made everyone a part of the family. It felt very much like working at your grandmother’s house.”
After the restaurant closed, abstract artist Duane Bousfield loved the restaurant so much that he decided to purchase his own little memento. “They had a sale of all their southern charms, so I got some carnival glass and a couple of vases. I also got a Mint Julep cocktail pitcher set that I gave it to my downstairs neighbors. It was a dream world in there.”
Alberta’s legacy lives on as one of America’s first black female restaurateurs, and one of the first to take an upscale twist to traditional southern food. She paved the way for restaurants like former Hell’s Kitchen staple B Smith’s, and Harlem’s renowned Red Rooster. In his 2020 book The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, Marcus Samuellson, the Ethiopian-Swedish chef said, “There are so many Albertas out there, a whole lineage of Black queens who won’t be told what they can’t do — they are charming, hardworking, talented — even if most of them don’t get acknowledged. I was very lucky to have Alberta as a mentor. In fact, I wouldn’t be in Harlem without her.”
“One day towards the end,” Shareef Jenkins said, “twenty of the most famous black actors, like Danny Glover and Samuel L. Jackson, came in for brunch because of the love they had for Ms. Alberta. I realized at that moment, with all the hugs and talk of how to keep the place going, how important and needed and historical and magical Jezebel was.“
Jezebel’s space became 5 Napkin Burger. At the time, Robert Guarino (who now oversees 5 Napkin Burger, Nizza and Marseille on 9th Avenue) was a neighbor. He told us: “I had the privilege of getting to know Alberta in the 10 years after we opened Marseille. It was a pleasure to be neighbors and friends. Alberta was a true Hell’s Kitchen original. What I remember most was her fantastic sense of humor. Alberta was one of the true pioneers who made HK what it is today.”
Her son, Michael still lives down the street and says his mother was his best friend and biggest inspiration. They traveled the world together, from Bali to Belize. When she decided to open a restaurant in Paris, he joined her. “She was the greatest woman I ever knew,” he said. “She was, as the French say, le grande dame. She was the Pavlova of restaurateurs. She was magical.”