“There’s just something about crispy fried chicken – when I’m busy munchin’ and crunchin’ on a piece of it, every single thing in my world is perfect.” Theresa St.John
It was one of the very first restaurants friends insisted I visit when I planted my feet in Saratoga, during that hot, crazy Summer of 1994. I’ll be the first to admit it; Hattie’s™ Restaurant looked like such an unassuming little place, located on Phila Street. I was curious though, not really sure what the eatery’s constant buzz was about. Fried chicken and other Southern, home-style cooking? In upstate New York? Well, ummm, OK. Let’s try it.
There was something special about opening that creaky screen door, then taking those initial steps, into the charming dining room that lay just beyond. Hattie’s™ tables were arranged in a random way, some set against green and white brick walls, which were covered in framed photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings.
Others stood side-by-side in the room’s center. Each had been draped with colorful red or green checkerboard tablecloths. It was funny, how I found myself grasping for a happy, picnic-type memory, from the pages of my own childhood. Instantly, the place made me feel welcome, as if I’d made it back home for a visit.
The Early Years for Hattie Leopold Moseley
Hattie’s life began in Louisiana, born daughter to Harry and Lydia Gray. She was one of seven children, though orphaned shortly after her first cries, when her mother died during childbirth. With no actual record of her dramatic arrival into the world, all accounts destroyed in a 1910 fire, Hattie would later guesstimate her birthday to be sometime in 1900.
Enter Hattie Leopold, a local woman and loving wife of a rabbi. She ran a boarding house and had employed the infant’s mother as a cook. The woman had a big heart, and immediately decided to take both the child and father under her wing. Eventually the infant was named after Hattie, to honor a request Lydia had actually expressed, more than once, to her beloved employer and family.
This newly-melded unit lived in a small town known as Saint Francisville. It was located only 35-ish miles away from Baton Rouge, the political hub of Louisiana. Here, the youngster thrived. In fact, Hattie’s life was very different than it might have been, had her mother remained alive.
Because the Leopold’s entertained high-society often, Hattie learned how to interact with the white folk, despite being in the trenches of deep-seated hatred and racism known throughout the South. She respected everyone and was afraid of no one.
Hattie and Cooking
Under the careful teaching of Mrs. Leopold, she also became a talented cook. Eventually, Hattie left home and made her way to New Orleans, where she attended school for dressmaking, before she took off again, this time to visit her sister in Chicago. Once there, she became maid and cook for the A. E. Staley family, otherwise known as ‘The Starch King.’
She traveled with them, back and forth to Miami in the wintertime, and then on to Saratoga when the weather turned warm. After many years of working hard and saving her money, Hattie remained in Saratoga, opening her restaurant downtown, on the corner of Federal Street.
Saratoga Springs was busy, even in those days. Gambling was huge, and the colorful nightlife was entertaining, to say the least. With speakeasies, smoke-filled jazz clubs, and ladies of the evening, Hatties™ Chicken Shack remained open 24 hours a day, and her tables were always full, long after other places in town had closed for the night.
She was married to her 1st husband, William Moseley, by then. He owned a cigar shop and ran illegal numbers. At the same time, Federal Street continued to prove the perfect location for Hattie’s business, helping it thrive over the next 30 years.
The couple had no children of their own, so oftentimes the youth in the area became their family. Hattie employed many young people that weren’t able to find employment elsewhere. She also brought young wait staff up from the South, treating them like members of the household.
New Location, Same Finger-Lickin’ Chicken
In the years surrounding 1968, she suffered two huge blows, one emotional and the other professional. William died and the Urban Renewal movement made its way into the city, forcing Hattie to find another address for her business. She relocated to Phila Street, which was in close proximity to the race track.
This turned out to be a brilliant move, as people often wandered towards Phila Street for food and drink, after a day of heavy betting. The reputation of Hatties™ Chicken Shack grew and her larger-than-life personality remains part of the restaurant and location, even today.
Famous folks like Cab Calloway, scat singer and bandleader, who performed regularly with the Harlem’s Cotton Club, often sat at her tables. Jackie Robinson, a young man who broke the color barrier to become the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century enjoyed her fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread more than once.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” he once said. It makes you wonder if he was speaking of Hattie and her vibrant presence in Saratoga.
Because Hattie was known throughout Saratoga as a kind-hearted woman who treated every single person the same. She didn’t care if you were a king or a pauper. It didn’t matter if you were black or white. Either way, if you needed help, she was there to give it.
Woman of the Year
Hattie was a godsend to the down-and-out. Oftentimes, if one had lost a lot of money at the track, Hattie would take them in, feeding and housing said individual, until they were back on their feet.
“I just like to cook and make people happy,” Hattie was often heard saying. She went on to marry her 2nd husband, William Austin, a former prize fighter, then waiter/co-worker and Maître d at the restaurant. He spent years adoring his bride and enjoying the food business, until his death in 1997. As for Hattie, William was the last man she ever loved.
When Hattie was 88, she became the 2nd black woman to be named ‘Woman of the Year.’ When she passed away on August 23rd, 1998, the restaurant had long since changed hands. Still, the State of New York passed a resolution – “Mourning the death of Hattie Moseley-Austin, distinguished citizen.”
I sit in the corner of the library’s archival room today, researching her life-story. I rub my fingers over one of her menus. It’s from 1984. One page is in her strong handwriting. The specialty dessert that day was peach, cherry or blueberry cobbler, made by yours truly.
Man, I would’ve loved the chance to sit down, engaging in a nice long chat with Hattie over famous fried chicken and an unsweetened tea. Her serving of warm, Southern hospitality would have made my day, and then some.
There have been many quotes about Hatties™ Chicken Shack.
My personal favorite was said without fanfare, just like Hattie would have wanted.
“Hatties™ (legendary fried chicken.)” ~ National Geographic Traveler.