Charles Gabriel is a New York City treasure. Although born and raised in rural North Carolina (along with his 20 brothers and sisters), Charlie, as everyone calls him, moved here in 1965. Over the decades he has emerged as a Harlem icon. He first started at the legendary Copeland's, where he stayed for more than 20 years, then he moved on to a sidewalk stand, a food truck, and two iterations of his namesake restaurant.

And it's not just that Charlie makes some of the best fried chicken you'll ever eat—though his bird certainly is exactly that—it's also that the man, even at the age of 73, is a presence, still personally manning those massive cast iron skillets for his signature dish, day in and day out, the center of an ever-changing community.

True to form, Charles Pan Fried Chicken has stayed open for takeout and delivery throughout the entire pandemic, and Charlie told Gothamist he's "grateful that me and my family have all been keeping safe and healthy." But that doesn't mean he's not struggling. "I'm just barely surviving," he said. "Doing less than half the business than what I usually do. I had somebody working on getting a PPP loan, but haven't heard back yet."

The spread of all the dishes

The park bench picnic spread

arrow
The park bench picnic spread
Scott Lynch / Gothamist

Last week I biked up to Harlem for one of his spreads, the first time I had been in a couple of years, and am pleased to report that everything was as delicious as always. Maybe even more so. The Pan Fried Chicken was the star, of course, perfectly seasoned with Charlie's secret blend and delivering the exact right balance between juicy, meaty insides and slightly crisp, slightly chewy outsides. If his shop was right down the block from me, I'd probably eat this chicken two or three times a week.

Charlie usually has at least one other entree available, and when I went it was Smothered Pork Chops, which featured tender, almost falling-apart pig all but drowning in a thick gravy. Each main dish came with a hunk of Charlie's first-rate Corn Bread as well as two additional sides, all of which, by the way, are vegetarian. And so half-pint plastic containers filled with excellent Collard Greens, Okra, Macaroni and Cheese, and Black Eyed Peas joined my park-bench party, held about a mile south on the shores of Central Park's Harlem Meer. This is a highly recommended summertime activity.

Like everyone, Charlie feels frustrated by the shutdown. "You can't go nowhere!" he says. "It's just go to work, then go home, same thing every day." And with his dining room closed, he sees far fewer destination diners making the trip for his famous chicken. "I miss having people come in and sit down. I miss talking to everyone. We used to get a lot more white folks coming up to eat here. Now the only ones I have are people from the block."

That said, Charlie isn't quitting anytime soon. "I'm going to try my best, and will hang on as long as I can. As long as I can pay the rent, I'll be here."

Charles Pan Fried Chicken is located at 2461 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, at West 132nd Street, and is open daily for takeout and delivery from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. (212-281-1800)