Text and Photos: Sofia Verzbolovskis
Harlem has long been known for its incredible soul food and jazz music, but this Manhattan neighborhood (located between 110th and 155th Streets and spanning the island from east to west) is now becoming one of New York’s most diverse culinary regions.
Around 1920, following the arrival of African-American intellectuals, artists, and musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Josephine Baker and poet Langston Hughes, Harlem had its first revival and emerged as the cradle of an African-American artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater became cultural epicenters that are still legendary today. Talent was overflowing, the parties were to die for, and the rhythms unending. Jazz and blues music and important literary and artistic creations drove one of the most momentous periods in the history of this much-marginalized community. Decades later, during the 1970s and 80s, Harlem experienced difficult moments and became synonymous with crime and economic insecurity.
Now, as housing is being renovated and new shops, schools, and art galleries start to thrive, a wave of gentrification has hit the neighborhood. The architecture is a mixture of traditional brownstones, contemporary reinterpretations of the brownstone, and large modern buildings. This rapid cultural, social, and economic diversification has created an incredible fusion of cultures and traditions, from African-American and Senegalese to Puerto Rican and many others, which has in turn led to a new range of dining options for Harlem’s local community and visitors to this multifaceted area of New York.
Here are a few of my favorite places to eat in Harlem, outstanding not only because of their delicious and innovative food, but also for their place in the neighborhood’s history.
328 Malcolm X Blvd. New York, NY 10027
“Brazil, France, Liverpool, Israel, Spain, New York in the house!” sings a woman as she goes from table to table asking customers where they’re from. It’s “Gospel Sunday Brunch,” where you can enjoy typical southern food, such as friend chicken and waffles, macaroni and cheese, BBQ ribs, apple pie, and red velvet cake. Sylvia’s, named for its founder Sylvia Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food,” opened in 1962 and is now considered the heart of Harlem. Despite the restaurant’s success and popularity with tourists, it’s still a family business.
310 Lenox Ave. New York, NY 10027
If I had to recommend only one restaurant to represent the new Harlem’s confluence of cultures, it would have to be Red Rooster. Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster opened in 2010 and began mixing African-American culinary traditions with his own roots (Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but grew up in Sweden). Since then, this chef has become a celebrity in New York. He is revered by people in Harlem, as his restaurants create employment opportunities for the community. And then there’s the food! Helga’s Meatballs, inspired by his grandmother Helga, who taught him to cook, is one of the most popular dishes. Fried Yardbird, his take on fried chicken, is delicious and comes with roasted yams. And don’t miss the cornbread brought to the table as a starter: it’s spectacular! If you’re there for dinner, I recommend you go down to Ginny’s Supper Club in the basement, where you can enjoy Latin, jazz, blues, and many other kinds of music.
274 Lenox Ave. New York, NY 10027
Chaiwali is well-worth visiting, both for the food and the eclectic, quirky, and fun decor. Anita Trehan, born in New Delhi, India, opened Chaiwali –her first and only restaurant– in 2015, partly because she was looking for a place that could make authentic chai tea, instead of the diluted chai “lattes” you see on every corner in New York. Trehan considers food “the most important language used to forge perennial relationships” and this is what prompted her to open the place. The menu is varied: you can start with potato samosas and then have a delicious naanwich made from tandoori chicken. For vegetarians, I recommend the kale burger with a side of okra fries. And don’t forget to finish up with some chai. It’s a must!
341 St. Nicholas Ave. New York, NY 10027
If you’re in Harlem looking for a classic and delicious burger to eat while reading your book, or a place to just kick back, check out Maison Harlem. This restaurant was opened in 2013 by two Frenchmen: Samuel Thiam, who has lived in Harlem for more than fifteen years, and chef Romain Bonnans, from Toulouse. Maison Harlem is best known for its French dishes like the Croque Monsieur, the coq au vin, and the Couscous Royale, a typical Tunisian offering. A woman at the corner of the bar told me that Maison Harlem —which has an incredibly diverse customer base that ensures you will always have a memorable conversation or connection— is like her second home.
219 W. 116th St. New York, NY 10026
Safari, located on a street known as “Le Petit Senegal” for its many Senegalese shops, is the only Somali restaurant in New York. It opened in 2015 and became an immediate success. Somalia, on the eastern tip of Africa, was an Italian colony until 1941 and it is therefore quite common to be served a plate of spaghetti Bolognese for lunch or dinner. But this time I decided to try the Hilib Ari: roast goat with basmati rice and the so-called BizBaz sauce. I also tried the Chicken Suqaar: chicken marinated with ginger, peppers, paprika, turmeric, and other Somali spices. I finished the meal with a traditional Somali ginger-flavored coffee. The intriguing décor included a wooden wall with the Somali alphabet carved into it.
381 Lenox Ave. New York, NY 10027
Sushi Inoue opened its doors in July 2015 and was definitely an unexpected addition to the neighborhood. Surrounded by warehouses, churches, supermarkets, and Latino restaurants, Sushi Inoue seems a bit like a fish out of water; nobody would have expected to see a Japanese restaurant open on that corner, but it has been a great complement to the neighborhood. Chef Shinichi Inoue practiced the art of sushi for over twenty years in Japan before opening Sushi Inoue, his first restaurant. He’s become known for his “omakase,” a five-course meal with dishes chosen by the chef featuring fresh, carefully cut ingredients and excellent rice. In 2017, the prestigious Michelin Guide awarded the restaurant one star, making it the only restaurant in Harlem to have earned this celebrated recognition.
Finally, if you’re looking for a good espresso, I recommend three places that specialize in different types of coffee from around the world, from Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea to Latin America: Lenox Coffee (60 W. 129th St.), ACP Coffee (2286 Adam Clayton Powell), and, finally, Harlem Coffee (151 Lenox Ave.). All three shops grind the coffee on the premises and the aroma will hook you from across the street.