Leafing through back issues of The Amsterdam News at the Schomburg Library, I stumbled on a restaurant advertising section dated January 26, 1946. Many intriguing display ads evoked a bygone Harlem— the Swanky Bar and Grill (“You’ll really enjoy our delicious food”), Bob’s Lounge (offering “French Bar-B-Q” in a “South American Atmosphere”), Luxurious Lenox Rendezvous (“Strutting Sam, M.C.”), Poor Johns (“It’s Different”), Braddock Inn (“Laughs— Cocktails and Excellent Food”), Randolph’s Shangri-La (“The Glamour Spot on the Hill”), and Pete’s Creole Restaurant (“Home of Louisiana Gumbo”). Sadly, only one of the dozens of places is still extant— Well’s (2249 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, 234-0700), founded 60 years ago and reopened in 1992 after an eight-year lull.
Yet just north of the library and catty-corner from Harlem Hospital lurks a narrow café that is certainly as old. Singleton’s has a window plastered with emphatic plastic signs offering deals on breakfast, lunch, and Thanksgiving dinner. Inside is a cramped lunch counter with five stools that never seem to be occupied, and a carryout window that sees most of the action. The rear dining room is paneled and dimly lit by tulip lamps dangling from the ceiling; purple-shrouded tables and mirrors stenciled with crazy red squiggles lend a shabby elegance. Visible over a high counter, a kitchen runs the length of the dining room, allowing you to see only the chefs’ heads. The harangue of a radio evangelist drifts over the partition, peppered with words like “tabernacle” and “plowshares.”
With no concessions to modern eating habits, Singleton’s offers the unreconstructed fare of the Deep South. There are no hamburgers or balsamic-drenched salads, and there’s plenty that won’t find favor with modern nutritionists— pig tail stew, chitterlings, hog maws, and a rollicking combo of pig ears and feet— legacy of the recipes once invented to turn porcine scraps into culinary gold. The amazing $3.95 lunch rarely features any of these, but offers a good selection of soul food’s greatest hits, served in generous portions with two sides and a piping hot loaf of cornbread.
The Carolina-style “chopped bar-bq pork” ($7.95 at dinner) covers amorphous chunks— some chewy, some tender— in a delicious vinegary glaze. Two to an order, the salmon croquettes are church-lady style, nicely browned with a high ratio of fish to filler and a seldom seen scatter of crunchy vertebrae. After trying both fried and smothered chicken ($6.95), I’m unable to decide between them— the former sporting the lightest possible dusting of flour and fried to order, the latter drenched in a mellow gravy. Smothered beef ribs were a foot-long pair of bones barely clinging to lean hunks of meat textured like corned beef. And a dense meatloaf nearly blackened by long cooking almost stole the show.
The made-from-scratch sides are similarly distinguished. The particularly good coleslaw supplements shredded cabbage with carrots, onions, celery, and flecks of scallion in a mayo dressing. Full-flavored collards and smoky black-eyed peas merit mention, as do orange-scented yams not cloyingly sweet— the raw materials of all three originated in Africa. The only bummers: cheese-deficient baked macaroni and french fries pale as a dead man’s fingers. To wash it all down, pick the excellent homemade lemonade ($1).
In a neighborhood increasingly colonized by franchises— including a McDonald’s absurdly located right on the premises of Harlem Hospital— it’s a pleasure to step through the door of Singleton’s into Harlem’s much tastier past.