Perhaps because we share the same first name and middle initial, I’m a longtime fan of Langston Hughes’s Jesse B. Semple. I’ve savored his homespun philosophy, recalled moments from the 1950s version of Simply Heaven, and dreamed of frequenting the kind of Harlem spot where an aging hipster would sit on a stool and talk trash with all comers as regulars compared notes on the antics of the resident floozy. Too young to enjoy the rakish style of the Savoy, too tired to favor the late hours of Wells, and too timid to hunker down at the Red Rooster, now I’m mature enough to have the blues for Harlem’s past. So I was thrilled when late one evening, following a fundraiser for the fledgling Harlem Historical Society, a crowd of new friends dragged me to the already legendary Flash Inn.
Located across the bridge from Yankee Stadium, it’s a spot where Harlem’s present meets its past. The box was playing mellow r&b and the bar crowd had enough sparkle and sass to evoke the glory days. The dining room boasted crisp white tablecloths and a staff that organized a postmidnight table for 10 without breaking a sweat. I was surprised that nary a collard green was to be seen, and wondered what Simple, never averse to self-improvement on his own terms, would have thought—the food is Italian, and entrées cross the $20 border. But the denizens of Harlem present happily nibbled on fried calamari ($6.50) and zucchini batonnets ($7.50). My main was lamb chops ($22.50): six fork-tender pink riblets with just enough crisp fat for prime gnawing. Around me an opera diva and a stockbroker extraordinaire made the fried shrimp and steak disappear.
I was back a month later, armed with more information—a colleague had regaled me with tales of her mother’s glory days at the spot, when the Flash was a second dugout for ballplayers who would appear to dine and hoist a few. Nat Cole was roasting chestnuts on the box and small live Christmas trees decorated each table. My friend was greeted by the waiter and a Rubenesque lady in a leopard-print jumpsuit who was a ringer for Hughes’s Zarita. Regulars were table hopping, exchanging drinks and holiday greetings, and the place seemed more like a club than ever. A revised menu encouraged anyone to order what formerly only the cognoscenti knew was in the kitchen.
The calamari provided another satisfying hit of a tomato sauce accented with oregano and cayenne. A toothsome duck breast ($8.95) arrived topped with a dusting of black pepper, fanned out on a bed of mesclun, and set off by the surprising sweetness of a hoisin-based sauce. Granted, my friend’s surf and turf lacked wow, but when I tried to order light, I ended up finishing off a huge portion of penne puttanesca ($13.50) in a spicy tomato ragù with a hint of anchovy. We’d no sooner sampled our mains when the Flash reconfirmed its clublike nature—soon the Schomburg’s head was tucking into a massive serving of garlic-infused pork loin beside us. Dessert was out of the question—especially since I wanted to leave a reason to come back yet again.