Harlem’s Restaurant Renaissance Blends Community and Conscientious Capitalism


Blink for too long in New York, and when you reopen your eyes, you might find a different city. So much constant flux on one small island inevitably alters the way a city looks, sounds, and tastes. But what is gained in progress is often lost in culture. Long-time locals bemoan New York’s disappearing heritage and the history set aside for rampant economic growth.

In the last decade, Harlem has experienced a business renaissance, bringing a mixture of restaurants whose enticing dishes beckon downtowners toward uptown. This phenomenon has happened throughout New York for years: Gentrification seeps in, neighborhoods get displaced by expanding business, locals get priced out, and history gets erased. Still, walking through Harlem feels very different from walking through Williamsburg; in Harlem, the old coexists and thrives among the new.

Bars and restaurants are buzzing and busy in the evenings, and guests receive genuinely warm welcomes. That same warmth can be seen just before dinnertime, as parents walk their kids home from school and kitchens’ aromas fill the streets from Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Malcolm X Boulevard. The neighborhood smells delicious, and residents comment on it with excitement while gazing at restaurant menus. Long-term residents and new businesses have found harmony like a balanced Béchamel sauce — but like Béchamel, it takes consistent care, meticulous precision, and a committed cook.

Harlem Calling

The walls of Streetbird (2149 Frederick Douglass Boulevard; 212-206-2557) are decorated with carefully curated memorabilia that recall Harlem’s hip-hop history. It’s a feast for the eyes, with pendulum lamps made from cassette tapes and a statue of boomboxes. Renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson — born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden — has chosen Harlem as his home. He first opened Red Rooster (310 Malcolm X Boulevard; 212-792-9001) in 2010, bridging Harlem’s strong soul food cuisine with his international touch.

From the time he was young, Harlem has had a place in Samuelsson’s heart. “I heard about Harlem the first time when I was ten years old, from my parents,” he says. “Harlem has always been on my mind. I always aspired to understand the culture. In Sweden, we were taught a lot about African American culture, Harlem Renaissance poetry, the Apollo, music. Harlem being a center of black culture…that sends out a message to the diaspora of the world.”

Harlem has a deeply rooted culinary history, with Harlem’s most famous restaurant being one of the most famous American restaurants in the world: Sylvia’s (328 Malcolm X Boulevard; 212-996-0660). The restaurant opened on in 1962, under the leadership of owner Sylvia Woods.

In his forthcoming book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, Yale Professor Paul Freedman explains Sylvia’s importance, its iconic restaurateur, and a tale of resilience:

“The restaurant’s upward trajectory defied a long decline that seemed to define Harlem in the decades after the riots in the summer of 1964. For most of the late-twentieth century Harlem experienced housing decay and abandonment. The neighborhood was victimized by bank redlining, neglect from an often indifferent city government, and urban decay. Sylvia’s owed much of its success to the vivacious personality of its owner. Under her guidance, Sylvia’s became a meeting place for political, religious and community leaders.”

Along with political activism, Harlem is also known for its village-like feel and hospitality. Through the rush of the morning commute, residents stop to greet each other. Common in most other cities, these warm manners can be an anomaly in Manhattan.

Sylvia was from South Carolina and came to New York during the Great Migration, bringing her Southern hospitality with her. Her granddaughter Tren’ness Woods-Black describes her grandmother and her own experience growing up in Harlem: “My grandmother loved the energy she would get from the community. She always left the house dressed very well, greeted her neighbors, they would greet her back. The amazing stories of she and my granddad going to the various establishments, having a good time, enjoying music, food, and restaurants – that’s the Harlem I was told about as a child. I always thought of Harlem as a really magical place. I didn’t understand when I would answer the phone at the restaurant in the Eighties or early Nineties, and people would ask, ‘Is it safe?’ As I got older, I understood that things weren’t perfect. It was perfect for me. That’s the Harlem that I grew up with. Everyone knowing who you were and embracing that. I felt very safe.”

Sylvia’s combination of warmth and resilience radiates through Harlem, and that same strength and hospitality is what keeps the heritage alive with the advent of new businesses. The restaurateurs, along with other local entrepreneurs, have come together through the organization Harlem Park to Park (HP2P); as a collective that brings strength in numbers, they are able to preserve the culture as well as progress the commerce.

Culture Meets Commerce

Respect for the community and its history are common in all the restaurants participating in HP2P. While some restaurateurs are native Harlemites, all members of HP2P have made Harlem their permanent home, and setting down roots in a neighborhood is a testament to their commitment to it.

Anahi Angelone, originally from Argentina, owns Corner Social (321 Malcolm X Boulevard; 212-510-8552). She moved to Harlem when she was expecting her son and felt so embraced by the neighborhood, she chose to open her business there. As a resident, she noticed how Harlemites would talk about “going into the city” for nightlife, and she realized that the area lacked good hangout spots. This inspired her to open Corner Social, in 2012. The name explains itself: It’s on the corner, and it’s a great place to socialize. The venue combines downtown sleek and uptown comfort, with a backdrop of exposed brick wall that is quintessentially New York.

Once Angelone decided to open in Harlem, she immersed herself in the culture and the community, following local blogs and attending all the block meetings. “Trying to come in and do something completely different without understanding that we’re part of the community, [is not the right way to go],” she explains. “We are who we are here at Corner Social because of the community. We’re not separate. We’re completely one.” Last year, Angelone opened Angel of Harlem (2272 Frederick Douglass Boulevard; 212-316-0350), whose infrastructure is set up to give back to the neighborhood she feels has given her so much.

Harlem’s food scene now has global buzz — Red Rooster’s Swedish meatballs and Babbalucci‘s (331 Lenox Avenue; 646-918-6572) brick-oven pizza beckons foodies from around world. However, diners sometimes have the misconception that great food is new to Harlem.

Samuelsson — who might know as much about history as he does about sautéing — dishes on the diverse food culture. “East Harlem is by far the place to get the best Mexican street food in NYC. It’s a secret people know that live in Harlem, but maybe not outside Harlem,” Samuelsson reveals. “Of course, Southern cooking — fried chicken and collards was the epicenter of the core — but there are other dishes that happened at the churches or happening kitchens…like small food trucks before there were food trucks, small pop-ups before there were pop-ups. It was a very tight community of food and hospitality that was present. If you look at East Harlem, that was an area where you had large Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, now it’s mostly a Mexican community. So it’s still Latin at its core but its moved from a Mexican base to a Puerto Rican base. That changes the food. If I look at West Harlem, that has a big amount of West Africans: Senegalese, Mali, well that changes culture of the food.”

Native Harlemite, Leticia Skai Young owns the delicious and welcoming Lolo’s Seafood Shack (303 W. 116th Street; 646-649-3356) along with chef Raymond Zamanta Mohan of Guyana. Lolo’s Caribbean seafood fare, paired with the brightly painted wood, transports diners away from the city and off to an island with every crab cake bite. “Lolo” signifies a gathering place, the setting she sought to bring to her native neighborhood.

“We have purposefully made this restaurant very accessible for folks, and that’s been one of our main attributes,” Young says. “While that culture was always [in Harlem], it wasn’t really mirrored in the everyday places to go to and enjoy. When I first moved [back] here, after college, I was going downtown all the time, because there just wasn’t that much to do here. Now, it’s the complete opposite.”

Building business with respect for Harlem’s culture while fulfilling community needs is what Neal Shoemaker likes to hear. A local legend, Shoemaker founded Harlem Heritage in the late Nineties and has been giving historical walking tours ever since. He has encyclopedic knowledge of Harlem, sharing it with such passion that he leaves listeners spellbound. His mission statement when founding the walking tours was to support Harlem’s community and commerce through culture, arguing that it’s actually in businesses’ best interest.

“There is no culinary and there is no commerce without culture,” Shoemaker explains. “If I could do the same thing downtown that I could do uptown, then why come uptown? I’m coming uptown to Harlem to have a particular experience, and I want to taste something through that. Our goal has always been to use tourism to drive the economy and preserve culture. Through food, you can do that.” Shoemaker now gives walking-tasting tours, guiding pedestrians through the historical sights of Harlem and stopping for bites to savor because “taste buds are cultural receptors.”

HP2P makes sure that heritage preservation is front and center for business enterprises. Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, HP2P’s executive director and a founding member, explains the inspiration behind HP2P and the reason behind their success. “Cultural preservation is not usually a priority. Real estate often drives how these neighborhoods evolve. The stakeholders in the community have to decide early on that they’re going to organize and be advocates of that very thing. Most neighborhoods don’t seem to understand that. They think it’s going to happen on its own. And it’s not. You have to be an active participant,” she explains. “Here in Harlem, specifically…this is such a jewel in New York City. Globally, it’s one of the most recognized neighborhoods around the world, because of its historic significance. So for us, it is imperative that we preserve that. Harlem should never lose that charm.”

At the same time, Evans-Hendricks welcomes the positive aspects of the progress. “You want to embrace growth. No one wanted the neighborhood to stay exactly the way it was, because, quite frankly, we didn’t have a lot of the amenities and services we needed,” she says. “Above 96th Street, there had just not been any love and care put into it. We knew we needed to encourage that growth in the neighborhood, but you can do it in a very socially responsible way, which is what we’re about. Harlem Park to Park is a social enterprise.” With a new Whole Foods coming to 125th Street, HP2P, is “steering” the change to the area’s benefit by partnering with the grocery store and identifying local vendors who could sell products in not only the Harlem store, but other Whole Foods locations as well.

Economic Effects on the Neighborhood

Luckily, with more businesses coming into the neighborhood, that means there are more local jobs. At Lido (2168 Frederick Douglass Boulevard; 646-490-8575) an Italian-inspired restaurant under the direction of chef Serena Bass — nearly all the employees live within a ten-block radius. Shoemaker points out that at the restaurants, “The lines are long. People are coming. Cash registers are ringing. Those foreign dollars are going into a local person’s pocket.”

However, with economic growth comes the risk of pricing out locals. HP2P is very vigilant about this, and the restaurants aim to resolve this by providing lunch specials, price-scaled options on their menus, and discounted restaurant week events. Chef Brian Washington Palmer saw a need for families to get affordable meals regularly and answered that need with his popular and accessible hot spot, Sexy Taco/Dirty Cash (161 Malcolm X Boulevard; 212-280-4700), where meals are usually under $15.

Manhattan’s infamously aggressive real estate market is also an imminent concern for HP2P. The organization keeps real estate developers close, inviting them to be members and laying out strategies that are mutually beneficial. Evans-Hendricks reaches “across the aisle,” trying to avoid the common attitude that real estate people are inherently bad.

Connecting with conscientious brokers is key. “You’ve got to find those people, because they have the ability to take the market in one direction or another,” Evans-Hendricks says. “And that’s really the best we can do, because at the end of the day, it’s real estate in New York City. There is no stopping the momentum.” She also reminds real estate developers that keeping Harlem unique is what makes the neighborhood a viable long-term investment, rather than a short-term one.

Creating Community

If food is indeed love, then the relationship between chef and eater is a healthy romance. Chef Andrew LoPresto, owner of Babbalucci pizzeria, puts giving back first and foremost, and he does so by breaking garlic bread with his neighbors. A native New Yorker, LoPresto grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, and took karate classes at the National Black Theatre in Harlem as a child. LoPresto runs Babbalucci with his wife and his father, and the trio constantly brainstorms for ways to help the community. Last Thanksgiving, Babbalucci’s worked with Harlem Grown, Fairway, and Lenox Saphire (341 Lenox Avenue; 212-866-9700) to roast 60 turkeys and feed 700 women and children in need.

Strolling along Frederick Douglass Boulevard, pedestrians will stumble upon the effortlessly chic Vinateria (2211 Frederick Douglass Boulevard; 212-662-8462), where imbibers can find craft cocktails to match any in the city, unique wines by the glass, and house-made pasta. Owner Yvette Leeper-Bueno’s father came from the South, her mom came from Jamaica, and the pair met in Harlem. Leeper-Bueno was raised on the Upper West Side, but her grandmother lived in Harlem, and Leeper-Bueno now lives there with her family. And as if a perfect bowl of lamb ragu pappardelle weren’t enough to feed the soul, Leeper-Bueno’s husband, Adrian, co-founded the mindfulness-and-meditation community center Mindful Harlem. The nonprofit acts as a safe haven, with some donation-based classes, making the experience affordable to all.

Manhattan institution Levain Bakery (2167 Frederick Douglass Boulevard; 646-455-0952) moved its headquarters to a Harlem location in 2009. In addition to delighting hearts and bellies with their famously delicious cookies, Levain also helps local pets. The bakery has become an unofficial meeting ground for locals to help re-home abandoned cats and dogs.

Harlem and its restaurants have long since been a breeding ground for musicians, artists, and poets. Ginny’s Supper Club (310 Malcolm X Boulevard; 212-421-3821) and Minton’s (206 West 118th Street; 212-243-2222) provide a space for musicians to perform, a vibrant ode to the area’s musical history…and sometimes, the musicians also take part in the food. This year, hip-hop artist Jarobi White banded together with Samuelson to create special menu items for Streetbird. Restaurant walls also double as an art gallery, with Corner Social and Babbalucci displaying artwork with links to Harlem. At the Studio Museum Harlem — a renowned space that spotlights contemporary African-American artists — the current exhibit, “Palatable,” offers visual commentary on food and its cultural, racial, political, and socioeconomic implications.

Above all, local pride trumps all. By inviting non-Harlemites to the neighborhood, the community gets to share its food and culture with a wider audience. The paradigm of this sharing attitude culminates in the now-annual Harlem EatUP! Festival, which brought 11,000 visitors from the neighborhood and beyond.

“It’s not only for us to enjoy,” Young explains. “We get to share the culture that Harlem was always known for. That’s a huge thing for Harlem to be able to share its influence with the world.”

Although Sylvia Woods passed away in 2012, she saw the effect of her fortitude and the restaurant legacy she had inspired. Woods-Black describes her grandmother’s feelings on Harlem’s restaurant renaissance:  “My grandmother was really very happy with the world recognizing that her beloved Harlem was a gem that needed to be invested in and loved on. She had many opportunities to leave Harlem and go downtown, to go midtown. She was adamant about staying.”

This year’s Harlem EatUP! Festival takes place from May 19-22. Find out more information at the Harlem EatUP! website