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manhattan guide part 1: harlem {UPDATE}

by Grace Bonney

Photo Credit: Camilo Jose Vergara

Today’s Harlem City Guide update is from original writer Melinda Lewis, a born, bred and buttered Harlemite and founder of the lifestyle blog Get Togetha and the visual blog Harlem Collective. Today Melinda shares her suggestions on where to eat, shop and drink in Harlem, so have your MetroCards ready. Thanks for such a great update, Melinda! — Stephanie

Read the full guide after the jump . . .

You can’t have a conversation about the cultural diversity of Manhattan without including the village of Harlem. Harlem, simply put, is music, food and more food and the repository of a rich historical legacy. It’s been three years since my last Harlem City Guide, and needless to say, Harlem has exploded in OMG culinary talent, and I dare say it’s developed a formidable nightlife. The best part of Harlem is simply taking in its energetic atmosphere and landscape. You will see and experience people from all walks of life, and there’s never a dull moment; you will have a time.

Image above via Chic Travelor


Sylvia’s: Sylvia’s is Harlem Food Royalty. Their traditional Soul Food Cuisine is solid, but I highly recommend their brunch: homemade biscuits, salmon cakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice and buttery grits. Happiness!

Red Rooster: Chef Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster is the hot-ticket on Harlem’s Lenox Avenue. The Red Rooster is upscale American comfort food influenced by local and international food traditions around the world. The Red Rooster’s strength is its vibrant atmosphere and bar scene: live music, eclectic cocktails and people from all walks of life. Make reservations. Now.

Mobay Uptown: Mobay features casual chic Caribbean Soul Food dining. Recommended: Jerk Salmon, Oxtails, Coconut Shrimp, Smoked Collards (some of the best in town) and their Caribbean Rum Punch.

Chez Lucienne: I come to Chez Lucienne when I’m craving mussels in white wine sauce and fries. Chez Lucienne is quality neighborhood French bistro fare, and their attentive service makes you feel super special.

Amy Ruth’s: Amy Ruth’s is a hands-down old-school soul-food joint with lip-smacking variations of Harlem’s signature dish: chicken and waffles. Their Smothered Pork Chops & Fried Okra is killer, as well.

Bier International: If you love beer, this is the place to be. Bier has mouth-watering casual plates and more than reasonable prices. Recommended: strawberry beer, parmesan truffle fries and their pineapple smoked chipotle guacamole.

Covo Trattoria: Fuss free and hands down the freshest Italian food in Harlem. Recommended: The Grilled Calamari over Arugula and the Lobster Ravioli.

Image above via NYCGO

Zoma: Two Words: Honey Wine. Oh. And the traditional Ethiopian cuisine? Flavor beyond your imagination.

5 and Diamond: American Nouveau and a rotating menu of Spanish-inflected comfort food. Their brunch menu is perfection. Recommended: short ribs, mac & cheese and the lamb ragout.

Melba’s: Melba is the niece of the Godmother of Soul Food Sylvia, so the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Eggnog waffles, smatterings of strawberry butter, cheese grits and mango sangria = Heaven.

Dinosaur Barbecue: Dinosaur barbecue is smoky-meat heaven and has consistently good barbecue. There is almost always a wait, but it is always — and I mean always — worth your time. Get a drink and come hungry.

Sette Panni: A perfect light brunch and latte spot for lazy Sunday afternoons of lounging on Lenox Avenue.

Uptown Juice Bar: We are meat lovers here in Harlem, but the Caribbean-flavor-inspired Uptown Juice Bar gives the vegetarian life. Recommended: vegetable stir-fry, stew chic peas and a shot of fresh pressed wheatgrass.

Island Salad: This groovy Caribbean inspired make it your way salad bar is a healthy Harlem eating option. The menu choices are plenty; the prices super reasonable. Recommended: Fish Taco Salad or the Jerk Salad.

Sweet Tooth

Make My Cake: The owner of Make My Cake reigns as New York’s Red Velvet Cupcake Queen. Nuff said.

Tonni’s Minis: A make-it-your-way specialty cupcake shop full of yummy, sugary goodness.

Levain Bakery: I was initially skeptical about a $4 cookie, but I have only one word: Bliss. See for yourself.

Image via New York Times

Bars & Wine

Auberge Laurent: Fabulous Moroccan decor nestled on the ground floor of a Lenox Avenue brownstone, this wine bar is quaint, cozy and comfy with equally great cheese pairings and awesome spinach dip.

67 Orange Street: This Prohibition-era-inspired gem offers specialty cocktails and gets its cool name from a forgotten and unexplored part of African American history. Great ambience and perfect for an intimate night out.

Harlem Tavern: This is the place to be if you are a lover of beer and sport. The Tavern is spacious, so bring lots of friends to root on the Knicks. Recommended: the Lamb Pesto Burger & Sweet Potato Fries.

XYZ Bar/Hotel Aloft: If you want to avoid crowds, come to the chill, sexy and modern XYZ lounge. The decor is chic, the cocktails spike your interest and there’s lots of elbow room. Bonus: A most awesome pool table.

Experience History/Culture

Striver’s RowAstor Row: Designated landmarks of architectural row house gems and a sublime walk back in time. Also recommended: Sylvan Terrace and its cobblestone streets.

The Schomberg: The Schomberg is not a museum; it’s actually a branch of the New York City Public Library dedicated to all things African American history and black culture. Its halls are historic, and there’s always a great exhibit on display.

Abyssinian Baptist Church: Founded in 1808, Abyssinian is Harlem’s most historical church and is rooted in the center of Harlem’s gospel tradition.

Apollo Theater: The Legendary Apollo Theater is a part of black music’s legacy and is the original American Idol. There is also a black music walk of fame in front of the Apollo on Harlem’s main vein, 125th Street.

Studio Museum in Harlem: Contrary to popular belief, the Studio Museum is not a black history museum; it is a modern art museum that features modern art interpretation by artists of color. The museum also features a wonderful permanent collection of celebrated black artists including Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.

Image via Flickriver


Swing a Concept Shop: An inspiring luxury boutique with whimsical eye candy and decor/lifestyle knickknacks.

B Oyama: Featuring tailoring and ties, B Oyama is a Harlem haberdashery for the well-dressed man.

Carol’s Daughter: A dizzying array of fragrant natural beauty products. I die for their Lemon Ginger Mint Manicure in a Jar and their Rose Honey Body Cleanser. Hidden Gem: the Backroom Spa for a drool-inducing mani-pedi.

Harlem Flo Boutique: Floral ateliers and divine floral arrangements.

HueMan BookStore: It’s not Barnes & Noble, nor should it be. Here you will find a wide selection of diverse African American authors, as well as an awesome collection of diverse children’s books.

Atmos: If you’re a sneaker freak, this “kicks” boutique is the place for you.

HarlemUnderGround: Hands down some of the most fashionable custom tees in New York City.

Harlem Vintage: A knowledgeable and helpful wine staff that KNOWS their wine. Bonus: A great selection of $10 and under wines and weekly tastings.

Malcolm Shabazz Outdoor Market: Here you will find predominately West African textiles: fabrics, sculpture, decor and jewelry. Located at 116th and Malcolm X Boulevard/Lenox Avenue.

Image above via Adventures in NYC


Lenox Lounge: The Lenox Lounge is literally about stepping into Harlem’s music history. Think Miles, Coltrane and Billie Holiday — all hung out and performed here. The historic zebra-striped vintage art deco booths are worth the trip alone.

Harlem GateHouse: It looks like a haunted castle, but the interior will knock you over in its design and stage presence. An awesome venue for film, plays, stage performance and, of course, live music.

Parlor Entertainment: For almost 20 years, every Sunday, rain or shine, pianist and Harlemite Marjorie Eliot hosts live parlor-style jazz in her living room. The weekly concerts are free and make you feel right at home.

First Corinthians Baptist Church: At FCBC, you will experience an inspired word by Executive Pastor Micheal A. Walrond and witness a soulful praise and worship experience that you will never forget. Ever.

The Maysles Cinema: Harlem’s sole independent film house features throwback arthouse films, cinematic shorts, documentaries and exquisite filmmaker discussions.

Noteworthy — Off the Beaten Path

Shrine: The Shrine is one of my favorite go-to funky, cool-vibe places in Harlem and features a kaleidoscope of eclectic live music. You come here to vibe and drink, but the food is surprisingly good. Recommended: the grilled lamb or fish with couscous.

Gran Piatto D’Oro: This restaurant is Harlem’s cozy Italian food secret. I’ve had the tilapia stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp. Pssht. The tiramisu and the chocolate mousse will make you weak in the knees.

Harlem Lanes: A lounge-y bowling alley that serves strong drinks for parents and a great place to make the kids tired.

Strictly Roots: Rotating cruelty-free vegan fare with a knockout veggie burger. Hat Tip: You will wait more than a while for the burger. Get a “Bad Man” smoothie or their spilt-pea soup to calm your appetite.

A Taste of Seafood: Harlem is known for its fried whiting sandwiches, and A Taste of Seafood has by far one of the best. Recommended: their down-home mac & cheese, fried shrimp and catfish sandwiches.

Jimbo’s Hamburger Palace: If you’re a Harlemite, you’ve had a custom made-to-go Jimbo’s burger. They are equally comparable to the Shake Shack in taste, if I do say so myself.

Lenox Coffee: Harlem needed an independent local sit down coffee shop, and Lenox Coffee fits the bill. A calm, chill place for laptop lovers. Blog lurk, write a great short story and sip espresso.

Image above via Lenox Coffee

Suggested For You


  • I’m so glad you posted this guide to Harlem. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for six years and hardly trekked to Harlem, though I’ve wanted to. Can’t wait to go now!

  • OMG—ive totally enjoyed this post!!!—i haven’t been to harlem in 4 years—-i need to go back for some soul searching—you did a wonderful job representing Harlem—i’m going to save this to show to my students here in columbus, ohio—they are going to love it they learn about the harlem renaissance—thank you so much!!!—remain blessed!

  • Woo hoo!!! Just in time for my trip to NYC next week! I have two full days to myself to explore. Harlem, here I come!! One can only hope that the weather is balmier than it is up here in Canada!

  • Visit Harlem on a Sunday when families are walking to church, you have never seen such wonderfully happy folks beautifully groomed and dressed to kill… love it.

  • This is just fabulous. I had a teeny 200 sf pied a terre on east 84th before I moved to europe – but it was 15 years ago before alot of this renewal hit, so I rarely went north, always south. I love this guide. When I get to nyc this spring I will have it in my pocket.

  • I have been working up at City College which is in Hamilton Heights for a couple of years and I’m embarrassed to say that I know so few of these. But I’m excited to go out and see them all.


  • COuld you maybe somehow do Moscow, Russia?.. I’m planing on going there soon and would love to know what places to visit. I know that its not that visitable of a place, but … maybe you’ll do it? :)

  • lisa

    for our city guides we rely on local experts, as we are only specialists in our given areas of brooklyn, baltimore and san francisco. if anyone out there lives in moscow and would like to work with us on a guide please drop me a line!


  • This is a great guide! I lived in Harlem, more specifically Sugar Hill, when I lived in Manhattan and it was a great neighborhood that was often overlooked by design/restaurant guides. I second Make my Cake. I’ve never had better red velvet, anywhere.

  • Don’t forget Demolition Depot, on 125th St! the best place in harlem to find treasures from old buildings/brownstones/apts all over the city. gorgeous old fireplaces, doorknobs, mirrors, furniture, lamps, doors… it’s fantastic!

  • are you by any chance planning one for the east village/around there? I’m the president of the art club down here at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and we’ll be going up to NYC in May and staying at a hostel around there. :) (We went May 2008 too, but didn’t stay in the east village, closer to west manhattan.) Several of us read your blogs and would love to see a guide! Thanks so much!

  • get togetha is one of my favorite new blogs. great to see melinda’s writing here!

  • nice post, but unless im mistaken m&g’s has been closed for months

    i hope im wrong, its one of my favorite greasy spoons in the city

  • i live in harlem and spend much hard-earned money at harlem vintage weekly. the staff is very knowledgeable. haven’t made it to nectar yet.

  • This was a great guide! My only other suggestion would be Melba’s. http://www.melbasrestaurant.com/ I’ve lived in harlem for 5 years, and Amy Ruth’s has changed owners and is not as tasty as it used to be. It’s an experience, but if you’re hungry on the weekend, you will be waiting on line for a while at Amy Ruths, as it is a tourist stop. Melba’s on the other hand is fabulous, quaint, and everyone I have taken there has fallen in love with the mac and cheese.

  • What a fabulous guide! My friend’s generous grandmother left her her Sylvan Terrace home when she passed away last year. Your guide and the photo of the Terrace remind me that I have to head uptown for a visit soon!

  • Yes, sadly, M&G closed a few months ago. But there’s also Miss Maude’s (on Lenox) and Miss Mamie’s (by Columbia Univ.) Spoonbread Too, as well as the Manna’s buffet mini-chain for soul food.

    I also like the hole-in-the-wall seafood places – steamed or fried. Some places are set up where you pick your fish, shrimp, veggies, then hand them over to be steamed – true fast and fresh food.

    And, yes, St. Nick’s is a great place to hang – and only two blocks from my apartment.

  • I was so pleased to read this guide. I am going to NYC in April and was strongly urged by my daughter, who lives in Manhattan, not to stay above W. 96th for safety reasons. Your guide indicates missing a visit to Harlem might be a big mistake!

  • Just a few updates…M&G is now closed for good. What a loss! Also check out Sylvan Court (posted as Slyvan). There is so much to see and do in Harlem. Enjoy!

  • Another update: Montgomery Boutique has closed and N has relocated to a smaller space on Lenox.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting these great photos of home! I left four years ago for Atlanta. Love ATL but what I would do to stroll through those NYC streets with a mango icy from the corner man, sit at the infamous Billie Holiday booth at the Lenox Lounge and get some grub at the West Indian spot….I am seriously missing my brownstones.

  • You had me at Bier International with the recommended: strawberry beer, parmesan truffle fries and their pineapple smoked chipotle guacamole. I’ve got Harlem on my NYC list for my next visit. Thanks for all the great ideas!

  • I visited a friend last year in July, she lives in Harlem, and just loves it! She took me to the best places! There’s this one place which I totally loved called “Kitchenette” has the best breakfasts ever! And love the deco! Recycles tables! Just loved it! You should put it on the list!

  • Harlem is the best place. I’ve lived there most of my life and still go there every week for school and to visit my mom. I live Harlem! Mobay is an awesome place to eat!

  • I have to third Melba’s. Melba’s! Melba won against Bobby Flay in a showdown. Hands down the best soul food I had in Harlem, and I lived there for four years.

    Also, for bars, Nectar was our go-to place for happy hour. Some bubbly, inexpensive prosecco is always a good idea!

    Another great local coffeeshop? Il Cafe Latte, right on Malcom X and 119th. The owner is the sweetest person ever and they buy their pastries from local bakeries. They have good food too. For brunch, my friends and I use to meet at Society Coffee. And for great Carribean, you can go to Mobay’s.

  • if we’re going to talk about the area around Columbia- i third the recommendation for Kitchenette- awesome brunch and baked goodies! also Max Soha is yummy for pasta and I also like Massawa for Ethiopian on Amsterdam. if you go a little further down Taqueria y Fonda is an awesome hole in the wall tacos place.

  • If you could include some Bronx spots, I think that would be great too. The little Italy in the Bronx is very quaint.

  • Thanks so much! We’ve just moved to south Harlem and are really enjoying it. This will help us venture out of usual spots.

    Also, Cafe Latte on Lenox near 118th is wonderful. Super cute little cafe with a nice menu.

  • I’m surprised Lido wasn’t listed in the restaurant section: http://lidoharlem.com/ I’ve lived in the neighborhood for years and it’s our favorite new place to get brunch.

    This guide really felt like the “Brooksters” guide to Harlem, but we’ll take it cause our neighborhood needs some love! Don’t be afraid to venture out of Brooklyn, folks…

  • Thanks for a great post. I’ve always wanted to live in a really old brownstone or house in Harlem, and have a backyard or garden. Years and years ago, some friends of mine were living in a reaaalllly old house in Harlem. The original pumpkin pine wide plank floors were slanted and the glass in the french door windows had ‘dripped’ over the years–it was all thicker on the bottom then on the top, and a little wavy. I still think about that cool house.

  • I’ve been searching high and low for an apartment in Manhattan. I did not consider Harlem an option until I read your article. Thanks for the help, brava!

  • Hi. I live in Harlem, but don’t recognize the street. Do you know where it is? I thought I’d seen every square inch of Harlem.

  • Wow! Nice Amy Ruth’s was my favorite Harlem weekend brunch spot. I also like the MOCA LOUNGE along W116th as my drop in spot.

  • I’ve lived in Harlem for almost 5 years and I LOVE it. The friendliest people in Manhattan, hands down. My new favorite place in the neighborhood is the Corner Social. It’s a wonderfully grown up pub. I think someone else mentioned Lido. Their food is excellent. And Miss Maude’s has excellent fried chicken. The list could go on and on. Come to Harlem for a visit. Stay a while, you’ll fall in love just like I did.