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For a Taste of the Real Harlem, Eat Where the Locals Eat

By Khalid Salaam

09.19.19

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The Grange, a bit off the beaten track of Harlem's busier streets, serves a mellow neighborhood vibe with its farm-to-table fare.

Photo courtesy of The Grange

The Grange, a bit off the beaten track of Harlem's busier streets, serves a mellow neighborhood vibe with its farm-to-table fare.

The storied African American neighborhood has stubbornly weathered gentrification and become even more itself—with even more exciting restaurant options.

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After decades of urban renewal threatened to erase its origin story, Harlem—that stronghold of black culture—is embarking on a stage that feels like post-gentrification. Its spirit has prevailed in part due to a willingness to embrace the new. While familiar neighborhood favorites like Sylvia’s and Red Rooster continue to draw crowds from downtown and abroad, there’s a strong argument that Harlem can best be seen (and tasted) by looking beyond the well-known landmarks to find the places where locals eat.

Archer & Goat

Archer and Goat is not a vegetarian restaurant. In fact, its menu is crammed with carnivorous delights like lamb arepas and roasted duck with mango and onion slaw. But the kitchen approaches vegetable dishes in a way that’s decidedly bold and unfussy. A charred crown of cauliflower comes to the table topped with a handful of olives and an array of pickled shishito peppers radiating from the center. The nutty flavor of browned brussels sprouts is spiked with chopped pickled peppers and cilantro chimichurri. The narrow, sophisticated space, lit by large windows during the day and a romantic glow in the evenings, welcomes diners at the convivial bar, at small tables set along the wall, or at a communal table by the front window. In nice weather, the small back patio is popular for brunch. In addition to a solid cocktail menu, Archer & Goat maintains a curated beer selection, heavily weighted to New York’s breweries. archerandgoat.com

The Grange Bar and Eatery

The Grange, up in Hamilton Heights, removed from the bustle of Harlem’s more commercial corridor, offers a vibe as relaxed and local as the clientele. A steady flow of neighbors, especially in the evenings and on weekends, lends friendly warmth to the expansive space. The cocktail menu is inventive and compelling, as is the selection of craft beer on the chalkboard. The kitchen, focused on ingredients it sources from local farms and purveyors, serves a decadent grilled peach with whipped ricotta on toast at brunch. Other recommended dishes include blackened salmon tacos and roast chicken served on a polenta cake, drizzled with a sundried-tomato mornay sauce. A salad showcasing smoked duck is offset by wilted bitter greens, a bright vinaigrette, and sugar-glazed walnuts—the perfect all-the-tastes order for diners unable to decide between sweet and savory. thegrangebarnyc.com

The standard sports-bar burger is elevated to new levels at Harlem Tavern.

Harlem Tavern

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Multiple big-screen TVs identify Harlem Tavern as the sports bar that it is, but the 7,000-square-foot place is undeniably a hit with the local crowd. While a selection of burgers may be expected fare at sports bars, the variations here—a truffle burger, a Moroccan-spiced lamb burger, and a trio of sliders, to name a few—set this joint apart. The semolina-crusted calamari is a great starter, and we like the short-rib penne tossed with kale and mushrooms as an entrée. The indoor area, with exposed brick walls and communal tables, feels welcoming and perfect for watching big sporting events with your crew. Outside, a partially covered beer garden brings the brunch crowds, who come for the french toast and live jazz, and is perfect for warm evenings, too. harlemtavern.com

Hop House

Great mussels at a beer bar may not be headline news, but reports of transcendent mussels at a beer bar compelled further investigation. The conclusion: Hop House’s delicate Prince Edward Island mussels, bathed in a tangy ginger-vinho verde reduction, definitely warrant a visit. This beer-focused taphouse with a cheerful, industrial-lite design also turns out terrific chewy pretzels and makes good use of the pizza ovens left behind from a former tenant. Choose from savory pies with fresh ingredients like burrata and locally grown eggplant. hophouseharlem.com

In Queens, the American Dream Is a Technicolor Celebration

Dinner on the patio at Lolo's brings Caribbean flavor to a Harlem backyard.

Lolo’s Seafood Shack

Lolo’s aptly describes its seafood focus as a “Caribbean and Cape Cod mash-up.” Having a meal out on the mellow backyard deck can definitely feel like a momentary escape from NYC, but the island-oasis atmosphere only holds up if the food is good. And Lolo’s is wildly delicious. Items range from a basket of smelts with garlic fries to pom pom shrimp drizzled with a ghost pepper–spiked glaze, or a shark sandwich with homemade johnny cakes standing in for the bread. lolosseafoodshack.com

Maison Harlem

This bistro, just a five-minute walk from the Apollo Theater and near City College, is an energetic, all-day neighborhood affair, with a mirror-backed marble bar, big windows, a popular happy hour, and an inspired selection of cocktails and wines. One of several thriving French restaurants in the neighborhood, Maison Harlem’s menu serves up classic Gallic hits: an endive and Roquefort salad, duck leg confit, tarte tatin. But venture off the carte du jour and order the wild mushroom risotto—creamy and elegant—to plumb the considerable skills of the kitchen. maisonharlem.com

Melba’s

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If you think Sylvia is the only name in Harlem soul food, talk to passionate fans of Melba’s. Melba Wilson learned her craft at Sylvia’s (and at other trendsetting New York venues like Rosa Mexicana and the Tribeca Grill). Her high-energy restaurant is known for “neo-soul food,” a tasty sort of comfort food for modern eaters. At Melba’s, the standard dish of chicken and waffles gets fine-tuned into fried chicken plated with eggnog waffles and topped with a sweet dollop of strawberry butter (the dish won a Food Network competition against Bobby Flay). Melba’s updated favorites include fried catfish with chipotle mayo and short ribs braised in red wine. There’s even a green salad on the menu at this soul food restaurant. melbasrestaurant.com

Ruby’s Vintage was named to honor the actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, who grew up in Harlem.

Ruby’s Vintage

Ruby’s Vintage popped up in early 2019 and first became a buzzy hit for its brunch—and in a neighborhood where brunch is exalted among all meals, that’s no small feat. The menu, modest in size, is smartly dotted with items like smoked salmon eggs Benedict. The popular Devil’s Mess (scrambled eggs, pepper jack cheese, caramelized onions, and chorizo) is a good introduction for the first-time visitor. Ruby’s, open for drinks and dinner too, is named for the actress, civil rights advocate, and longtime Harlem resident Ruby Dee, who grew up in the building. The atmospheric decor makes it looks like a Harlem restaurant in a Barry Jenkins movie—mellow lighting from vintage lamps, walls covered with graphic wallpaper and hung with flea-market mirrors and old album covers, and seats filled with a diverse and chatty clientele, drawn from the neighborhood and beyond. rubysvintageharlem.com 

Sugar Hill Creamery

Sugar Hill Creamery exists in a nexus between old-school neighborhood ice cream shops and the “we will travel the Earth for every ingredient possible” culinary ambition. This high-mindedness somehow escapes the bougie traps that could befall such a venture. In 2017, the husband and wife team of Nick Larsen and Petrushka Bazin Larsen introduced artisanal ice cream to a neighborhood whose last family-owned store closed in 1983. They opened with a tasty bang, scooping flavors like pistachio-blackberry, soursop, and Ethiopian coffee with turmeric and ginger. The couple is committed to seeing Harlem retain its culture in this climate of change. Petrushka said, “Harlem is such an intentional place for us because it’s our home.” sugarhillcreamery.com

Vinatería 

Last but not least: There isn’t a sexier place in Harlem than Vinatería. A first-date staple (as well as second- and third-date . . .), this corner bistro’s charged atmosphere and warmly lit room appear to attract an equally polished clientele. Owner Yvette Leeper-Bueno always dreamed of a restaurant that could double as a local hub, so in 2013, she created one. Vinateríamenu, with inspirations from South America, Spain, and Italy, is terrific. And the plates are something to see, too: The black spaghetti (made with octopus, mussels, and scallops) and the rosemary pappardelle (with ricotta and lamb ragu) elicit “ooohs” when they arrive at the table. vinaterianyc.com

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