A Weekend Exploring Black-Owned Harlem

Rondel Holder

Manhattan’s glossiness meets the vibrant energy of hip-hop culture in Harlem, underscored by a social, intellectual and artistic progressiveness that’s a legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. That 1920s movement turned the neighborhood into a welcoming place for Black travelers, a center for Black culture and a symbol of socioeconomic status to those who planted roots here—ideas foundational to the pride of Harlemites today.

An always-shifting landscape coupled with the effects of the pandemic have disproportionately impacted Black-owned businesses in Harlem, like in the rest of New York City and the US. One way to lend a hand while immersing yourself in local culture is to spend a long weekend patronizing Black-owned restaurants, bars, retailers and cultural attractions in Harlem; it will do wonders to stimulate the senses, spark creativity and show much-needed support.

We look forward to a time when businesses have fully opened up, and our itinerary reflects this ideal. For now, some restaurants, bars, shops, attractions and cultural institutions may be temporarily closed, have delivery/takeout/outdoor-dining only or have shortened hours. Be sure to check on their status before your visit.

Apollo Theater. Photo: Vincent Tullo

Day 1: Friday

Find your corner in cozy neighborhood favorite Home Sweet Harlem. The café serves breakfast items like bagels and French toast, along with coffee, tea, juices and brunch cocktails. You may even be met with a surprise R&B, jazz or Latin performance.

While you’re gazing out from your window seat, the lively streets of Harlem will call your name. Pop down to 125th Street, the pulse of the neighborhood, to find window shoppers, stunning murals and the Apollo Theater, where generations of celebrated musicians jump-started their careers and made their names.

At lunchtime, Amy Ruth’s is a great spot to indulge in Southern favorites such as fried chicken and waffles, smothered turkey wings, baked macaroni and cheese, and candied yams. A popular stop for dining in and takeout, the restaurant is a favorite of Michelle Obama, Nate Robinson and singer Monica, who each have dishes named after them.

Strivers' Row. Photo: Kris Graves

Walk it off in scenic areas such as historic Strivers’ Row, two blocks of rowhouses that date back to the 1890s; Convent Avenue in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, where you’ll find tree-lined streets with traditional brownstones and historic churches; and Edgecombe Avenue, once home to thought leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White, Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins.

Red Rooster. Photo: Jen Davis

Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem is a destination for getting dressed up to dine on Southern comfort classics with a creative, refined twist. The hot honey chicken, shrimp and grits, mac and greens, and cornbread are favorites.

Stop at historic jazz bar Minton’s Playhouse to round out your first day in Harlem. Touting itself as the place where bebop was born, Minton’s traces its roots back to 1938 and—with some interruptions—has served as a gathering place to enjoy music and drinks ever since.

The Edge. Photo: Heather Smith

Day 2: Saturday

Brunch at The Edge is an eclectic experience. Sisters and owners Juliet and Justine Masters are New York natives who have lived in Harlem for nearly 20 years. Menu items, split between British, Jamaican and American fare, reflect the Masters’ upbringing. The cozy, rustic interior features exposed brick, palm plants and marquee lights that integrate each region’s aesthetic. The music selection is equally diverse, transitioning seamlessly from alternative pop to Afrobeat.

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Courtesy, Sugar Hill Creamery

Save room for the best dessert in Harlem, found at LA Sweets NY. Their red velvet and vanilla drizzle cupcakes are moist, flavorful and the ideal level of sweetness. Right next door is Sugar Hill Creamery, a family-owned ice cream shop with delicious classics and seasonal flavors, including guava and peach cobbler, that pair well with your LA Sweets NY cakes.

Calabar Imports. Photo: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Like food, there’s no shortage of shopping in Harlem. Several Black-owned small businesses put the neighborhood’s stamp on fashion. Trunk Show Designer Consignment has quality vintage designer pieces for all. Flamekeepers Hat Club offers an endless array of hats for the sophisticated gentleman, while Harlem Haberdashery is a head-to-toe outfitter with modern uptown style. Calabar Imports sells African fashion, accessories, home goods and gift items.

Courtesy, Kente Royal Gallery

After shopping, slow down to enjoy African art at Kente Royal Gallery. Inspired by a trip to Africa in 2018, Phyllis and Dodji Gbedemah started the gallery to honor the concept of sankofa, which urges Black people removed from the continent to return home, reconnect and use that experience to propel themselves and their communities forward.

Continue your immersion into the African experience in Harlem at Ponty Bistro, a chic restaurant run by Senegalese-born chefs (and cousins) Ejhadji Cisse and Cheikh Cisse. The art, music and unpretentiousness create a warm atmosphere before you even have a bite. The food—traditional West African with a modern spin—is fresh, beautifully plated and full of robust flavors. The whole branzino and plantain, Kasbah lamb shank and seafood risotto do not disappoint.

For a nightcap, check out Harlem Hops. Owners Kevin Duane Bedford, Kim Harris and Stacy Lee self-funded the two-year-old establishment, and their personal touches can be seen throughout the space: there’s the neon sign that reads “I fell in love with Harlem before I ever got here” and the focus on brewers of color, including local brands Harlem Brewing Company and Harlem Blue. The intimate bar has a backyard space, good for kicking back after a long day.

Photo: Kris Graves

Day 3: Sunday

At Blvd Bistro, start your final day with the soothing sounds of gospel while devouring fish and grits or fluffy pancakes with perfectly crispy edges. Pair either with a Momma’s Honey Pot, a cocktail of bourbon, honey syrup and fresh citrus that, though served cold, warms you up from the inside.

A few blocks away, Nilu is full of thoughtfully curated items made by local Black creators, including pillows, mixed-media art, beautifully crafted greeting cards and paper goods, and coffee-table books like the one by street photographer Jamel Shabazz. The store also serves as a modern apothecary, with candles, soaps, body butters and oils from Black makers. Married owners Mark Pinn and Katrina Parris, whose business has been impacted by the decrease in foot traffic, continue to extend opportunities to local artisans by offering up sidewalk space for pop-up shops (weekends and weather dependent).

Curl up with your new finds at NBHD Brulee, a comfy all-day hangout with vintage style serving an assortment of coffees and teas. The engraved “Home Sweet Home” sign sets a welcoming tone.

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Snow Crab Legs and Shrimp. Courtesy, Lolo’s Seafood Shack

If you’re looking for a late lunch, the bold color palette of Lolo’s Seafood Shack may catch your eye and lure you in. Fusing Caribbean and Cape Cod style and flavor, Lolo’s is a counter-order eatery where seafood steam pots, garlic butter crab and conch fritters burst with flavor.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photo: Kris Graves

As you make your afternoon rounds, take note of cultural institutions such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Studio Museum in Harlem —in the process of building its new 125th Street space (temporary digs on 127th Street are currently closed), which when complete, perhaps by late 2021, will serve to showcase works from the permanent collection, such as its James VanDerZee archive, alongside contemporary exhibits by artists of African descent. Both establishments speak to Harlem’s pivotal role in past and present culture, holding decades’ worth of contributions from Black visionaries and activists.

Sylvia's. Photo: Brittany Petronella

Established almost 60 years ago, Sylvia’s is as much of a Harlem landmark as it is a dining experience, and a fitting final stop. The restaurant serves hearty eats like golden fried shrimp, barbecue short ribs, cornmeal-dusted tilapia and smothered chicken. Still family owned, the place makes clear why its founder, Sylvia Woods, was dubbed the “Queen of Soul Food.”

Welcome to Harlem is a great resource to plan your trip to Harlem and join a curated tour of a specific Harlem experience.


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